In­ter­ga­lac­tic vi­sion puls­ing with en­ergy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Mal­colm Forbes

The Book of Strange New Things By Michel Faber Canon­gate, 560pp, $29.99 MICHEL Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things is light years away from his most fa­mous work of fic­tion, the Vic­to­rian Eng­land drama The Crim­son Petal and the White (2002). The new book is set on a planet called Oa­sis, and as such it is closer to his mind-ex­pand­ing 2000 de­but Un­der the Skin, in which an ex­trater­res­trial trav­els to Earth, as­sumes a fe­male hu­man form and picks up un­sus­pect­ing hitch­hik­ers who she then drugs and trans­ports to her home planet — to be used as food.

On the sec­ond page of The Book of Strange New Things Faber hints at a re­tooled reprise of his startling de­but. His hero, Peter, is driv­ing to London’s Heathrow air­port with his wife, Bea, when he spots a hitch­hiker. Peter con­tem­plates stop­ping but Bea tells him to keep go­ing. They speed past and in do­ing so Faber swerves off, abandoning any fur­ther men­tion of hitch­hik­ers but in due course con­jur­ing up a brand new other-worldly ex­pe­ri­ence.

After grad­u­at­ing from the ‘‘Univer­sity of Hard Drink­ing and Drug Abuse’’ and then dic­ing with death for years as ‘‘a toxic waste of space’’, Peter found re­demp­tion first in Bea and then in God. His work as a min­is­ter proves at­trac­tive to the se­lec­tion board of USIC, a multi­na­tional with global reach and a plan to build a sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­ment on Oa­sis.

Re­cruited as a Christian mis­sion­ary out of thou­sands of ap­pli­cants, Peter is flown from Heathrow to Florida and then cat­a­pulted tril­lions of miles through time and space into a for­eign so­lar sys­tem on ‘‘a ship in the shape of a swollen tick’’.

For want of a bet­ter pun, sci­ence fic­tion alien­ates. Read­ers who shun the genre may be in­clined to give up at this point, hor­ri­fied at the prospect of 500 more pages of in­ter­ga­lac­tic hokum. How­ever, Faber is a master at sub­vert­ing pre­con­cep­tions, and his sui generis, mul­ti­themed books are as hard to pin down as his na­tion­al­ity (Aus­tralia, Scot­land and The Nether­lands all claim him as one of their own). It is worth per­se­ver­ing with the knowl­edge this au­thor is work­ing from a com­pelling and thought-pro­vok­ing agenda that not once fea­tures laser bat­tles with lit­tle green men.

Oa­sis, it tran­spires, is no for­bid­den planet. Con­trary to his ini­tial fears, when Peter steps out of the ship he does not ‘‘in­stantly die, get sucked into an air­less vor­tex, or shrivel up like a scrap of fat on a grid­dle’’. The air is moist, the wa­ter potable and the na­tives dif­fi­dent but hos­pitable. Peter spends his time nav­i­gat­ing two camps, both of which feel like he has taken a back­ward step rather than a quantum leap.

Home is the cu­ri­ously lo-tech USIC com­pound with its ‘‘ho­tel chain’’ am­bi­ence, dearth of en­ter­tain­ment but non­stop sup­ply of piped muzak; work is in a pos­i­tively prim­i­tive alien set­tle­ment, less a fan­tas­ti­cal city, more ‘‘a sub­urb, erected in the mid­dle of a waste­land’’. Its cit­i­zens turn out to be ‘‘hun­gry for Christ’’ and with a ‘‘thirst for the Gospel’’ and it isn’t long be­fore Peter has a con­gre­ga­tion ea­ger to hear him im­part­ing wis­dom from the Bi­ble — aka The Book of Strange New Things.

When the req­ui­site ten­sion comes it is not in the form of an Avatar- es­que clash be­tween plun­der­ing hu­mans and sub­ju­gated Oasans, with Peter switch­ing al­le­giance and sup­port­ing the na­tives. In­stead, we learn through Bea’s mis­sives to Peter that Earth has been rav­aged by catas­tro­phe — fi­nan­cial melt­downs, food short­ages, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters — and is not worth re­turn­ing to. As Bea loses her faith and Peter’s fate be­comes as un­pre­dictable as his ac­tions, we are left guess­ing Faber’s out­come: will his ‘‘leftie pas­tor’’ go na­tive, AWOL or in­sane?

There is much to ad­mire here, not least Faber’s fe­cund imag­i­na­tion. Nowhere is this more ap­par­ent than in Peter’s trips to ‘‘Freak­town’’ and his close en­coun­ters with the Oasans — robed crea­tures whose faces re­sem­ble pla­cen­tas with two foe­tuses (‘‘maybe three-mon­thold twins, hair­less and blind’’) and who speak English in quirky ways and their own lan­guage in ‘‘rustlings and bur­bles and squimphs’’.

On a more hu­man level, Faber im­presses with Peter’s will-they-won’t-they re­la­tion­ship with Grainger, a trou­bled Amer­i­can woman; and with his ex­change with Tartaglione, a booze-soaked lost soul who, while rant­ing, de­liv­ers per­ti­nent home truths about USIC’s flawed mis­sion to con­struct a utopia in the heavens.

To en­ter sci-fi or fan­tasy realms the reader needs to sus­pend all dis­be­lief and go with the cre­ator’s flow. But daz­zling in­ven­tive­ness should never blind us to a book’s tech­ni­cal in­fe­lic­i­ties, those loose nuts and bolts. The Book of Strange New Things suf­fers from some creaky Bmovie di­a­logue (which would be fine if it were a pas­tiche, but it isn’t) and plot holes big enough to fly a space shut­tle through: why has Peter signed up for a life-threat­en­ing mis­sion with USIC, a company he has never heard of, whose ini­tials are still a mys­tery to him, and which has fobbed him off with an ‘‘un­in­for­ma­tive in­fopack’’? And why is he un­con­cerned about the fact that the pas­tor he is re­plac­ing has gone miss­ing in ac­tion?

In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, it doesn’t mat­ter whether Faber is this care­less or Peter this naive. This is a novel so busy puls­ing with ideas and en­ergy, brim­ming with crit­i­cal ques­tions and ar­rest­ing vi­sions, that we ac­cept its de­fects as mere blem­ishes and al­low our­selves to get swept along by the gid­dily ex­cit­ing pro­ceed­ings. Faber deftly han­dles the jux­ta­po­si­tion be­tween re­li­gion and sci­ence, cre­ation and dis­cov­ery, and his dystopia — not the ‘‘big fat nowhere’’ Peter trav­els to but the quan­tifi­able world he has left be­hind — is chill­ingly con­vinc­ing.

At the beat­ing heart of the book lies a mes­sage about mankind’s over­reach and the en­dur­ing power of love and faith. We can read it for that, but ul­ti­mately it is more fun to watch how Faber warps and re­shapes re­al­ity. Fit­tingly, the re­sult is a stel­lar achieve­ment.

It is al­ways fun to see how Michel Faber, left, warps and re­shapes re­al­ity

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