Lost on Planet God
A Review of Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things
Before he begins the space mission that will comprise almost the entirety of Michel Faber’s newest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, Peter Leigh’s wife Beatrice begs him to pull the car over to the side of road. She wants to have sex with him one last time before he boards a plane at Heathrow and leaves her. Peter balks. They’d had a lovely final day of lovemaking and togetherness—all of it so right— the day before. “You’re wonderful,” he says hesitantly, stalling. “I don’t want to be wonderful,” she tells him. “I want you inside me.” In many ways, this scene—startling, erotic, and over as quickly as it begins—is the embodiment of the approaching, sprawling narrative, a perfect diorama of the strain and tensions to come. Faced with her husband’s long absence, Beatrice’s sex drive kicks in, muddled with love and anxiety and missing him even before he’s gone—a deeply human response. But Peter stubbornly clings to the symbol of their “last day,” the woman next to him—on him, around him—be damned. And after it’s over, Peter is bundled onto an airplane, flown to the U.S., and then launched an unfathomable distance away from her.
A private company has settled a planet they call Oasis. It is habitable, with wet and living but breathable air akin to a rainforest’s, and a stripped-down landscape that resembles the emptiest parts of Utah. Its indigenous population—referred to as residents of “Freaktown” by some and, more respectfully, as “Oasans” by others—have requested a Christian minister. And so the company has hired Peter, a deeply religious man with a troubled past: alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime, all of which he abandoned when he met the compassionate Christian nurse who later became his wife. He has the fervor of a convert and a fawn-like naïveté all his own. The engineers, scientists, and medical personnel at Oasis are friendly but oddly muted, with the exception of a woman named Grainger with whom Peter develops a cautious, mercurial friendship. With its use of last names, its intense group workouts, and its flattened emotions, the atmosphere is almost military (“It’s a bit like the army,” Grainger tells