by James Naiden
Futuristic fiction tends to be believable in that none of us knows what the world will be like in half a century, and absurd because the present is all we have by which to judge the plausibility of a fantastic tale. Such was the case in 1888 when Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, considering American life—or English or French, perhaps—as it might be in the year 2000, a distant lodestar at the time. Perhaps Bellamy, who did not see the twentieth century, would have written more if he had lived longer. He certainly would have liked Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, about twenty-sixth century England, and 1984, George Orwell’s acerbically utopian depiction of life in a distant year.
Now we have Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, written in a time of stress and grief for the author, whose wife died of cancer in the summer of 2014—this novel is dedicated to her, understandably. Faber was born in Holland, educated in Australia, and now lives in Scotland. He recently let it be known that this volume, his third work of fiction, will be his final novel, a vow one hopes he won’t obey because of his talent and perseverance in the art of the long novel.
The Book of Strange New Things is an admirable tale, although one bogged down by verbal excesses (it contains many references in the undecipherable language of another universe) and a seemingly endless fascination with bodily functions. In Faber’s narrative, the mysterious entity “USIC” has recruited an English missionary named Peter Leigh—a thirty-something Christian convert with a shady background of drug taking, thievery, and other misdeeds—to travel in a “Jump” to Oasis, a distant planet perhaps not in the same universe as Earth. The Bible is known on Oasis as “the book of strange new things” and those natives that take Peter seriously are named “Jesus Lovers” by number:
He took up his position at the pulpit, and rested his fingerprints on the burnished toffee-colored surface where he might spread out his notes. The pulpit was slightly too low, as though the Oasans had made it for as tall a creature they could imagine but, in his absence, had still underestimated his height. Its design was modeled on the spectacular carved pulpits of ancient European cathedrals, where a massive leatherbound Bible might lie on the spread wingspan of an oaken eagle.
While Peter attempts to build a church with the help of those who believe, he is fraught with disturbing messages from his wife back in England via “the Shoot,” a system of communication which resembles the Internet. She has gradually been diminished by her lack of faith as she is beset with one crisis after another, and her messages reflect a deep longing for her husband, as do his for her. There are some fellow Earthlings at the USIC base with whom Peter gets along well enough, but still there is a lack of empathy as everyone has problems on this distant planet.
There are frequent quotations from the Bible, principally the New Testament, as Peter and his wife communicate; there are also references to “earth” when the author refers to Oasan ground, which is not our Earth, supposedly. As the saga sprawls out, one gets the feeling that it might have been compressed by a good deal to its benefit, for while Faber’s prose is smooth, the occasional flaws and inconsistencies are noticeable. However, despite its length and lack of careful editing, The Book of Strange New Things is a credible story, especially given its futuristic and not-quite-utopian underpinnings. One can only hope that this book is indeed not Michel Faber’s final novel—he’s too inventive and good a writer to quit while only in his mid-fifties.