I started reading what is being described as Michel Faber’s third novel (only Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White qualify as novels, the rest of his books are either novellas or short story collections apparently) without knowing a thing about it, other than it was written by Michel Faber, who I like. This is, for me, somewhat unusual. The hardbook proof was bright white with indented white lettering for the title and the author name, like The Beatles’ White Album. Inside, there were biographical details, and a brief three or four line precis that talked of ‘love in the face of death’ and ‘the search for meaning in an unfathomable universe’ but not much more. Right at the back of the book (which is quite a way, the proof clocks in at about 550 pages), there is an acknowledgement in which Faber notes his debt to Marvel comics and the writers of said comics – at which point I wondered (wrongly) if the book was going to be a novel in the vein of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I say all of this to impart one important fact to you: The Book of Strange New Things is a great book to read without knowing a thing about it. If Michel Faber is enough of a recommendation to you, stop reading this review. Go pick up the book. Read. Enjoy. If that isn’t enough for you, if, say, you’ve only read The Crimson Petal and the White, or saw Under the Skin at the cinema and have been meaning to get round to reading something by Michel Faber, and need a little more to go off, we’ll give you a little more (but know, as you read a little more, that you are robbing yourself of unusual pleasures, grain by grain).
The Book of Strange New Things is unusual sci-fi in the way that Under the Skin was unusual sci-fi – but The Book of Strange New Things doesn’t have much else in common with Under the Skin. This is a novel about marriage and faith, about the pressures imposed upon marriage by unusual circumstances, about understanding, about limits, social interaction; it is unusual in a number of ways. The first way in which The Book of Strange New Things is unusual in its choice of protagonist. The narrative centres upon a man called Peter, a man who has, in the past, lived through hardships, in the form of drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, violence. These days he is married, to Beatrice, and he considers himself saved – thanks in part to Beatrice and in part to Christ the saviour. Peter, then, is something of a religious sort; as is his other half. He has been hired, we learn, by a largely faceless corporation called USIC, to travel to a far off star and preach the word of the Lord to a race of creatures who also inhabit the world that the faceless corporation is looking to do something with. We first meet Peter as he is on his way to the airport, and regular Faber readers will no doubt be reminded of the story ‘A Hole with Two Ends’ from The Fahrenheit Twins. We gather that Peter is going to be away from Beatrice for several months but we don’t really find out why (Faber’s characters don’t talk in exposition, they talk around the subject, so we find things out largely as they happen).
Resurrected aboard a craft in the company of the kinds of characters who rubbed shoulders with Ripley in Alien, Peter is a fish out of water (and it is this quality, his fish out of water-ness, that propels him through the book, and also assists the reader, who may not automatically have sympathy for him as a result of his faith, to like him, irrespective of where you stand on the old religion front). We gather there has been some kind of stasis and some kind of jump, from one kind of temporality to another. Eventually they land, and Peter is welcomed into a sort of airport complex in the middle of a wasteland. A young woman called Grainger meets him for a second time and seems a little annoyed that he can’t remember all of the detail imparted on their first meeting some hours previous. There have been preachers, of sorts, we learn, on the planet before Peter, but they disappeared. We don’t know what happened to them. Peter accepts this, for the most part. Lest we worry that Peter is a dope, though, there are opportunities for us to learn that he isn’t a dope, in his exchanges with Grainger, for example, where issues of religion and linguistics are discussed. Peter knows what he knows. He is also a man, with urges and longings and bodily imperatives – these too help ground him in the reader’s eyes. There is nothing in this world as easy as mocking people of faith. It is much harder to make a flesh and blood character with a very particular belief system that doesn’t repel potential readers who possibly don’t share that same belief system.
Eventually Peter is taken to meet the race of creatures he is going to be working with – and here, again, we see the world as Peter sees the world, and the sense of Faber exploring a terrain as he wrote, Faber discovering things as the reader discovers things, is palpable and kind of wondrous:
‘The landscape – what little Peter could see of it in the dark – was surprisingly bare given the climate. The earth was chocolate-brown, and so densely compacted that the tyres travelled smoothly across it with no jolts to the suspension. Here and there, the terrain was spotted with patches of white mushroom or speckled with a haze of greenish stuff that might be moss. No trees, no bushes, not even any grass. A dark, moist tundra.’
Peter refers to the alien race as the Oasans, and again, we see their surroundings as Peter does – ‘a suburb, erected in the middle of a wasteland’ – and meet their representative with the same marvelling eyes: ‘the creature – the person – stood upright, but not tall.’
‘…he, or she, was delicate. Small-boned, narrow-shouldered, an unassuming presence – not at all the awesome figure Peter had prepared himself to confront. As foretold, a hood and monkish robes – made of a pastel blue fabric disconcertingly like bathtowel – covered almost all of the body, its hems brushing the toes of soft leather boots. There was no swell of bosom so Peter – aware that this was flimsy evidence on which to base a judgement, but unwilling to clutter his brain with unwieldy repetitions of ‘he’ or ‘she’ – decided to think of the creature as male.’
Immediately, he is confronted by strange new things: the ‘reedy, asthmatic sounding’ quality of the way in which the Oasans inflect English; the ‘face that was nothing like a face’:
‘Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses – maybe three months old twins, hairless and blind – nestled head to knee, knee to head.’
Peter visits first and then comes to live with the Oasans for a spell (time is very different and days cannot be measured in the same way, and this has an effect on Peter, in terms of what he eats, and weight he loses). Inbetween he travels with Grainger back to the complex and communicates with his wife via a kind of clunky email system. Their communications are understandably difficult, the long lapse between messages being sent and received eventually causing serious problems for them both. We learn about what is happening back on Earth (natural disasters, economic crises, supermarkets no longer stocking food) and we feel distant and removed, as Peter does. We can understand why Beatrice comes to be more and more angry and more and more frustrated with the situation, and also understand why Peter feels the way he does, why he takes time to consider, mull and act. His mind is elsewhere, concentrating on the church he is building for the Oasans (and just as an aside, it’s interesting that Canongate is releasing an audiobook of Benedict Cumberbatch reading William Golding’s The Spire within a couple of months of the release of this book, there are gluey parallels between the two), with the Oasan’s help, concentrating on his rudimentary attempts to learn their language, distracted by the occasionally alarming and yet still intriguing and beautiful ways in which the Oasans who follow him (who only represent a small percentage of the overall community) live – so, for example, there is a shock when he is taken to see his first dead Oasan, who contributes, in no small degree, to the production of the foodstuffs that Peter’s fellow travellers are sustained by.
This is The Book of Strange New Things then. One man, on a foreign world, coming to grips with an alien civilisation as he struggles to maintain his marriage on a planet many, many moons away. The shifting dynamics – Peter amongst his fellow humans, Peter amongst the Oasans – and the mysteries – what happened to Peter’s predecessors, what are the rest of the Oasans doing, how many of them are there, what is going on back on Earth, what is USIC up to etc – make up the meat of what is, as we have said, quite an epic read. It’s a fully immersive reading experience, though. As with The Crimson Petal and the White (a book that this book couldn’t be more different from, again), Faber takes you far away from where you are. You read and you are in the book. When you stop, when you’re interrupted say, you emerge blinking and dozy. All told, it’s a brilliant and unique reading experience and we are glad that we had it.
Any Cop?: It certainly lives up to its title. It’s strange and new and fascinating and unusual. We liked it. A lot. And we’re sorry that you made it to this point without reading the book first.