The Book of Strange New Things – Michael Faber. New York: Penguin Random House, 2015.
When Peter meets Beatrice, it seems a match made in heaven. She is a nurse, trained to heal broken bodies; he is an addict with not only a broken body but also a broken spirit. Like Dante’s Beatrice, she heals him, falls in love with him and converts him to Christianity; he gets sober and with her help starts a church in a low-income neighborhood in London.
Several years later they have a chance of a lifetime – to serve as missionaries to a settlement named Oasis on a remote planet being colonized by USIC, an American-based corporation. He gets selected for the mission; she does not. He leaves for a six-month adventure spreading the word of Christ to the native inhabitants; she is charged with keeping the home fires burning while the world around her falls apart. Soon both of them experience the ultimate test of their love and faith.
Yes, Michael Faber’s most recent novel The Book of Strange New Things is science fiction, but like many writers of this genre, his focus is less on the science behind colonizing another galaxy than using a scientific premise to examine the effects that separation and alienation can have on relationships and core beliefs.
He sets the novel in the near future with references to popular magazines and news events and spends little time on explaining how humans arrived on Oasis (it’s simply called “the jump”). By eliminating a lot of the sci-fi elements from the story, the reader is better able to identify with the main characters as they struggle to stay connected to one another and to the God they both love.
At first Peter is the one who has the harder task. Not only must he adjust to a different planet where daylight and darkness last for hundreds of hours, water tastes like melons and the humid atmosphere makes you move like an underwater creature, he shares nothing in common with the other USIC employees. They want nothing from him or his religion and treat him as an amusing outsider. In contrast, the natives treat him like the second coming. To Peter’s surprise, the majority of them have already been converted by a previous minister and refer to themselves as Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Fifty-two, Jesus Lover Seventy-eight, etc. They simply want someone to teach them more about what they call the Technique of Jesus, especially the stories where Jesus heals the sick.
So like the Biblical Peter, he throws his energies into building them a church with a steeple and translating Biblical passages into language they can understand. He dresses like them, sleeps with them and works in the fields with them. In fact, the more time he spends with them, the more alienated he becomes from the people at basecamp and life back on earth. As he tells his flock, “I never went to Bible School. I went to the University of Hard Drinking and Drug Abuse. Got my degree in Toilet Bowl Interior Decoration.” Over time he becomes disoriented, emaciated, and disconnected. Like the addict he was before, his addiction now is to them and his Bible, what the natives refer to as The Book of Strange New Things.
Peter’s only contact with earth is through emails exchanged with Beatrice whose letters are filled with her struggles in a world coming apart – corporate meltdowns, infrastructure collapse, tsunamis, earthquakes, rioting, destruction, total chaos. She also is pregnant and is fearful of bringing a child into such a world. Peter reads about her anguish, responds with encouraging Biblical passages, reassures her of his love, feels badly about the demise of society, but frankly would prefer that she not include such matters in her correspondences as they distract him from his mission.
“Nothing shall hurt you, said Luke. When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, said Isaiah. The Lord healeth all thy diseases, said the Psalms,” he writes to her. He might as well have told her to ‘keep on truckin’ as Beatrice reaches a breaking point. “Horrible, ghastly things in the news,” she writes. “I can’t bear to read, can’t bear to look.” She advises him to stay on Oasis forever because she has finally accepted that there is no God, at least not in her world.
In the end, Peter has a choice to make: to stay in a place of spiritual contentment or return to a world in chaos where the one person he loves the most desperately needs his help. In this way, he is a fictional Everyman whose faith is tested as all those about him question its very purpose. Faber’s writing pulls the reader into both characters’ dilemma. “Where is God in all this?” they ask themselves and one another. Where, indeed, we echo.
My Wine Recommendation
Although Peter is a recovering alcoholic, a good communion wine is ideal for this novel. With its low alcohol percentage and deep crimson color, I recommend Chateau Ste. Michelle 2013 Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a dark fruit aroma and flavor and pairs nicely with duck, lamb, veal, stuffed peppers and dark chocolate – just the sorts of foods you would crave if you were living in outer space. $20.