I badly wanted to love Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Following the story of Peter, a Christian missionary who is dispatched to a mysterious planet by an even more mysterious corporation called USIC to evangelize aliens (leaving his wife Bea behind on a troubled earth), I was hoping it would be one of my favorite reads this year. It includes so many elements that I enjoy: science fiction written with some literary verve; explorations of faith, culture, communication; a sincere attempt to provide a portrait of devout Christian faith (rare in contemporary fiction); a blurb from David Mitchell; and a great cover design (in the UK, at least). Yet, in the end, (perhaps partly due to my expectations), I found myself disappointed. It is not a bad book, it just does not entirely work, and it has stuck with me more than some other fiction I’ve read recently as I have tried to figure out why.
At a key point in the novel a character rages: “Take your cheerleader pom-poms off, padre, and look at what USIC has got here. What’s the score on the vibrancy meter? Two and a half out of ten? Two? Anybody offered to teach you the tango or sent you a love letter?” The book as a whole is marked by this lack of vibrancy – most of the narrative is slow, flat, sedate (or, if you enjoyed the book more than I did: meditative, measured, controlled). It is a story marked by building tension that is never resolved but instead just sort of peters out, characters whose primary personality trait seems to be an extreme lack of curiosity, extraordinarily nice aliens (although Faber does manage to make the aliens feel truly alien), and a landscape whose unique feature is that it has no readily discernible features. As another character notes towards the end of the book ,“this place is one big anti-climax,” which seems accurate, but can be a frustrating experience for the reader.
Faber creates this atmosphere on purpose: it is too pervasive in the setting and characterization not to be the result of careful consideration and it is effective at creating certain narrative effects. The planet’s climate can be disorienting and suffocating and so feels appropriately alien (and alienating). The bland “aiport motel” feel of the USIC compound makes one suspect that there is some sinister intent behind USIC’s corporate facade. In addition, the typical narrative of peaceful (female) domesticity contrasted with the challenges encountered by the questing (male) adventurer is cleverly inverted as the placid USIC compound where Peter lives and works is set against his wife’s struggles on the rapidly disintegrating earth he left behind (where ecological and political breakdown escalate at a speed that strains credulity).
Frustration, suffocation, confinement, faceless bureaucracy: these are all descriptors that bring Kafka to mind. As W.H. Auden says in his essay on Kafka, “in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy,” and this same heaviness marks The Book of Strange New Things. Yet, the book does not work as a Kafka-esque parable. Part of the issue is Peter. In Kafka, the drama of his novels is created by the struggle of his (nearly) nameless protagonists against the strange circumstances they find themselves in. The reader identifies with Josef K. in The Trial as he seeks to know and understand the reasons for his arrest. That he (and the reader) is completely ineffective in this search is less important than the search itself. In contrast, Faber’s missionary too easily blends in with the flat landscape of the alien world he encounters; he too quickly accepts the given answers. As Peter admits at one point in the novel: “I just do God’s work; my wife asks the penetrating questions.” This somewhat understates the situation: forget penetrating or incisive, even really basic questions are never asked or reflected on by Peter. The absent questions range from the practical (such as a lack of any preparation/briefing prior to departing for his mission) to the theological: surely centuries of evangelism tied to commercial and political missions would prompt Peter to reflect on USIC’s possible motives and goals (nope). Or, for example, there might be a larger theological exploration of the fact that aliens (!) exist and of all things they want, they want the Christian gospel (I will admit that Faber’s later revelation of why Christianity is so attractive to the aliens is moving and plausible).
I do wonder if this frustrating lack of curiosity is related to how Faber conceives the relationship between faith and doubt – the quote above seems to indicate that “doing God’s work” has no room for “penetrating questions” and the conclusion of the book does seem to suggest that a devout faith cannot survive difficult questions. In making this criticism, it should be noted that Faber does make an honest effort at writing authentically Christian characters (Faber identifies as an atheist in interviews). His missionary is not a stereotype set up for a cultural bashing by a sneering atheist author. This takes real effort and sympathy on Faber’s part. All the same, the faith he portrays is all about answers that cannot bear scrutiny – once Peter and Bea’s commitments are challenged, their faith seems to dissolve. Perhaps Peter is so passive, so incurious, so unquestioning because Faber thinks this is the mark of the faithful. There is no wrestling with God on the riverbank in Peter’s Christianity.
At the center of the book is Peter’s fraught long-distance relationship with his wife, conducted largely via an interplanetary email device called “the Shoot.” There is an added poignancy to this element of the story when one knows that Faber wrote this novel while his own wife was dying from cancer. She died before the book was released and Faber has stated this is his final novel (she was also his literary collaborator – by most reports it seems Faber never would have tried to publish anything without her support). As a metaphor for the loss of a spouse – a life partner going where the other cannot follow (into death, into doubt) – the book is powerful, and the final pages are suffused with heartache. The depiction of Peter and Bea’s relationship is also nuanced and rich: there is love, but also misunderstanding, anger, confusion – and the relationship feels more real as a result (and more real than anything else in the book). The relationship and love between Peter and Bea, with its conflict and real stakes, has texture and weight, and his more monochromatic depiction of faith seems shallow in comparison. Faber is willing to explore Peter and Bea’s relationship in its gritty, sometimes uncomfortable, details but does not create that same sense of depth and complexity in his depiction of Peter and Bea’s relationship to God.