“The Book of Strange New Things” by Michel Faber, author of the 2002 international bestseller “The Crimson Petal and the White,” is ostensibly a work of science fiction. In truth, it is a moving portrayal of romantic estrangement that charts the demise of the marriage of an interstellar Christian missionary, Peter, and his earth-bound wife, Bea.
Faber’s alien planet, Oasis, is a humid wasteland located somewhere in the not-too-far reaches of space. The only way to get there is to be selected for employment by a shadowy American corporation known by the never-elucidated acronym USIC. On Oasis, USIC employees undertake environmental engineering projects unencumbered by explicit rules, supervision or strong emotions. While not exactly zombies, they are to a person mellow of temperament and incurious in the extreme.
Missionary Peter Leigh’s unquestioning personality seems to make him a perfect fit for the USIC team. Like the world’s least inquisitive child, he goes along with USIC’s nebulous planetary development efforts, including a program of ill-defined evangelical outreach to the only sentient life on Oasis.
The enigmatic but welcoming band of humanoids that call Oasis home have learned to speak English and trade edible plants that they cultivate for monthly doses of human pharmaceuticals, such as aspirin and insulin. A core group of the aliens are fascinated by what they call “the book of strange new things,” which Peter learns is the King James Version of the Bible. Faber gradually reveals how they came to know the Bible, but never explains why some of them are obsessed with it. The aliens and USIC staff make vague allusions to a preacher named Kurtzberg who evangelized before Peter’s arrival, then mysteriously vanished. And he is not the first human to go missing on Oasis.
Peter’s fascination with the native culture and his increasing disconnection from day-to-day life on earth soon alienate his wife. Bea is portrayed as a compassionate Christian with an evangelical zeal that more than matches Peter’s. However, her intergalactic letters to her husband, sent via a futuristic email machine called “the Shoot,” rapidly degenerate from loving and supportive to resentful and hostile.
She seems to delight in tallying every natural disaster, economic collapse and personal setback that occur during Peter’s absence, as if his departure from Earth triggered them. Though her emotional reaction to her husband’s departure is portrayed in a realistic manner, it is impossible for Peter, or indeed the reader, to believe her as she reels off an improbable litany of apocalyptic cataclysms and personal crises that she claims are all happening within a period of less than five months.
Distracted by his round-the-clock missionary efforts and disengaged from the woes of the flood-ravaged Maldives or chocolate-starved London, Peter fails to mollify Bea in his letters home. The result is an epistolary account of the disintegration of their marriage.
Reading “The Book of Strange New Things,” Faber’s stance on religion never becomes clear. Starved, impoverished and tempted to abandon his desert-like posting among the aliens, it is clear that Peter is intended as a Christ figure. But if the missionary who came before him is John the Baptist, and the Christianized aliens (interchangeable creatures called Jesus Lover Five, Jesus Lover Fifty-Four and so on) are his disciples, who is Bea?
“Peter, I know you don’t want to hear this but I’M IN TROUBLE. Things are falling apart at a terrifying rate. Some of it I’ve told you about and a lot of it I haven’t. Any other husband, once he got wind of what’s been going on here, would have offered to come home by now,” she rails at him mere weeks into his mission.
Is Bea Satan?
As the plot of “The Book of Strange New Things” unfolds, it becomes clear that she is, though Faber may not have intended this to be so.
Bea stands out as Peter’s only antagonist among his congenial coworkers and affable aliens. By turns, she employs deception, romance, guilt, anger, rejection and apocalyptic visions in an attempt to convince her husband to forsake his mission and his flock. Her machinations are presented so subtly that the reader may not notice them until the closing chapters. It is questionable whether Faber himself noticed, and if he did, he might have been disturbed.
The author was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Australia and now lives in Scotland. He wrote the novel as his wife lay dying of cancer. Shortly before its publication, he announced that his latest novel will also be his last.
Dedicated to Faber’s late wife, “The Book of Strange New Things” may offer an unfortunate image of how marital conflict can corrupt the highest of spiritual callings. But it also provides a poignant demonstration of how the increasing gulf between a husband and a wife kept apart mirrors the unbreachable distance between the living and the dead.
Book Review - The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber