'The Book of Strange New Things', by Michel Faber - Review

By Waugh, Sophia | The Spectator, November 22, 2014 | Go to article overview

'The Book of Strange New Things', by Michel Faber - Review


Waugh, Sophia, The Spectator


The Book of Strange New Things Michel Faber

Canongate, pp.600, £18.99, ISBN: 9781782114062

They say never work with children and animals. They could just as well say don't write about aliens and God. A raft of readers hate sci-fi, and probably more sheer away at the very idea of a novel about a missionary. And yet... And yet The Book of Strange New Things works. It is in many ways extraordinary; its narrative drive, its lack of sentimentality, its occasional (emotional) brutality, its humour (albeit rare) all add up to a novel which is both intelligent, thought-provoking and as readable as a potboiler.

Peter, ex-junkie, loving husband, cat-lover, sets off on a journey. The novel opens with his farewell to his wife, and we gather that he will be gone a while and that he might be in danger. It is not immediately revealed that he is a missionary, and when we do realise this, it comes as a surprise to learn that his mission is not in the far reaches of some Amazonian jungle, but in outer space. We are in a future in which Nasa no longer exists, but a major space programme does. Peter is being sent to a planet named Oasis, where he will be not so much a pastor to the crew stationed out there, but a missionary for its inhabitants, the Oasans.

It is phenomenally difficult to make one care about aliens, especially when they are contrasted with human beings. It is one thing to produce the Moomins, who live in their own bubble and whom we basically anthropomorphise; but to produce a race with faces like foetuses and who are only distinguishable from each other by the colour of their robes is a much harder task. In the end it is not the Oasans we care about, so much as their effect on Peter, and even his on them.

Peter wakes up, after a month's sleep in which he has made 'the Jump' (the journey to Oasis), disorientated and confused. Everything, naturally, is different. The water is melon-flavoured, the air so hot and humid it feels as though it is invading his ears. The landscape is barren, the grim buildings 'monumentally ugly -- like all architecture not built by religious devotees or mad eccentrics', and the much longer cyles of light and dark destabilise him. …

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