The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber’s new novel (his sixth and, according to the author, his last) is a work of science fiction in the same way that Philip Larkin’s “Church Going” is a religious poem. In each instance, generic conventions are respected – whether we’re talking about first contact with aliens in the sci-fi context or an ode to faith in poetic terms – except that gaudy imaginings or lofty metaphysics are drained away. Faber and Larkin share an Anglican agnosticism that refuses supernatural agency. Theirs are devoutly secular texts, then: defiant in their concentration on the mundane, elegising doubt rather than certainty.
Whatever The Book of Strange New Things gives up in terms of space opera pyrotechnics, it makes up for in other ways. There is a quiet, determined, slow-dawning grandeur to this novel. Its themes may be simple enough, but they undergo rich elaboration as the narrative progresses. A bare plot soon takes on the relentless magnetism of a paperback thriller. Released from the grip of its final pages you will feel as though your individual atoms have been dismantled then put back together – just like those who, in Faber’s novel, undertake the journey from Earth to a distant planet named Oasis in a future not far from our present.
The least likely of these astronauts is Peter Leigh, an English pastor who was born again after a youth of alcoholism and drug addiction. He leads a small suburban congregation and prides himself on a sincere, unshowy evangelism and a gift for recalling the Bible, chapter and verse. When a multinational corporation called USIC advertises for an ordained Christian willing to travel to this recently colonised planet, essentially as a minister to the planet’s indigenous “peoples”, Peter submits to a battery of interviews and gets the job.
Faber makes sure to dampen down any of the set-up’s broader implications. The story of Oasis’s discovery is barely touched on – it is only one drama among many in a period of growing ecological disruption, accompanied by economic malaise and societal breakdown. Likewise, the technological breakthroughs that have allowed the founding of an off-world colony are left in the background. Faber concentrates instead on the relationship between Peter and his wife, who is to be left behind on Earth.
Beatrice Leigh is a nurse who first met Peter when he was a hospital patient years before. She saw something in the damaged young man and set out to save him. What is immediately apparent is that theirs is a marriage built on sexual passion, mutual respect, humour and shared religious belief. And it is a measure of Faber’s gift that he persuades the reader not only that this unicorn of a relationship might actually exist, but that such a couple can be sympathetic to a broadly secular audience.
We first meet the couple pulled into a lay-by on the road to Heathrow, having frantic sex before Peter boards a plane to America and the old NASA base at Cape Canaveral. Not long after, we see them engage a young family in an airport lounge, testing the waters to see if Christ might be raised in conversation. The remarkable thing is that the two occurrences do not clash but, rather, reinforce each other. Those of us used to conceiving of Christianity as etiolated and polite, a tonic for the old and a means of inculcating obedience in the young, are obliged to entertain the possibility that more charismatic strains of contemporary belief return to the religion’s founding principles: vigorous, fiercely demanding, intoxicating in its anticipation of last things.
What makes the novel remarkable is that this concentration on ministry remains front and centre, even after Peter makes his arduous trip to Oasis. There are no rapturous moments of interplanetary awe, no poetry of the spheres, just the banal, windowless corporate spaces of the spaceship and the Oasis base, whose walls are covered with stock posters and whose speakers are filled with Muzak.
This blandness extends to the alien planet: flat, featureless, comparatively bereft of colour and life, yet beautiful to the enamoured young pastor, who soon makes his home among the Oasens. To write more distinctly about this aspect of the novel would be to spoil the slow deepening of contact between two worlds, which is the primary driver of our curiosity. It is enough to say that the Oasens are already familiar with the New Testament, or “Book of Strange New Things”, and that beneath their keen worship of the new religion lies a tragic misreading of its canonical text.
It turns out that Peter has also misread his Bible, despite deep acquaintance with the Good Book. The drama of the latter parts of the novel emerge from occasional emails exchanged with Bea back on Earth (communicating through a wormhole is difficult, apparently). She suffers in her husband’s absence, and the malaise that has long affected the developing world is now blighting even the well-tended streets of Middle England. The work stands poised, for longer than is quite bearable, between these two worlds and Peter’s divided responsibilities to each.
Faber’s final novel would be worth celebrating, even if we were unaware that the novelist’s wife was dying of cancer during its composition. But that knowledge necessarily shifts our reading of the text. That a man whose calling (and whose body of work is as oddly compelling as any in contemporary literature) has required long sojourns in the otherworld of his imagination, this novel sounds like a belated and guilt-riddled return to reality. And yet, for all its despairing qualities, its adamant refusal of religious consolation, the work recalls the final lines of another ode to faith by Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb”. It proves
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love. AF
Canongate, 592pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 22, 2014 as "Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things ". Subscribe here.