What we thought: It is a rare thing to find a book that conjures a world completely in its opening sentences and then builds and maintains that world to the very last page. It’s even rarer for an author, having done so once, to pull off the trick again with a second, completely different world.
I was bowled over by the opening to Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. From the moment that Sugar beckoned to me from the shadowy world of London’s Victorian slums, I would have followed her anywhere. But the last thing I would have expected was that the next journey Faber would take me on would be to a far flung planet at the limits of human exploration, at some unidentified time in our not-too-distant future.
The Book of Strange New Things is the story of Peter, former drug addict and thief turned pastor, who leaves his wife behind on Earth to travel to a planet called Oasis. The indigenous population, small, roughly humanoid and seemingly benign, have a thirst for the Bible (which they call The Book of Strange New Things) and for the ‘technique of Jesus.’
Despite the strangeness of his new world, Peter, it seems, has landed the cushiest missionary job in the history of Christianity. Back on Earth, things are not going so well for his wife, Bea. Disasters, climactic and economic, are striking closer and closer to home, and it’s clear that the social order is breaking down. Their only contact is via the Shoot, a fragile electronic link that allows them to write letters to each other over billions of miles. But Peter, absorbed in his mission, is increasingly disengaged from his wife’s distress.
The book could be seen as an exploration of the different types of love – especially agape (the love of man for God and God for man), eros (sexual love) and philia (love or affection among equals). It is also an exceptional exploration of a species in some ways more essentially alien than many science fiction authors have attempted. The truth behind the Oasans’ passion for Christianity, when finally revealed, is heartbreaking in its simplicity.
If this is, indeed, as Faber has declared, his last novel, then together with The Crimson Petal and the White, The Book of Strange New Things will stand as evidence of an extraordinary, fertile imagination and a compassionate heart. But I really hope that, sometime in the future, he might be persuaded to change his mind. Because I would love to know where he might take me next.
You’ll enjoy this if you like: The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederick Pohl, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
Avoid if you don’t like: Religion, Sci Fi, or mixing religion with your Sci Fi.
Ideal accompaniments: A loaf of fresh bread and a tall glass of water
Genre: Literary Fiction, Sci-Fi
Available from Amazon