In so many ways, things that used to be science fiction have become everyday life. For readers, the gaps between fiction and science fiction (and nonfiction) have grown smaller.
Michel Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things” fits neatly into one of those gaps without tipping its hand. “The Book” of the title refers to the copy of the Bible that a preacher named Peter Leigh brings with him on the missionary trip of a lifetime, to a planet named Oasis.
Does that sentence turn you off, if you’re not a fan of science fiction? It needn’t — Faber’s interests here lie with faith, belief and the ways in which we know and bear responsibility for one another.
Plus, nothing tests the merits of the missionary’s quest better than going not only to an entirely different culture, but an entirely different species, light years away — and leaving your wife back on Earth.
Faber is no stranger to exploring how we feel our way through interactions in a foreign environment, having written “Under the Skin,” which was made into a starkly unsettling Scarlett Johansson film. That story saw the character played by Johansson as an alien trying to find a foothold in our world; this time, we have a human trying to integrate into an alien society.
Having made it through a long winnowing process to pick the best candidate, Leigh is sent off by his wife at the start of the story, which Faber captures in perfectly disjointed writing, mixing the events leading up to his liftoff in much the same way one would find memories combined, overlapping.
Upon his arrival on Oasis, he sets about getting to know the people working on the base there and soon gets taken to the nearest village, where the Oasans live. They come across in that first encounter as eager to have Leigh teaching the word of God — it goes, in other words, as well as one could have hoped, and Leigh is filled with optimism about his task. He returns to the human base, eager to send a message home to Beatrice, his wife.
The message he finds waiting for him undercuts his excitement, though; she’s written to tell him about a tidal wave on Earth that’s claimed the lives of some 250,000 people. This dynamic between them continues on a similar path, with further tragedies mounting at home and Leigh’s work progressing so well that he begins spending more time at the alien village than at the base.
A woman named Grainger, working at the base and transporting Leigh to and from the alien village, provides something of a counterbalance to his enthusiasm about what eager students the Oasans are. She has an unease about her, but she plays her cards close to her vest.
If there are unanswered questions about the aliens and the human base, information that she’s deduced, she’s not letting on.
The aliens themselves seem much simpler, in that they don’t engage in the human ways of deceiving, speaking half-truths, having conflicted interests and desires. They work hard to overcome the language barrier between themselves and Leigh, drinking in the religious teachings and building themselves a church.
Faber lets the story develop slowly, naturally — there aren’t stereotypical science-fiction plot devices shoehorned in to move the narrative along. This languid pacing gives the story room to stretch out, breathe, and the tension comes from Leigh being pulled between cultures, between ideals, and ultimately between two different loves.
As different sorts of catastrophes close in around him, the scope of Faber’s writing narrows in to try answering big questions of love and faith. Those answers may not be perfect, but Faber’s efforts at reaching them make for a bracing, rewarding read.
The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber (512 pages; Hogarth; $28)