An evangelical minister in the UK is commissioned by a mysterious corporation to travel trillions of miles away from his wife and home to bring the gospel to an alien race on a remote planet. The minister is Peter, a former alcoholic turned pastor. Peter’s wife is Beatrice (Bea). The corporation in question is known only as USIC (we never learn what the acronym stands for). Peter’s job title is Minister (Christian) to Indigenous Population” (65). The distant planet goes by the rather prosaic title of Oasis, and its “natives” don’t fare much better; they’re dubbed “Oasans.”
Isn’t God the reason Peter has embarked on this mission in the first place? Isn’t he the one who has imposed this profound gulf between Peter and Bea, between Michel Faber and his late wife, Eva? Isn’t God the rift?I’ll confess that it was the bizarre nature of the subject matter that initially drew me to Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Also, I suppose it’s no great surprise that a missionary kid would gravitate to a science fiction story. A genre replete with stories of people meeting strange new beings in strange new worlds is bound to resonate with a third culture kid. Though my family never embarked on any interstellar voyages, I did grow up on the mission field in Vienna, Austria. I moved to the States when I was fourteen, where I found the natives of the Bible Belt South to be not quite on par with extraterrestrials, but a riddle nonetheless. The feeling was mutual. After all, it was I who had landed on their shores from another world. And thus a theme all too familiar to science fiction nerds emerges: I was the alien.
Peter is very much the alien on Oasis. Despite its sci-fi trappings, the book is more of a genre hybrid: science fiction, dystopian fiction (along with hints of its generic concomitants, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic), speculative fiction, realism, love story, epistolary. On the dust jacket of the hardback edition, we see a vertical rendering of two slender arms straining to overcome a confounding rift that yawns between them. The arm emerging at the bottom of the page is smooth and hairless. The descending arm is coarse and hairy. Wedding bands gleam conspicuously on the respective fingers. The book’s title occupies the emptiness between Peter and Bea’s searching hands. As striking as the image is, it’s actually the emptiness dividing the two hands that’s the real star of the book.
When Peter worries about the disintegrating communication between him and his wife, he is told, “You’re here. She’s there. It’s natural . . . The rift . . . It grows and grows, and finally . . . there’s too much of it to cross” (290). The rift becomes an increasingly imposing presence (or absence) as the story progresses: An early warning sign is Peter’s skepticism about whether technology can overcome any distance at all. A conversation with his wife on a cell is in fact not a conversation with his wife, but a conversation with a “bunch of disassembled electronic noises coming out of a small metal device” (23). At this point, Peter hasn’t even left the comfort of earth’s atmosphere, and he’s already questioning whether it’s possible for him and his wife to have a meaningful conversation. When they are quite literally worlds apart, he will wonder just how the words transmitted by the Shoot—the USIC device that enables the couple’s correspondence—can “travel so impossibly far” (49) to reach England’s soggy shores.
But this distance isn’t just measured in miles. It’s also cultural. In the eyes of his Oasan congregation, Peter is “an exotic obelisk, transmitting messages from afar” (186). When he peers into the hoods of these uniformly cloaked figures, he sees “a coagulated stew of meat that he could not, could not, simply could not translate into a face” (166). No less grotesque are their voices, which sound “like a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete” (190).
Exotic as all this sounds, Peter’s interactions with the Oasans are not completely foreign to me. As a “terrestrial” missionary kid, my reception in the American public school system was an experience not unlike Peter’s. For instance, I once made the mistake of wearing the same shirt twice in one week. When I tried to offer an explanation for this egregious breach of social etiquette, I was received as an underdressed “obelisk transmitting messages from afar.” And while (fortunately) my face was one of the few things American audiences could translate, plenty of people think German sounds like Faber’s grotesque descriptions of the Oasan language—it may sound interesting, but it’s certainly not going to make the list of sexiest accents. (If only I’d had the good sense to be born in Australia, instead of Austria.)
The most formidable manifestation of Peter’s rift, however, is the growing chasm between him and Bea. Once again, it’s more than the many galaxies that stretch between them. Their respective experiences of their respective worlds become increasingly untranslatable across all this vast space. In the end, all of their frantic signals begin to fail. Peter receives Bea’s reports of the crumbling state of human society with surprising nonchalance. He’s simply too wrapped up in the rigors of translating biblical imagery for his inscrutable congregation. Before you even get to the precious blood of the Lamb, how do you explain what a lamb is to the inhabitant of another planet that has no reference point for such a creature? For Bea’s part, how does she make it clear to her astronaut-of-a-husband that the UK economy is collapsing, that the trash isn’t being picked up, that food isn’t being restocked in supermarkets, that increasing brutality is erupting in the streets? In short, that earth is falling apart.
But none of her urgency can rouse him from this strange empathetic lethargy. Part of Faber’s genius is to show us how distance can shrink even the most cataclysmic of events. You don’t have to travel to the other side of the universe to know this feeling. Like the intricate quilt of human shapes and patterns that you glimpse out of an airplane window during takeoff and landing, Bea’s circumstances look small and inconsequential. From your cramped airplane seat, you know there are people doing grave damage to one another somewhere down there in those toy-sized buildings and on those toy-sized streets. But you know this in the same way that you know that crime and social dysfunction are bad in general. That is, you know it in an abstract sense; you’re probably more concerned about getting your bag of peanuts. Here’s a good litmus test: Ask yourself how you receive the reports of disasters in foreign nations. Heck, how about tragedies in other states? What about other people’s lives?
Though he is now an atheist, Faber grew up in a Christian household, and the picture of the faith that emerges in this story is a far cry from the usual caricatures we’ve grown accustomed to in popular fiction. The detailed scriptural allusions and biblical humor all betray an insider’s knowledge, the seeming work of a highly intelligent and eccentric pastor’s kid. The book’s major sections are divided according to the Lord’s Prayer. “The Book of Strange New Things” is what the Oasan’s call the Bible. It’s not a bad title, actually.
For their part, the Oasans in Peter’s nascent church are obsessed with Jesus. Identified only by numeric monikers that chart the chronology of their salvation (Jesus Lover 1, etc.), their fixation on Christ and his resurrection knows no bounds. The reason for this soon becomes clear. When Jesus Lover 5 (Peter’s favorite) sustains a minor hand injury, the other Jesus Lovers show signs of dismay. Given that the Oasans are not generally in the habit of expressing any kind of emotion whatsoever, Peter is concerned. He will soon learn that the biology of his congregation is peculiarly fragile. Quite simply, their bodies do not heal. Every wound is a mortal wound. Every injury is terminal. He will watch a helpless team of doctors fuss around the foreign anatomy of his friend to no avail.
The Oasan’s interest in the theme of resurrection has a poignant point of inspiration: Faber’s own wife was dying of cancer as he wrote the novel. His lover, his friend, his confidant, his editor, his muse—she was very much his Beatrice. By the time the book hit shelves she was gone…further away than he can reach. They are now worlds apart.
Inevitably, the story becomes infused with a deep sadness and a palpable sense of loss, but the tragic details behind the scenes find their most piquant expression in the messages between Peter and Bea. Their correspondence constitutes the emotional center of the story, as well as Faber’s greatest achievement in this very strange book. It’s as riveting as it is troubling. I turned the pages with a growing sense of trepidation as the intimacy between this husband and wife began to unravel. I’ve never been to space; I’ve never been to another planet. But I’ve called my wife from the airport in a country on the other side of the globe on an evangelistic mission of my own, only to encounter that alarmingly flat tone in her voice. I’m here. She’s there. The malaise of distance infects our conversation like some exotic pathogen. The rift shows up. And I’ve tried to feign interest as I hear her recount the events of her day when I look out the window of a hotel into a city that may as well be on another planet: the alien gazing out of the window of his ship.
“There is no God” (389). These are the words that finally pull Peter back to earth’s orbit. They flash across the Shoot’s screen after a series of increasingly bleak reports on the state of human society. What has inspired this renunciation? True to life, it’s not the collapse of civilization or any of its attendant crises; it’s not Richard Dawkins, scientific naturalism, nihilism, or any other fashionable school of antireligious thought. Bea’s faith has been dismantled by an act of cruelty that’s as senseless as it is common. A group of teenagers have tortured her cat to death. Before Peter can summon some spiritual platitude, his wife informs him that there is simply no way to file this little act of malice under the banner of divine providence. He is instructed to refrain from preaching to her.
Now it is God himself who seems nonchalant, and Peter’s prayers are the messages that have to travel an impossible distance to reach their destination. How does God see all of these troubles from his divine point of vantage? Does one tortured feline even merit inclusion in his list of concerns? For that matter, do Peter and Bea, and Jesus Lover 5 make the cut? Isn’t God the reason Peter has embarked on this mission in the first place? Isn’t he the one who has imposed this profound gulf between Peter and Bea, between Michel Faber and his late wife, Eva? Isn’t God the rift?
Faber leaves these questions open. He leaves it to us to consider the merits of a strange story about the Lord of all creation who traveled an impossible distance to a remote planet to rescue the indigenous population from the ravages of sin and death, to abolish the rift between them and their Creator so that His will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.