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The Book of Strange New Things

Rebecca Foster

Michel Faber
Canongate, 592 pp

Michel Faber's latest novel might seem like a return to the science fiction formula of his debut, Under the Skin. Certainly there are aliens in both books, but neither can be relegated to the realms of sci-fi pulp. The Book of Strange New Things, especially, is a very this-worldly story, blending a believable dystopian vision of Earth, commentary on cultural and religious imperialism, and a poignant portrait of a marriage under impossible strain.

The suburban London pastor Peter Leigh won the appointment of a lifetime: he will travel light years away to minister to the natives of Oasis, a planet colonized by a shady US corporation, USIC. The major downside of the mission is that Peter's wife, Bea, cannot come along. (Neither can Joshua, their rather endearing cat.) After 'the Jump' from Florida's space station, Peter arrives at the sanitized, somewhat sinister USIC base. He is disoriented and plagued by insomnia. The water is green and melon-flavoured here, and turns his urine orange. The light-dark cycle is three days long, and rain swirls in mesmerizing patterns.

Before long Peter meets his new flock at the C2 settlement, nicknamed 'Freaktown'. Pharmacist Grainger drives him out to make her usual trade of Western medicines for foodstuffs derived from the multipurpose whiteflower. The alien race, primed by previous pastor Kurtzberg (his name a canny echo of Heart of Darkness), eagerly embraces the Bible - their 'Book of Strange New Things.'

It is impossible to decipher the natives' gender, and they have no distinguishing features to separate one from another. Peter thinks of their faces as 'a grotesque pair of foetuses perched on someone's shoulders.' Just as people of faith debate whether foetuses are fully human and alive, Peter wonders if he can attribute personhood to these creatures. He can only tell them apart by the colour of their robes; even their English names are mere variations on a theme: Jesus Lover One, Two, and so on.

On 15-day stints at C2, Peter helps the Oasans build a church, compiling their religious artwork for a Sistine Chapel-like ceiling. He swiftly goes native, adopting Oasan habits and making a valiant effort to learn the language. Translation becomes one of his major tasks, starting with Psalm 23, which he paraphrases to avoid difficult consonants and replace meaningless metaphors, such as sheep and a shepherd. Yet the Oasans do not see this as authoritative compared to the King James; they believe in the incantatory power of the original words. Peter wishes to get to the basics, beneath jargon and cultural accretions, but fears there is no foundation to the aliens' faith. After all, they have no concept of sin or guilt, only of decay. For them the way of Jesus is the way of eternal life - extending physical existence as long as possible through medicine.

Meanwhile, on a mid-apocalyptic Earth plagued with natural disasters, Bea is growing desperate. The Maldives were destroyed in a typhoon and the snow leopard has gone extinct. Closer to home, there are hailstorms and food shortages, Bea has no gas supplier, and the interim pastor ran off with all the church's money. She and Peter communicate via short written messages (which they jokingly refer to as 'epistles'), sent down a special 'Shoot'. Peter's religious platitudes and scripture quotations grow increasingly useless as the distance between them becomes emotional as well as physical; 'Bea was scared and hurt, and she didn't need his preaching.' Peter recognises that he no longer feels invested in what happens on Earth; as he writes to Bea, 'All these disasters that are befalling the world … are just so alien to my life here. They don't feel real. I'm horrified by this failure of compassion'. Still, he resists apocalyptic thinking; 'he didn't think these were the world's last days. God wouldn't let go of the planet he loved so easily. He'd given His only son to save it, after all.'

Peter at first appears to be a weak central character. His name marks him as the rock of a new church, while his age (33) aligns him with Christ nearing the end of his mission. Instead of a crusading warrior, however, he is just a bit wet; his Templar's cross is just a ballpoint pen stain on his tunic. Like Tom Hollander's character in early episodes of Rev, Peter can seem a little worthy; 'God's work is a privilege and a joy,' he chirps. It is hard to believe in his hard-living past of drugs, petty thievery and homelessness - a life from which Beatrice, his Dantean muse, rescued him. Yet Faber insists Peter's conversion was a return to purity: 'he'd re-made himself into an innocent. God had wiped the slate clean.' Perhaps Peter is emulating the apostles, 'wise as serpents and harmless as doves' (Matthew 10:16).

As both Bea's faith and their rock-solid marriage crumble, Peter must choose between his mission and love. 'Your wife Bea: one. We are many,' a Jesus Lover remarks. 'A very John Stuart Mill observation,' Peter quips; he approaches the situation more like Jesus in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He has many faithful here, but can he leave Bea to her fate? At the same time, though, his beloved disciple, Jesus Lover Five, lies injured in USIC's sick bay. The novel was written over the course of Faber's wife Eva's last illness; she died of cancer in 2014. Knowing this adds an extra layer of ache to an already tender scenario.

This is a very human story, less about aliens than about alienation from other people and from God. It is best, then, not to think of it as straightforward science fiction; indeed, sci-fi fans may dismiss it as dull or conventional: Faber certainly devotes too much time to exposition and world-building. The novel might, however, serve as a gateway for readers reluctant to tackle genre fiction - similar to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Chris Beckett's Dark Eden, especially with the former's central test of empathy. 2014 was a big year for dystopian novels (J by Howard Jacobson, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, California by Edan Lepucki, even Tigerman by Nick Harkaway), but Faber's has a very different aim. Like Margaret Atwood, Faber is working to bring literary respectability to speculative fiction.

If faith remains for these characters at the novel's end, it is more humanistic now: a belief in people's worth. The novel's final words repeat Matthew 28:20: 'I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.' Whether these are meant to be interpreted as Jesus' words to Peter or Peter's words to Bea is unclear. In any case, Kurtzberg's epitaph exhibits the proper stance of humility and gratitude for whatever time we are granted: 'For All That I've Had and Seen, I Am Truly Thankful.' As beautiful as it is unsettling, this is a novel that will remain with you.