Book Score: 1
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber is the worst kind of book: a bloated, tiring read that is somehow just interesting enough to drag you along to the next page. In short: don’t start this book. You’ll regret it.
The premise falls neatly into the priests-in-space subgenre. Peter leaves his devoted wife Bea after being recruited by the USIC — a shadowy Dharma-like multinational — to be a Christian missionary to the natives of the strange planet of Oasis. But upon his arrival, he is surprised to finds that 1) a number of the Oasans are already Christians, having been converted by a previous missionary who has since gone missing; and 2) handily, they also speak English, thanks to the work of a linguist, who has also gone missing. They are even familiar with the Bible, which they call “The Book of Strange New Things.”
And as Peter works with the Oasans as their pastor and in building their church, he soon learns that his coming was actually a requirement of the Oasans for their continued support of the USIC’s work on Oasis. Meanwhile, he learns through missives from his wife that in his absence, the earth is being besieged by a series of ever-worsening calamities and food shortages. Also, she’s pregnant.
Now, that’s a pretty decent set up. But the execution falls flat. And drags. And draaaaaaaagggs. And did I mention it drags?
First, Peter is not believable as a missionary. He shows little interest in the Oasans who are not already converted, confining himself to his small flock. He also struggles to muster even the smallest amount of empathy for what Bea is going through, repeatedly resorting to the worst shiny happy Jesus-y cliches.
Bea is at least a strong character, and she deserves better. Her messages to Peter (“Shoots,” which are sort of an interstellar email) are the highlight of the book as she tries desperately to pry information out of him about what he’s doing, what he’s dealing with, what he’s feeling, and just to get him to give a damn about her plight. It’s sad for our sakes that she is not more successful.
As for the USIC, Faber treads heavily in racial and gender stereotypes, and the characters are mostly flat and uninteresting. For them, life of these hand picked pioneers is a busy existence free of romantic entanglements, and really pretty much anything that doesn’t concern work. The overall character of the USIC organization itself is far more interesting, and there are hopes for a payoff as Peter finds out what they are really up to. But for all the subterfuge, that payoff is sadly underwhelming.
As for the writing itself, we are repeatedly told that Peter is bad at describing things, as if that is an excuse for the author’s failure to do so. At one point, Faber actually has Peter say: “It would take a novelists skill to capture those nuances in words and, as I’ve discovered to my embarrassment, I totally lack that skill.” At which point, I screamed at my Kindle “But you’re a freaking novelist!” Le sigh.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Even at its best, The Book of Strange and New Things is just one giant tease. Don’t bother.