After having just experienced another American Thanksgiving, in which the turkey is seen as bounty rather than sacrifice, I did not come to Michel Faber's new novel The Book of Strange New Things with much sense that I was about to mount a horse of a different colour. Faber's third full-length novel is indeed a profoundly Christian book, or perhaps more accurately it is a book profoundly about Christianity, a faith which professes to confer awards upon its believers; and though its timbre is anything but accusatory, the tale is set in two worlds either devoured by crises for which there are no Christian answers (our own planet in the near future, after the penny has dropped like plague); or about to be devoured in some part because Christianity provides precisely the wrong answer (the quasi-colony world of Oasis, a billion or a trillion miles away, about to be theme-parked by an Earth corporation). As far as the cyclical sustenance-culture natives of Oasis are concerned, Strange New Things is as devastating, sotto voce, about the impact of the before-after death-versus-healing reward-oriented narrative structure of Christianity as is William T. Vollmann's shouting Fathers and Crows (1992) about the effect of Catholic missionaries on the pre-existing nations of America, four hundred years ago. Unlike Vollmann, however, Faber conducts his tribunal so chastely and reverently that it is easy to miss the guilty verdict.
There are difficulties in reaching that conclusion. Faber's protagonist, a thirtysomething missionary called by God (and an interplanetary corporation known only as USIC) to Oasis, may himself suffer deeply from the consequences of his actions, his inactions, his understandings, and his misunderstandings; but he is never mocked over the course of Strange New Things for persisting in his faith. This acceptance may be difficult for a non-Christian to comprehend, as perhaps it should be: both because unbelievers tend to think that faith is inherently incredible, and because it can be hard, even for good Christians, to grasp the arduousness of the task of belief. So that's a difficulty. But there is another obstacle: the inexplicitly augured but in fact inescapable conclusion of Strange New Things, which should not come as a surprise to any reader moderately familiar with the SF Megatext from which its premise and plot turns and reveals derive, a conclusion built like coral from every moment of the book, a pattern of consequential masonry that despite its clarity a reader coming blind to SF might well skid over. So time perhaps to handicap the match. In the next paragraph or so will be found some sentences which readers with whom I disagree about the nature of reader response to Story may well call "spoilers". If this is difficult for those readers, I'd suggest they maybe stop reading now.
Peter and Bea Leigh, a Christian man and his wife, drive to Heathrow in a near future mildly evocative of increasing social stress; at her behest they park (on the M4?) and make love in the car. He comes before she is ready, but she says this does not matter (see below). He is on his way to the planet Oasis, at the behest of the corporation which seems to sort of "own" the planet, and which needs him to minister to the natives there; all he knows of USIC is that it "invests in people", MBA closet-commodification cant which tells him nothing. But he trusts in God. As USIC has made it clear that Bea cannot accompany him, he leaves her, perhaps for ever: we never learn for sure. After an unknown period in suspended animation, he lands on Oasis. Shaken by transit, he arrives at a company-town compound which, as we register through Peter's dazed sensorium, is appallingly bland. His fellow employees, though expert at their various trades, are similarly lacking in edge; they have no real interest in sex; the music they prefer to hear through ubiquitous speakers consists almost exclusively of old favourites sung by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
When he finally gets outdoors (an SF reader will register that the air is breathable, and may wonder at Peter's lack of surprise that this is the case), the planet itself seems lacking in sharpness, contour. But the almost constant rain, which falls and migrates and rises again in clinging spirals, does mark Oasis as a genuine place beyond Earth, as does the six-day light/dark cycle, and the sun which registers optically as four times the size of Earth's. We learn nothing about this sun's actual size, perhaps because Peter is not really much interested in data of this sort, and—except for messages from Bea via Shoot, a familiar ansible-like device—we remain within his POV, without a window or a breath of air. An SF reader will nevertheless register the orthodoxy of the story so far, and in fact the toolkit tramlines that grammatize Strange New Things are never challenged at any point. An SF reader who is bad at reading Tales Beyond Toolkit may therefore find Strange New Things intolerably slow. As far as unpacking the obvious is concerned, it is pretty slow: but as far as unpacking Peter Leigh is concerned, the novel is painfully swift.
It soon becomes clear that his appalling innocence—he has no idea what the native Oasans are like, only finds out in medias res that he is not the first missionary to serve them, never inquires as to USIC's plans for the planet—is strategic: his trust in God to show the path ahead is a kind of twelve-step away from the tiresome chaos of his inner being: in his youth he took drugs, stole from friends, slept rough and stuff, and in some sense he came to God to avoid having to think about himself. Tellingly, however, though he is an extremely eloquent preacher, he is deeply and damagingly incapable of eloquence when he is asked to listen to his increasingly desperate wife a trillion miles away as the weeks pass and his immurement in Oasis thickens his heart to her; or respond to the equally desperate Grainger, who seems to be the only USIC employee on Oasis not smothered in cotton-wool, and who is beginning to fall apart under the sexlessness and the stress of institutionalized unknowing. Late in the novel, in a dream, he has sex with her, coming instantly; the dream was clearly not about the person in bed with him. But neither this dream, nor any other observations he makes, serve as a wake-up call: he never seems to realise that USIC has created an outpost inhabited by designer drones incapable of making waves as the planet is prepared for gentrification. In the meantime, however, he is belatedly taken to the "village" where the Oasans dwell.
Faber's rendering of the ensuing encounter is obedient to toolkit avatars like Clifford D. Simak or Chad Oliver, though perhaps more eloquent; and to familiar models like James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958) or Mary Doria Russell's the Sparrow (1996). But Strange New Things makes it all seem new, perhaps primarily through the implacable attention to the rhythm and detail of physical revelation that also marks Faber's first novel, the extraordinary Under the Skin (2000). For an SF reader, the effect is almost hallucinatory: obedience to toolkit rendered in language that tells the world for the first time ever. An Oasan lifts his or her face to Peter:
Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses—maybe three-month-old twins, hairless and blind—nestled head to head, knee to knee. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan's clefted forehead, so to speak; their puny ribbed backs formed his cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged in a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain—in some form unrecognizeable to him him—a mouth, nose eyes. . . .
"You and I", said the Oasan. "Never before now".
The Oasans are slender, small, delicate, rounded, easily tired, beauteous. They bear names like Jesus Lover Five or Jesus Lover Fifteen. They are enraptured that another minister has come from Jesus to heal them. Peter's heart floods open (Faber renders this opening of Peter's walled-off psyche as Christianly, without irony). He stays in the village for several human days at a stretch. He designs a church with a steeple. The Oasans build the church, but not the steeple, a clear beat in the grammar of toolkit. Grainger ferries him back and forth between the compound and the Oasan village, bringing them medicines, whose effect on Oasans nobody knows, and taking back in return a native form of sustenance humans can digest. When he is in the compound Peter re-enters a state of noli me tangere distraction. He refuses to countenance any thought that his desire to communicate with Bea has diminished, but reads her letters with an increasing failure of attention.
Back on Earth, a slow accumulation of disasters—almost exactly similar to those which we as readers in 2014 have been developing climate change fatigue over—has become synergistic—almost exactly along the lines 99% of the world's scientists (including Americans) are predicting, to general indifference: "Any system normalizes any failure of any part of that system until it is too late", The Book of End Times (1999), page 154, my phrasing. Bea is pregnant (which Peter, not taking it in, ignores); her job disappears, their home is trashed, the UK is done. Peter, finally aroused to a degree, suggests that he come back at the end of his tour of duty and they move to a nice place in the country. She loses her rag. She tells him there is no God. He quotes Scripture. She tells him there is no God. Finally, for he retains a bewildered goodness within the now-disintegrating denial pathology that has saved him till now—saved him to minister lovingly and, he thinks, healingly to the Oasans, and to speak Christian truths in public when asked to do so in the compound—he decides to return. Bea does not want him back, because the planet is becoming untenable. He insists. She says she's left their ruined home, and abandoned her Shoot, and there will be no way to find her in the world that has come to pass.
He then learns what the novel has all been about. The literal truth of Christianity's claims are, for devout humans like Peter, massaged through usage and homiletic into a system of metaphors whose truth will manifest itself at some further point in the narrative. The healing power of the love of Christ, for instance, that "transforms" the born-again, narratives a profound change. But the Oasans—again this is extensively trailed SF toolkit stuff, though irradiated through the radiant sobriety of Faber's prose—do not speak in metaphors. Only at the end does Peter realize that their refusal to put a spire on top of Peter's church, along with numerous other markers of their aversion to anything able to penetrate flesh, is grounded in the fact that their bodies cannot recover from injury. Their flesh is non-renewable. As he now realizes with horror, he has been espousing a Christian rescue narrative to them, without understanding their incapacity to grasp the metaphorical nature of even a devout Christian's journey toward healing.
Nothing shall hurt you, said Luke. When thou walkest through the fire, thou thalt not be burned, said Isaiah. The Lord healeth all thy diseases, said Psalms. There is was, plain as the scar on [the face of a doctor speaking to Peter]: the perpetual reprieve the Oasans called the Technique of Jesus.
And the story ends, where it had to from the beginning. The Word of God, in the mouth of a caring Christian, is a betrayal. The good caring Christian, having intolerably deepened the stress of his flock, begins his journey back to a world his religion cannot address: as there is no flock left for him there to comfort with saltatory tales to dodge the End with. On planet Earth in this century, the words that Peter still longs to utter into Bea's ear have become wind. Battered in the irrevocable sadness of The Book of Strange New Things, the reader does not look for him to find her, does not really wish him success in his quest to redeem with his comforting male presence those he had abandoned. The reader looks for him to stop breathing twelve-steps into every ear.