I admit, I do not like Christian fiction. I have always felt like literature is a way for me to experience other points of view, other ways of living, and other cultures. So reading a fictional story about something that is already such a big part of my life seems redundant. Sure, if a character is a novel is Christian, or there are Christian overtones I am fine, but I would rather not read about people discovering or preaching Christian faith. I already live that life. Yes I know, that is conceited and pretentious, but that is always how I felt.
(Some minor spoilers to follow)
This is why I was so off put by Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things at first. The book tells the story of Peter, an alcoholic turned Christian minister who is chosen by the mysterious corporation USIC to travel to the alien world of Oasis and preach to the indigenous population.
In the first 100 pages, Peter is so frustratingly Christian that it is difficult to read. He stops and prays to know if he should leave his room. He “hears” the voice of God telling him to say things. He rattles off Biblical verses to people in normal conversation. Those are fine things for Christian living, but it seems very forced and overly earnest in a novel. At first, it seems like this will be the story of Christian colonization. The naïve minister begins to spread Christianity and ruin the alien’s better and more natural way of life (or something along those lines).
However, Faber pulls the first trick among many in his book. The Oasans already have accepted Jesus Christ and love Christianity.
This twist on a standard storyline puts the book on a course that veers away from the standard Christian missionary tale. The Book of Strange New Things ends up being an unsettling tale in the very best way, letting the strangeness of its story creep right underneath the surface of the story line, never materializing into something concrete.
As Peter begins his mission among the unusually receptive Oasans, it becomes increasingly clear that something is very strange about the alien world. Although the Oasans have a weird culture, it is the humans who seem to be the aliens, staying aloof sometimes and confrontational others. And those USIC workers who leave keep coming back to the planet, even though the outwardly despise it. But like many of the mysteries in The Book of Strange New Things, the nature of Oasis is never revealed. It is up for you to guess.
That covers much of the science fiction aspects of this book, but it is more about human connections and the source of human belief.
To go on the mission, Peter is forced to leave behind his wife, and soon after he leaves, the world starts falling apart. Natural disasters, economic problems, and societal breakdown plague the world, and England seems particularly hard hit. Peter’s wife’s faith starts faltering, but Peter is so engulfed in his Christian mission that he is unable to offer any real support to her problems.
This is the heartbreaking truth that anybody who has done a long distance relationship understands. Peter is a galaxy away from his wife, and can do nothing to help her at all physically. While being in a relationship with a person implies that you will carry their burdens as well as your own, Peter is completely unable to help his ailing wife. And emotional bonds are tested. The Book of Strange New Things does not beat around the bush. When you are not physically with a person it is nearly impossible to support a relationship. Sad as it may be, human relationships need proximity. They need the freedom to reach out and touch the skin of the person you love. They need long nights not saying a word and holding each other tight. Relationships need those moments where words loose there ability to communicate and touch is the only language that can be understood.
What Peter does not understand, and what makes him a flawed character, is that the relationship between two people must be strengthened by the human connection between each other. Even in Christian relationships, sometimes the promise of a loving God is not enough. You need your significant other. To comfort his wife, Peter falls back on what he knows how to do: preach the good word. And ultimately his inability to connect with people outside of the structure and expectations of Christian faith is his undoing.
As The Book of Strange New Things investigates the advantages and disadvantages of Christian faith, Faber does not allow himself to fall into religious pessimism, but also is not afraid to show the downside of Peter’s inexplicably strong faith. In the end, Christian living much reach a compromise. A knowledge of the Bible and a faith in deity must be coupled with the love and compassion and humanism to connect with another human being in a way outside of religiosity. For a Christian to forge the necessary relationships required to show Christ-like love, he or she must first be able to connect with people at a base level, a level that transcends boundaries of faith and politics. They must connect as living beings first. Otherwise personal relationships are founded on sand.
With all the discussion of Christianity, Faber also looks at what makes humankind unique. Taking a page from Star Trek, Faber allows humankind to be viewed through the lens of the alien Oasans, a culture completely dissimilar than ours. From Peter interacting with these aliens and teaching them about human Christian religion, The Book of Strange New Things looks at what makes us special, and what our future holds.
Now I do not want to get into spoilers too much, because I want you to read this book, so I am not going to describe more plot details.
What makes this book so worth it is that it never provides concrete answers. There is always a mystery lurking underneath the surface, something insidious or glorious, depending on how you read the book. Plot questions are left unanswered, and the big philosophical questions are left up to the reader to sort out. For a book that starts out as an awkward missionary story, The Book of Strange New Things becomes a fascinating glimpse of what it means to be human, and tells a thrilling, unsettling story while doing it.