The book of strange new things, by Michael Faber

The book of strange new things Book Cover The book of strange new things
Michael Faber
Speculative fiction
Oct 6 2014

The book of strange new things has had a lot of buzz in recent months, and appeared on a bunch of best of '14-lists.  I'm always very drawn to religion-themed science fiction - as a specific part of social science fiction, I suppose - so I knew I would read this one sooner or later,  though it ended up being as a book club read for January.

Peter is a recovered alcoholic, currently a pastor, happily married to the woman who saved him and brought him his religion.  Initially they both start on the lengthy series of interviews and tests to qualify for a religious mission on the planet Oasis, but while Peter is accepted, Bea is not.  She stays in England, while Peter is further away than he's ever been since they met.

The journey to Oasis and the community there is all arranged by the mysterious USIC.  The space travel concept is skimmed over; it is certainly fast travel, as no time is lost for Peter between Earth and Oasis, and there is a contraption through which he is able to exchange written messages with Bea - also nearly instantaneously.

The community - we don't call it a colony! - on Oasis is made out of a group of very peculiar people,  effectively demonstrating what kind of personal qualities the USIC was screening for with their interviews.  Peter is not there to preach to them, though - he's come to this planet to bring Jesus to the natives.  Actually, he's there by their very specific request.

Bea's letters from home grow increasingly distressing; Things are not going well. From natural disasters wiping out parts of the world, to the local grocery shutting down, it's all bad.   Peter, however, has a hard time conceptualizing it; He is integrating with the peaceful Oasis natives, sharing their daily rhythm, adjusting his speech and thinking to match their limited English and utter lack of other cultural references than the bible.

The novel seems to ask a lot of very interesting questions, setting up for a lot of revelations and surprises, but it fails to deliver on most.   Some readers don't feel that way at all, of course, and I speculate that it might depend on the reader's genre background - those who have little or no experience with heavy science fiction tropes like "space colonization" and "first contact" and so on,  might not be so aware of all the things I keep waiting for the novel to adress and/or acknowledge.   It's kind of like having an introspective drama take place on a construction site, and maybe mention a few bricks and a little mortar, but nothing at all about construction workers and safety gear and building and plans and... well, you understand.   In the end I just find it insufficient,  which is a feeling only strengthened by the ending.

...And the longer I've had to think about it, the less positive I feel about the novel, unfortunately.  The thing is, well. When people ask me why I abandoned the "real" literature some years back,  the very abbreviated answer is usually "I've just read effing enough about the problems of being a boring man with problems".  It leaves out a lot, and seems to imply that I don't appreciate character-centric fiction, which is not quite correct, but - yeah. I probably don't have to keep clarifying.   This book has brought that bored feeling to mind. To my mind.   Plainly,  Peter in the foreground is not interesting enough, and the world of Oasis in the background is very interesting - but out of focus. Which sucks, for me.   The book is like a panel of all the shiniest buttons, but never pushes a single one of them.

I have no doubt it will please other kinds of readers, though.

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