Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
by Michel Faber
I had my defences up for the first part of this book. The main character, a Christian minister, travels to the faraway planet of Oasis to live with and teach Christianity to the indigenous alien population.
Considering the damage done to indigenous populations around the world by Christian missionaries of centuries past, I was not prepared to buy into that as a good idea, at least not initially. But I had to keep reading just to see if Peter Leigh, Christian minister, ended up tortured and murdered by less-than-welcoming aliens.
As I read on, I realized that Peter does not use his considerable knowledge of the Bible to proselytize but to enlighten. He calls the Bible “a storehouse of messages,” and he leaves room for metaphorical appreciation of its stories.
The trouble is, Peter is not the first Christian missionary to have contact with the Oasan beings. Previous missionaries taught the Bible—the Book of Strange New Things—with more fervor and factual flair, and the Oasans are not equipped with the ability to perceive subtleties of meaning or metaphor. When fact-based Oasans baldly quote passages like, “We will have no other God than God our saviour. In Him alone we have hope of life,” it makes Peter uneasy. He begins to see the dark side of his purpose there.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife, Bea, is dealing with apocalyptic-like climatic and economic disasters. The distance between her and Peter and the daunting challenges she must face alone stress their relationship and diminish her faith.
In The Book of Strange New Things, messy, complicated humans seem delightfully fascinating next to the stoic, plodding, straightforward Oasans. Faber’s message could be that we can’t—and shouldn’t—stomp out our human controversies and complexities, much as we might sometimes want to.
In The Book of Strange New Things, Peter’s allegorical, multi-layered interpretation of the Bible seems delightfully reassuring next to the inflexible—and ultimately, unsatisfactory—factual view. Faber’s message could be that there is a time for faith and a time for doubt.
In the end, I liked this book, but I can see how many people would not. I’m a member of a progressive Christian church, and I found the Christian zeal of Peter at the beginning of the book off-putting. I bet atheists would bail early.