In Which I Read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber and Had Some OPINIONS About It

My sister gave me this book for my birthday, so I really really wanted to like it. I’d heard a lot of good things. I wasn’t sure what I’d think of it. I went in with hope.

Some basic premise for those who don’t know: our main character is Peter the priest, who is recruited by a corporation called USIC to be a pastor for some aliens on a planet where they have a base, as the last pastor disappeared/possibly died.

Peter’s wife Bea wants to come too, but she doesn’t pass USIC’s tests. So, they are separated by a gazillion miles and can only communicate via intergalactic email. It’s pretty rubbish for them, but they are filled with sweet hope and God’s love. They think it’s going to be ok.

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2015 Canongate paperback

First of all, having now finished the book, I still can’t work out why a scientific research project to another planet would take a pastor with them. None of the staff there seem to be religious, and the whole story is set at some undefined point in the future, possibly hundreds of years from now. Humans have made first contact, and yet we take a pastor to meet the aliens – what the fuck? Don’t aliens sort of negate Christianity?

Also, the whole thing is super imperial/colonial. USIC are on this new planet ostensibly for some sort of research, mostly with the earth and the plants… it’s a bit unspecific. They exchange medicine with the natives in return for foodstuffs, mostly made from the only plant that seems to grow, whiteflower, which can be used to make replicas of most human foods. So there’s a basic trading relationship, but all the USIC staff refer to the natives as ‘freaks’ and their settlement as ‘freaktown’. And for some reason they brought a priest who taught the natives all about God and Jesus. Hmm.

Peter identifies as a missionary, and this coupled with USIC colonisation just made me so uncomfortable. I am not religious, but I am happy for people to believe what they believe, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone – and as long as they are not evangelical. Missionary work is by definition evangelism and it makes me uncomfortable and kind of annoyed too. It’s VERY colonial. The aliens are ‘simple’ and have a pre-industrial society, which means the way that even Peter (who is full of Christian agape love for them…) talks about them is just really patronising and superior. The whole thing is just really off-putting.

Peter is a very difficult central character – the depth of his dependence on religion immediately made it very hard for me to relate to him, and there wasn’t really anything I liked about him. He is trying to help the aliens, and they want to learn about Christianity, but the absolute conviction that what he is doing is right just really bothered me. He also neglects his relationship with Bea and she and their life on Earth become less and less real to him. Our planet suffers from a slew of natural disasters, and society in the UK starts to break down. Bea has a terrible time of it and reaches out to Peter, but all he can do is repeat some Bible verses to her when she needs real reassurance from her husband. He just becomes a cut-out priest. He doesn’t have much depth to be honest, and he loses a lot of humanity by the end of the book.

Let’s talk about the aliens. Some people call the planet Oasis, and so Peter calls the aliens Oasans. They are small, they wear hooded robes, gloves and boots, and have no eyes. They are intelligent but not very sophisticated, and frankly do seem what you might call tribal. They live a very simple life and don’t want any more. All this is fine, except it’s not very original. It would have been wonderful if the Oasans were either more strange and Other, or were more like us. Instead they are ‘poor simple folk’ that we must educate with Christianity. I just didn’t like any of it.

So, there you go. I could probably talk a lot more about this book, and there are a handful of things I liked. The descriptions of Oasis and its weird weather are excellent, as is the strange feeling Peter has of being disconnected from Bea, but also from the other people at USIC. He exists in a sort of bubble, and this is well conveyed. But I didn’t like Peter, or his mission, or much of the story. I know some people seem to really love this book, but it just wasn’t for me. The whole aliens/colonisation/imperial thing would have worked a lot better and been a lot more interesting if religion wasn’t such a big part of it. It just didn’t sit right with me, and I was glad when I finally finished this book. It’s way too long anyway.

*

First published by Canongate in 2014. I read the 2015 Canongate paperback (pictured above).

You can buy this book here from Foyles.

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14 thoughts on “In Which I Read The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber and Had Some OPINIONS About It”

    1. I’m pretty sure I have – I remember being unable to finish Midnight’s Children at uni as I just couldn’t get on with it. I almost gave up on this one, but I wanted to get to the end for some kind of closure, and to know what it was all for.

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    1. You’re welcome! It is gorgeous isn’t it? This is the ‘Bea’ cover, and there’s also a ‘Peter’ cover with the colours inverted and a male face looking the other way. Also gorgeous. Such a shame the book doesn’t match!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t really venture an opinion. But do you think it’s possibly a metaphor and critique of colonialism and missionaries in our own past?

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    1. That’s certainly possible. None of it seems very successful, and you wonder how much good it’s doing anyone. I also found it a bit weird and sad that this kind of religious mission would still exist so far in the future. There’s also the question of racism from the humans towards the aliens, which was a shame. This just added to the colonial feel.

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    1. You’re welcome! I do have some strong feelings about it, but a lot of people have also loved it. I suppose it’s a question of whether you are bothered by the missionary thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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