Title: The Book Strange New Things
Author: Michel Faber
Genre: Science fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: ARC from the publisher
Number of pages: 512
First line: “I was going to say something,” he said.
Goodreads blurb: It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.
Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival. Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.
When I read the premise of The Book of Strange New Things, it immediately brought to mind one of my favorite books of all time, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. The premise is similar: Christian missionary to an alien planet. Of course, in Russell’s book, the missionary was a Jesuit, where in Faber’s, he is an evangelical. Really, the premise is similar in the most superficial of ways, but Faber has written his own book. I didn’t love it as much as I did The Sparrow, but it was still a very thought-provoking, engrossing read.
Peter is a tricky character. He is emotionally detached in a lot of ways, which is one of the reasons he was selected for the mission he is undertaking. There are so many issues at stake here: the humans and their relationship with the aliens, and whether or not they are exploiting them; Peter’s evolving faith; his changing relationship with his wife back on Earth, which he attempts to maintain via an email-like communication system. There was a particular element of the story, though, that particularly resonated with me, and that was the way Peter comes to see his faith and his mission in relation to his responsibility to his wife at home. As someone who grew up with a mother who went on missions trips and was very active in church ministry, sometimes to the detriment of those of us at home (in my opinion), this is a subject I have given much thought to. I have reconciled my mom’s choices the best way I know how, because I know she believes she was doing what God asked of her. I, however, have made different choices in how I choose to work out my faith and take part in church ministry while I still have children at home.
I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent there, but I was really struck by how Peter’s faith evolves during the course of the book, how he comes to terms with his mission to the Oasan people (the aliens), and with the decision he makes in light of his wife and what she is dealing with back on Earth. This would be a terrific book for a book club who likes to discuss issues of faith and family and philosophy.