In my experience, there are two major kinds of sci-fi stories to be told. One is an action story. Think Battlefield Earth, Princess of Mars, or Dune. The driving force is the things that happen, the rising tension, potential sabotage, the question of whether or not the protagonist will finally defeat the big bad bugs with their own laser guns or go down in a blaze of glory.
The other kind is a thinking story. Examples here are Speaker for the Dead, or even Frankenstein. In these kinds of books, there isn’t so much action driving the reader on, it’s an intellectual understanding, an investigation into the human condition viewed through an external lens. As such, it may offer elements of introspection that action stories cannot, and should not be asked about.
The Book of Strange New Things falls into the second category. In this story, Michel Faber has transplanted a naïve, if well-intentioned, Christian minister named Peter from some generic English Presbytery to the far-off planet of Oasis. While there, Peter is to be the chaplain to two groups of individuals: the residents of the USIC base on Oasis, and the native Oasans themselves.
This is not an action story. It is a story about relationships: Peter’s relationship with USIC: a for-profit company doing whatever it can to salvage an investment, thus their recruitment of Peter. The relationship between USIC and the Oasans: who is dependent on whom in this situation? Who profits? And at what cost or at what critical threshold? Peter’s relationship to the Oasans, who view him as, not necessarily a savior, but as someone who can finally help them understand the Book of Strange New Things, which, strangely enough to Peter, is the Bible, because, news flash! They already had a chaplain before, and where is he now?
This is a story about Peter’s relationship with his left-behind wife, Beatrice. It is a story about one-dimensional relationships, about one-dimensional communications, about censorship and the internal mental gymnastics we go through (but never actually reveal) when communicating with people we care for. Or don’t.
This is a story about Peter’s relationship with God, or his image of God, or his ideal of God. Peter is a broken man – by his own admission, he comes from a hard life, of drugs, of sex, of lawbreaking. But God cleaned him up, saved him, gave him purpose and a wife and a church, and now God has given him a mission, so he will, by golly, do everything he can for that mission, even if it means he must sacrifice his own self and his prior commitments, and rationality be buggered.
To be honest, I didn’t quite know where this book was going most of the time. A lot remains undefined, like what USIC stands for, how the Oasis environment would have allowed the ecosystem to develop, or even things often described in sci-fi like the “first contact” experience and subsequent information transfer. Many of these are just taken for granted, and, while I suppose the author thinks they aren’t critical to the story, I found myself just confused at times.
In terms of style, I will admit that the initial impression I got was of a very nice, very safe style. Something warm and comforting. You know how you read a book and you often have a narrator in your head, a voice that you hear reading the words to you? [If you don’t, just play along.] For the first 2/3 of this book, I could not hear anything but Winnie the Pooh reading to me. For some reason the tone just struck me as unassuming, a reserved “Oh bother” type of narration. It did change a bit near the latter part, but perhaps that was because I had experienced enough of Peter to start to hear the narrator in a more masculine voice.
Anyway – I’ll give this book 4 of 5 stars. Interesting ideas, good for a read now, one that I didn’t want to stop reading and stayed up late to finish, but not something I’ll read again or buy to have on my bookshelf. Read if you wish; I’d love to have a discussion.