Can a marriage be saved even if you are doing God’s will and serving him to the best of your ability?
That is the main question I took from reading The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. It’s an interesting question that the novel tries to answer. I’m glad this was my choice for the first read and review of the new year. After reading this novel, I can already write that it will be one of the novels I will reflect on and think about often in 2015.
The Book of Strange New Things centers around Peter Leigh, an evangelical pastor from England and his wife, Beatrice whom he calls Bea. Peter has been recruited by USIC, a NASA-like organziation, to join a space colony where his primary mission is to be a minister to the Oasans, an alien race that lives on the same colony.
Beatrice is left behind in England and Peter vows to stay in contact with her throughout his entire time on the space colony. He is able read and write letters electronically with his wife and those letters are the heart of the novel. Those letters go from excitement to despair throughout the book and brought the aforementioned question at the beginning of the review to mind.
I’m married and Christian and while reading The Book of Strange New Things made me think about those believers who go on missionary trips from the States to Africa or Asia or even South America and have to leave behind their spouses. Can doing God’s work create division in a marriage and even tear it apart?
I will be pondering that question for the rest of 2015 and years to come. The Book of Strange New Things shows the power of fiction being able to raise the important questions without being preachy or coming to a one-size-fits all conclusion. This novel while having a science-fiction exterior actually has an interior of faith, love, and marriage.
I highly recommend this thought-provoking, spiritual, and metaphysical novel and believe it should be the choice of book clubs for years to come.
When the story opens up, Peter Leigh and his wife Bea are on their way to Heathrow. They are a devout Christian couple, and they share a very close relationship. They have their own ministry near London, but they were both interviewing for a job that would take them to a distant world, a faraway planet, to be missionaries there, but the company, USIC, hires only Peter. His wife is not accepted for any position, although she is also a well trained nurse. She must remain behind in Britain, and as their separation looms, Bea becomes sad, though she wants him to have this wonderful opportunity. She won’t see him for at least a year and can only hope he survives “the jump” to the new distant world that USIC is attempting to colonize.
Peter has been chosen to minister to a group of aliens that live in Oasis, a place that derived its name in a contest. The aliens are called Oasans by Peter, although other members of USIC who live at the base camp call them by names that are less flattering. Peter needs time to acclimate to this new environment, but he wants very much to start his mission. He discovers that a group of them call themselves Jesus Lovers and they worship The Book of Strange New Things, which is actually what we call the Bible, so his job is easier than he thought it would be. As he begins to minister to the Oasans, he realizes that he is losing touch with his former life and even his memories begin to fade. He finds it easier to minister to this flock than he did to his human flock back home. They do not seek comfort or ask much of G-d, save for the word of G-d, the stories in the book.
From this planet, there is only one way to communicate with those back on Earth, and that is through something called the Shoot. Peter types his messages on his end, and they are sent through space to Bea. She has a machine in their apartment so that she can easily communicate with him. Peter soon discovers that he is not as good with the written word as he is with the spoken one. He writes less and less often and Bea becomes concerned and then angry.
Peter describes the Oasans as looking like fetuses and, ironically, Bea discovers she is pregnant. Although he finds it very easy to identify with the needs of the Oasans, he finds it harder to empathize with the needs of his wife. He is just too far away and becomes more and more detached from her. Bea is going through a difficult time, but Peter seems unable to identify with her needs and seems unaware or unconcerned with her struggles.
As Peter explores his new world, Bea’s world is under siege. The weather and the economy are on the attack. As conditions in her world deteriorate, conditions in his world seem to satisfy his every need. As he builds a church with his followers, his own church back home begins to fail. Big businesses fail, the National Health Care system loses its paying patients as they flee to private doctors, foodstuffs and water become scarce as natural disasters rise in number and scale causing widespread damage and death. The police are unable or unwilling to offer much support and public safety is at a premium. As Peter happily moves in with the Oasans, Bea must consider moving as well, out of their apartment to a safer location. It would be a sacrifice, since they would lose touch with each other. She could not take her Shoot with her. Bea’s world is dealing with many of the same problems our world faces today, but they have grown extreme in her world. Many believe the world is nearing its end.
As the story progressed, Peter made so many excuses for his errant behavior, often using G-d in his answer, that it became tiresome. I began to wonder if he was beginning to think of himself as G-d, or definitely G-d’s emissary. His name was obviously symbolic. Was he Peter, the rock upon which Jesus would build his church? He and the Oasans do build a church together. The Oasans loved their Book of Strange New Things. They loved the stories and they accepted the word of G-d without question. They required no long winded explanations and gave none in answer to questions. If they were asked what they thought of the future, they simply thought a moment and might reply something like this: we are here now, this is now; that is later.
This book is read by a very talented reader. His expression is pitch perfect, however, his attempts to speak in the alien tongue, while noble, seemed tortured and a little inane, after awhile. Speaking of which, I have an audio and a written copy. As in the audio version, the alien language is distracting. The alteration in the spelling of the words, with symbols interspersed, is uncomfortable for the eye, as the tortured expression of the alien words by the reader, is sometimes uncomfortable for the ear.
The story is really imaginative. It is not the same old, same old book that one finds on shelves today, but it is also not for everyone. You have to suspend disbelief to read this fantasy about our world’s destruction and the attempt to populate another world. The book is grounded in the New Testament, so perhaps an understanding of the Christian Bible would be helpful. The reader will wonder if USIC is trying to create an alternate universe to save the world or to create a place so they can abandon Earth. The story demands that we question our own lifestyles and world; it will make the reader wonder if we here on Earth are headed for the same disastrous end. Was greed the impetus for the world’s chaotic situation? Was it irresponsibility that caused the downfall of the economic system and health care system? I wondered if Peter was more devoted to the aliens than his wife. Would their faith sustain Peter and Bea?
It sure feels like this is going to be book one in a series of several. Perhaps the next one will cover Peter’s return home and his search for and reunion with, Bea and his child. Will there be a third book covering the brave new world they forge together after the world as we know it finally collapses?
Lovers of science fiction, perhaps people of faith, and environmentalists should latch onto and love “The Book of Strange New Things”.