To me this feels like it’s solidly in the best tradition of sci-fi – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931) or Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow from 1996.
When Peter Leigh, ex-addict but now happily married Christian minister of probably the finest kind, is accepted for a job with USIC on a tiny and very distant planet called Oasis he’s not aware of all he signed up for. He was hired to be the Christian minister to the indigenous population – the request comes from the natives themselves. What he thinks is that he will be bringing them the message of Christ – their first contact with the religion. But he finds that some of the natives almost worship a book they call The Book of Strange New Things, which is our Bible.
The Book of Strange New Things
by Michael Faber
2014 / 528 pages
read by Josh Cohen 19h 27m
rating – A++ (literary sci-fi)
Leaving his wife Bea is hard as she will miss him dreadfully. But he looks forward to the mission with excitement, so she has to let go. Although they are millions of miles apart – light years – they will be able to communicate through letters delivered via a new technology calle dthe “Shoot.”
What he finds when he gets to the main USIC station is not exactly heartening. The other crew members are somewhat jaded, everying costs some of the money he planned on saving for a life with Bea, and they are apparently watched carefully for many things including insanity. So they’re very work oriented and professional for the most part and they’re kind of in charge of themselves.
The natives, who are very strangely formed and fragile, live in their own community where they raise food for the USIC group in exchange for medicine which they don’t have. They’re bright and as mentioned have had contact with Christianity before – from a prior minister who apparently disappeared. The natives Peter gets to know are called Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Five, Jesus Lover 48, etc. and they’re very receptive to everything Peter tells them – like they already live something like that. Peter enjoys them, builds a church, tries to learn their language, wants to live with them, but then …
“Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: Even more, it resembled a placenta with two fetuses — maybe 3-month-old twins, hairless and blind — nestled head to head, knee to knee. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted forehead, so to speak; their puny ribbed backs formed his cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged in a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain — in some form unrecognizable to him — a mouth, nose, eyes.”
Meanwhile, 21st century Earth is undergoing severe climate changes resulting in quite a lot of chaos. Bea is trying to cope with this alone but it’s really, really rough. And then …
Faber writes very well – as he showed in the award-winning “The Crimson Petal and the White,” which I read long ago. He writes better than most science fiction authors – the ones who stick to gizmos and ideas but don’t pay much attention to literary qualities. That’s not a prerequisite for good science fiction, imo. I’m just mentioning it. Specifically, Faber develops the major characters more fully and the dialogue is realistic. The descriptive passages contain nice adjectives and metaphors. Tension is carefully built and balanced between several scenarios – the USIC camp, the Oasis native community and the Earth with Bea.
I really hope there’s a sequel.
*********** SPOILERS ETC. ************
Peter’s name is obviously symbolic – St. Peter is supposedly the foundation of the Christian (Catholic) church on earth.
It seems as though life on Oasis mirrors some things on Earth – Bea gets pregnant and the heads of the Oasans look like fetuses. As Earth falls apart in so many ways – from trash pick-up and crime to political, economic and environmental crises, so too does the relationship of Bea and Peter.