Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Could you not get enough of C. S. Lewis's Space trilogy? Do you feel that there isn't enough theologically-infused science fiction in the world? Well then, do I have a book recommendation for you!

Peter lives with his wife Bea in England of the not too distant future. Very suddenly, Peter is approached by an American corporation to join an interplanetary expedition to planet Oasis. Apparently the natives have asked, nay demanded, the presence of a Christian priest on their planet. Deciding that the exorbitant salary Peter would be paid is enough offset the hardship of being a separated from Bea, Peter agrees to the journey.

The novel functions well on two levels in particular. Peter and Bea are extraordinarily well-developed characters, and Faber deftly shows their relationship struggle through the protracted separation while deftly weaving in bits of its formation. Any person who has struggled through being connected to their loved one only via email during a period of separation will relate to Peter and Bea's trials.

The plot is also well constructed. The setup suggests a number of questions, the answers to which are appropriately hinted at as the novel progresses: Why are the aliens on Oasis demanding the presence of a Christian preacher? Are USIC corporation's motives wholly altruistic, or are they up to something more malign? The resolution to these conundrums satisfied this reader.

From what I know of readers interested in “hard” science fiction (which I decidedly am not), I imagine that The Book of Strange New Things will offer up a bevy of nits to pick. Details of plant and animal life on planet Oasis, as well as the convenient elision of the details of interplanetary travel without time dilation, and on and on. Such elements do not bother me, especially in a book where science is meant to take a backseat to philosophical and theological concerns.

What did bother me was when the Oasis-as-heaven metaphor became heavy handed. Toward the end of the book, Bea begins openly referring to Oasis as being “up there” in her emails to Peter. I also found the behavior of the human inhabitants of the Oasis space station somewhat questionable. Some credibility may have been sacrificed for this metaphor as well.

All in all, The Book of Strange New Things is a strong novel with rich characters and which explores vibrant ethical, philosophical, and theological concerns. I highly recommend it.