& Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. Fiction. Publisher: Hogarth

The Book Itself: I picked this ARC (current release date is October 28th, 2014) from the pile of ARCs at my work mostly because of this book’s somewhat gimmicky appeal: gold, gilt-edged pages, the kind you’d find on an old school Bible. That’s right, I picked it because it was shiny. I like the biblical and sci-fi allusions on the cover, too: the two halves of this book’s story.

Peter-devoted pastor, dedicated missionary, and loving husband to his wife, Bea-has just accepted a demanding and perilous new job. He’s to travel to a new planet, Oasis, to work for a mysterious corporation called USIC. He’s tasked with reaching out to the indigenous race, to make sure they are as peaceful as they seem. Resolutely devout and strengthened by his letters from Bea at home, Peter undertakes his job with complete focus. The Oasans are shockingly open to his teachings, but things start to unravel when Bea’s missives from Earth take a dark tone. Earth appears to be coming apart at the seams: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries and governments are crumbling. Even the hospital where she works has ceased to function. Their unearthly divide is testing Peter and Bea’s relationship to a startlingly degree. Peter is thrown into crisis. USIC might be hiding its true motives in developing Oasis, and the Oasans themselves are frustratingly opaque. Bea’s desperate letters are only fomenting his doubt. Peter is suddenly faced with an impossible-and dangerous-decision: to follow his faith, or follow his heart. His life depends on it.

Review:  If I were allowed only two words to describe this book, I’d use these: quietly powerful. Which is a little surprising, as I was somewhat expecting this to be more action-packed than it was, more dangerous. I was also (worriedly) expecting it to be more preachy. It turns out I am glad it was neither. I didn’t want a book that would try to convert me to religion. I wanted a story, not a sermon, in other words.

That quiet power comes not from Peter’s mysterious employer: USIC (why the heck he’d take a job with a company he knew nothing about that would require him to hyperjump into outer space and then make contact with an alien race and try to convert them to religion, not knowing if they were violent and/or dangerous is a mystery to me. Seriously, Peter, think these things through…). It comes not from the docile race of “Oasians” he encounters (who have conveniently already found Jesus, how about that). But from his wife, and the world he left behind. He can only communicate with her through monitored e-mails (USIC doesn’t allow videochatting or phone calls…this sounds like an awful, fishy gig, man…). And when the world around her starts to crumble, and she can’t communicate with him, and he is, let’s face it, a little removed and distracted by other things on another planet, she understandably gets a little shaken. She loses the faith that brought them together, and all he can do to reassure her is write some words on a screen. I found this to be a very modern, very believable problem – the impersonal feel of e-mail in the face of real problems, how a lack of real communication can test, even unravel a strong relationship.

The biggest event to happen in the book…I’m not going to tell you about. Because 1.) Hello spoilers, and 2.) It sounds inconsequential on paper, until you read about the characters and the slow fatigue of her faith and situation on Earth, and his lack of ability to empathize. The event itself is sad, but commonplace. But it is what happens because of the event, and how the news is delivered that really packs a punch. I was gutted by the climax, even though it wasn’t a huge event. I was gutted because of the emotions of the characters, and the bleak, eerie situation they found themselves in. Don’t you love when book reviews are intentionally vague so you can “enjoy the story”? Hate that.

So while some of the events the synopsis outlines do not explode out of the gate like you expect them to, it’s a great book. Wonderfully written. The only real missed opportunity is USIC – you have to suspend your disbelief about Peter actually taking the job. Conveniently, he feels called by God to help this alien race. Otherwise, if I were him, there’s no way I’d take a job from such a mysterious company. He doesn’t even get paid a truckload of money! And when you finally find out USIC’s true mission…it’s not that surprising. The clues are there from the beginning (from the synopsis of the book, really). USIC is not the huge looming crux of the story as it maybe should be. But I’m over it.

It’s an amazing book. Just don’t read it for scenes of action, for a fast-paced, typical sci-fi book. Read it for the well-built, slow tension and the characters and story that stay with you long after you close its gold gilt pages.

My Grade: A

Recommended:

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Wool by Hugh Howey

Wool by Hugh Howey

In The Poisonwood Bible, the protagonist, attempting to convert citizens in an African village to God, accidentally tells his constituents that Jesus is poisonwood (not the best angle). And Hugh Howey is just excellent. Read Wool if you like dystopian fiction at all.

 

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