Peter and Bea are a loving couple, spending every moment and thought together as they minister to the congregation that Peter is pastor of. Peter’s past is spotty at best, and he credits Bea for pulling him out of his spiralling issues with addiction and petty theft, replacing it with an unshakeable love for Jesus. But this bond is about to wrenched apart for the first time as Peter prepares for a long voyage to minister to a new audience a world away. His new congregation will be a group of nomadic aliens, light years away from earth. The large multinational corporation USIC is footing the bill, and has established a base on the planet with a bewildering amount of technology being sent to the surface. Quite why Peter has been summoned to Oasis baffles the both of them, until it is revealed to him that the native aliens had been withholding food until they were sent a new pastor. That the aliens were so single-minded about hearing about Jesus should have worried him, but he brushes aside any unease at his joy in finding a flock so eager to learn from him.
Peter slowly loses himself in the Oasan’s world, spending his spare time translating phrases from the Bible into simplified and metaphor-free statements for the literal-minded aliens. But while he finds his work a joy and slowly becomes obsessed with immersing himself in the culture, Bea’s life is slowly falling apart. Although the USIC base on Oasis is a calm space devoid of any antagonism or strong emotion, back on Earth things are getting worse. Ecological disasters rain down like plagues, food is scarce and people are beginning to feel unsafe in their homes. Peter tries to empathise with this, but finds it all so alien from his day to day life that he either ends up offering useless platitudes or getting so caught up that he forgets to reply to his wife, opening a previously unseen crack in their close-knit marriage and blowing it wide open into a chasm. The near-apocalyptic messages sent from such a great distance seem to pale with the everyday homespun details of his work with the locals as they build a church, harvest crops and learn from handwritten pamphlets.
Peter and Bea are wonderfully realised characters, coming to life through the letters they send through space and how each of them reacts to the strain they are under. Peter’s attempts to ingratiate himself with both the USIC staff and his new church are believable even in such an odd setting, and you begin to understand just why he was chosen by the corporation. Peter an Bea’s relationship is the spine of this novel, and you can see how they are both perfect for each other and how they differ in significant ways. It’s a love story in space, with all the darkness and heart wrenching moments that go along with such a concept.
Faith plays a big part in the novel, whether it’s the blinkered by-the-book belief that Peter holds or the gradual disintegration of Bea’s trust in a loving god. It is very even-handed, never treating Peter as an object of ridicule, rather presenting him as a very open man who deeply cares about spreading what he perceives as the truth to as many people as possible, even if this happens at the detriment of his own relationships. The same goes for Bea’s slow route to disbelief, as the book does not condemn or celebrate either atheism or religion, but casts them both in the same light. I grew up in a deeply religious family, before disavowing it as a teenager, and Peter represents much of the side of Christianity I can respect. He’s a caring and thoughtful man, not prone to cheap proselytising, instead trying to be there for people, even those that have no interest in his beliefs.
At its core, as many brilliant science-fiction books are, The Book of Strange New Thingsis not about the alien, but the human experiences. This is a totally absorbing and affecting novel, and as the pages turn and things feel ever more fraught, you can’t help but empathise with the plight of the couple as communication breaks down and their worlds feel ever further apart. Science-fiction often has the tendency to revel in the scope of other worlds and the myriad scientific advancements the human race will have made – occasionally losing readers in a sea of jargon and forced tech-speak. The Book of Strange New Things is much more humble and pensive, casting a world that we already know and then subtly shifting things. We recognise from countless films and books the shady multi-national corporation with its secret objective, and the primitive tribe with the heart of gold and a deep message to teach the technologically advanced intruders – but Faber takes us to a different place and uses these tropes to look at different subjects. Although shot-through with bleak moments, the final quarter of the book is a stunning examination of people coming to terms with their own selfishness and a revealing dark joke about what human beings really need and turn to faith for. It’s superbly written, and is practically guaranteed to give you plenty to chew over in the days following the pages closing.