The Book of Strange New Things?
by michel faber
?hogarth, 512 pages, $28
At last, someone has written the great interplanetary Christian missionary novel. Perhaps you weren’t aware that we were waiting for this. I certainly wasn’t, until reading British novelist Michel Faber’s new book. Set in the near future, the novel concerns the experiences of a onetime drug addict turned lefty Christian minister, an Englishman named Peter, who leaves behind his loving and faith-filled wife to accept a lucrative assignment from a shadowy American corporation called USIC: He travels to a distant planet to serve as pastor to its native population while the employees of that corporation work on various projects of opaque purpose.
Despite understandable misgivings, Peter’s keen for the assignment. “This was not Gethsemane: he wasn’t headed for Golgotha, he was embarking on a great adventure. . . . He’d been chosen out of thousands, to pursue the most important ministry calling since the Apostles had ventured forth to conquer Rome with the power of love, and he was going to do his best.”
After arriving on the new planet, which is called Oasis (so named by a little Midwestern girl through a feel-good what-do-we-call-it contest sponsored by USIC), Peter immerses himself in his new ministry. He stays in touch with his wife, Bea, through a high-end email service, which she uses in part to detail the economic, social, and ecological breakdown of life on Earth while he’s millions of miles away sharing the Good News with space aliens.
The premise of this book encourages you to expect a satire, or at least a book easy enough to satirize. But Faber has written this novel out of great sincerity. The result is a work of fiction that offers a singular rendering of what it means to share a religious faith across what would seem like dramatically unbridgeable divides. It’s also a novel in which God is more than merely a reference in the protagonist’s mind and heart.
Peter, who’s filled with a strong, warm, and joyful faith, perceives many subtle moments in his life and work at which he’s able to do more than he could on his meager own. This doesn’t mean God intervenes with Cecil B. DeMille grandiosity. Instead, Faber describes God calming Peter’s worries and filling him with courage to carry out the mission before him.
The locals, called Oasans, are small-framed, upright beings who wear simple cloaks and live in mud brick dwellings“the Middle East in the Middle Ages,” as Peter explains in one letter home. Shy, capable of limited English, they are relatively few in number, given the size of the rocky planet whose single days and nights take seventy-two hours each. The Oasans harvest a crop called whiteflower, which serves as the base for all food on the planet. They trade it to the humans working for USIC, who can’t figure out how to grow it for themselves. In return, they receive pharmaceuticals.
But what they really want, it turns out, is Jesus. Peter is a replacement pastor: After evangelizing a small but fervent group of the locals, his predecessor disappeared, under unclear circumstances. Neither the aliens nor USIC’s local employees will tell Peter anything about what happened to the old pastor. But both sides agree a new one is needed, as soon as possible.
Hollywood has conditioned us to expect that any story involving a Christian minister, a major corporation, or space aliensnever mind all threemust eventually be revealed as a story of hypocrisy, greed, and evil. Faber declines to take this easy tack. Instead, he takes a purposefully plain approach. There’s no terrible story behind the pastor’s disappearance, and the larger human settlement has no secret military component or dastardly corporate agenda driving it. USIC’s base is basically a suburban industrial park complex with an intergalactic address, where highly skilled people perform abstruse functions with advanced widgets and otherwise kill time in the cafeteria and the gym.
All of this makes it possible for us to experience the true shock of the book alongside Peter, upon his first meeting his new flock, a shock that he conveys to Bea via one of his many letters home: “I have had my first meeting with an Oasan native. Contrary to my wildest hopes . . . they are hungry for Christ. They know of the Bible. . . . I suppose I assumed that the first visit would be basically reconnaissance, and that the response would be negative. But as Jesus says in John 4, ‘Say not ye, There are yet four months before the harvest; behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes and look upon the fields, for they are ripe already!’”
Thereafter, Peter experiences little but joy and excitement in the work before him. The Oasans are keen to hear about Christianity and long for their own copies of the Bible, which they call the “Book of Strange New Things.” They also build a church in their settlement to evangelize their own people.
Meanwhile, two human factors, one near, and one far off, challenge the intensity of Peter’s missionary happiness. Near him are people like Grainger, the USIC base’s resident pharmacist, who drives him back and forth to the Oasan settlement while she exchanges pharmaceuticals for whiteflower. Like the rest of the ragtag, rough-and-ready, polyglot smack-talking crew working on this planet, she has left a bruising past behind her on Earth. She’s reflexively post-religious and openly mistrustful of the Oasans, disgusted by their physical appearance when it isn’t cloaked (best read directly in Faber’s graphic and even disturbing descriptions).
Along with the other USIC employees, she believes that Peter’s on a holy fool’s errand, fulfilling a corporate relations strategy by treating weird little space alienswhom Peter calls “Jesus Lovers,” rather than any of the more disparaging names used by other humanslike they are fellow persons capable of a belief that most humans have abandoned. Peter does his best to push back against this skepticism, which Faber uses to introduce theological dilemmas, like whether the benign Oasans are capable of sinning, and therefore of being redeemed by Christ.
Meanwhile, his wife struggles back home. Bea is spiritually, psychologically, and even physically imperiled by the deteriorating conditions of the world. She writes of this movingly while expressing her happiness in Peter’s comparatively easy life. Through these exchanges Faber reveals afresh the capacities and limits of an epistolary relationship. Peter and Bea share joy and grief but also suffer misunderstanding of tone and intent. The correspondence is punctured, late in the novel, by a short, shocking message that Peter receives from Bea after returning from one of his typically rewarding sojourns with the Oasans: “There is no God,” she writes.
So much has gone wrong on Earth by this point, we are unsurprised to count Bea’s faith among the casualties. At the same time, every experience Peter has had on Oasis affirms the remarkable and unexpected power and reach of God’s presence. Thus Peter finds himself pulled in opposite directions. He must decide whether to stay on with the adoring alien Jesus Lovers or return to a near-apocalyptic Earth to rescue his wife from despair and much else. In setting his course, Faber’s protagonist takes difficult but necessary encouragement in Christ’s words, quoted from Matthew’s Gospel near the end of this brilliant and beguiling book: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Randy Boyagoda’s biography of Richard John Neuhaus is published by Image Books.