NOVEMBER 10, 2014
DESPITE INVOLVING GLOBAL apocalypse, planetary colonization, and an evangelical mission to preach to aliens, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is not the work of revelations that its title suggests. Nor is it the boy’s own tale implied by Faber’s chapter headings such as “Forty minutes later he was up in the sky”, “He would never see other humans the same way again”, and “His whole life had been leading up to this”. Rather, these elements of the novel are part of the subtle weave of layers that comprise Faber’s characteristically seductive narrative of faith, desire, and love set on a dysfunctional twenty-first century Earth and the recently-discovered planet, Oasis, which, despite its name, is composed of desert with no standing water.
On one level, this is the story of the experiences of recovered alcoholic Peter Leigh, an evangelical Christian minister in London who has been recruited by a multinational corporation, USIC (he never does find out what the letters stand for), to preach to the indigenous inhabitants of Oasis, and the effect that being away has on his relationship with his wife Bea. We first encounter Peter on the way to Heathrow Airport, next briefly as he is driven to Cape Canaveral, and then start following him more continuously from the point when he is aroused from the “Jump” through hyperspace by a couple of engineers, BG and Severin, whom it is possible to imagine as the characters played by Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton in Ridley Scott’s Alien. Following some difficulty in acclimatizing to Oasis, Peter meets the native Oasans, who have relocated their settlement away from the USIC base, and learns that The Book of Strange New Things is their name for the King James version of the Bible. Soon he is spending periods of time living with them and learning their ways while leading them in the building of a church.
These sequences are interspersed with his return trips to the base, where he reads letters from Bea and interacts awkwardly with his fellow humans. This narrative structure inevitably results in a set of comparisons between the three social systems and the different principles by which they are organized: the faith and religion of Peter and the Oasans; the scientific and engineering values of the base; and the chaos of laissez-faire capitalism in decay reflected by Bea’s news from London. The bare bones of this plot and its superficially schematic structure, as well as the fact that the details of the space flight and base on Oasis draw on well-known film representations, might perhaps suggest an ill-fated foray into the realms of speculative fiction by an established writer with insufficient knowledge of the range of science fiction. However, Faber is skilful at implying the strangeness and newness of all he describes, including our world as it is destroyed by climate change, and the sense of a broadly science fictional outlook permeates the whole. It is a nice touch when he refers in his “Acknowledgments” to the enjoyment he has been given as a child and ever since by Marvel Comics; and all the surnames for characters in the novel are taken from Marvel writers, pencillers and inkers of the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, on reading The Book of Strange New Things it rapidly becomes apparent that Faber is playing knowingly with the genre conventions and allusions that he so carefully invokes.
For example, early in the novel Peter recalls the long process of screening that he had to endure while his psychological suitability for the mission was being established. Following various questions about the smells of his childhood, tendency to irritability, attitudes to politics and social media, he is introduced to the following scenario:
“You visit a foreign city and your hosts invite you out for dinner. The restaurant they take you to is pleasant and lively. There’s a large transparent enclosure of cute white ducklings running around behind their mother. Every few minutes, a chef grabs one of the ducklings into a vat of boiling oil. When it’s fried, it gets served up to the diners and everyone is happy and relaxed. Your hosts order duckling and say you should try it, it’s fantastic. What do you do?”
The reference here is to another Scott film, Blade Runner, and the Voight-Kampff test applied to determine whether someone is a human or a replicant. Peter’s response is to raise issues of context, note that pigs are much more intelligent than birds, and finally argue that it he is more interested in the need for humans to treat each other humanely rather than animals because human beings “suffer so much more than ducks.” Ironically, this response would have caused him to fail the test in the film but Faber’s use of the allusion has more sophisticated and long-lasting consequences for the story he is narrating. For the more we find out about the USIC employees and their behaviour in the base on Oasis, the more we begin to suspect that they have all failed the Voight-Kampff test and are devoid of a sense of empathy and other basic human attributes. All they seem to do outside of their duties is sit around and read leisure magazines or work out at the gym. Peter gets increasingly frustrated by encounters in the canteen, which is subjected to a constant diet of “classic” Bing Crosby songs, in which he fails to elicit any meaningful response to the news of various global catastrophes and disasters that he learns about from Bea’s letters. As Grainger, the base pharmacist, who transports Peter back and forth from the Oasans, finally admits in a burst of suppressed rage, ‘We’re all friendly aren’t we? Pussycats … Fucked-up pussycats. With their balls cut off.’ In contrast, both Peter’s experiences with the Oasans, in participating in collective activities such as building the church and bringing in the harvest, and his often painful exchanges with Bea highlight how his faith and love force him into meaningful reciprocal interactions with others. Therefore, by invoking the Voight-Kampff test and the question of empathy, Faber is not indulging in referencing popular culture for the sake of postmodern style but making a point that humanity is not the property of a particular species but the expression of a mode of living meaningfully in the universe, which applies as much to the Oasans as to anyone from Earth. Reading The Book of Strange New Things reminds one that the novel on which Blade Runner is based, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, also highlights organized faith — in the form of “Mercerism”— as a key component of its central interrogation of what it means to be human.
At first we believe, as do Peter and Bea, that there was only sufficient funding to send Peter alone to Oasis from Earth, but, eventually, Grainger points out to Peter that the initial meeting with USIC which the couple both attended was in fact the first round of screening and that Bea must have failed at that stage. Unlike the permanently unruffled USIC staff, Bea does react to situations emotionally and it is through her often angry letters to Peter that we learn of the series of cataclysmic events sweeping Earth over a period of weeks, including a tsunami in the Maldives, an earthquake in North Korea, and a volcanic eruption in Guatemala. This method of narration allows Faber to describe apocalypse without in any way representing it as a voyeuristic spectacle. Bea gets angry with Peter for his lack of reaction to these events but also for what she feels is his lack of attention to her emotional needs. By entwining their relationship with the general problem of the lack of affect in the world (and beyond), the novel highlights a gendered dimension to the question of the condition of humanity with which it is centrally preoccupied. We are alerted to this dimension at the beginning of the book, which opens with Peter’s observation in the car that “the world looks nicer with man-made lights”. For him, the world does indeed look nicer when displayed for the male gaze, but Bea disturbs his enjoyment of this perspective by insisting that they stop and make love in the car. She is not content with being one among many objects of his visual pleasure but rather wants to feel her own pleasure in being an object in her own right : ‘“I don’t want to be wonderful,” she said. “I want you inside me.’ By giving voice to her desires, she breaks the frame of reference for both of them so that Peter suddenly experiences the world around him differently and realizes “that reality was not objective”. This might only be a momentary break in perspective — in fact, Peter immediately subsumes it into a safe evangelical Christian narrative of the need to get people to grasp that they can change their lives by discovering God — but this scene foreshadows the long struggle of the novel as a whole to break free of a male frame of reference. In this respect, for all the obvious differences of period, The Book of Strange New Things is similar to Faber’s huge neo-Victorian novel of 2002, The Crimson Petal and the White, which also focuses on faith and desire in order to foreground gender divisions and challenge the patriarchal order.
Gender is estranged in two particular ways during the scenes set on Oasis. First, Peter has real problems in placing the female staff members at the base according to his own systems of classification, due to their tendency to have short haircuts and wear androgynous work clothes. He makes mental notes to himself about their sexuality, such as “she was heterosexual despite her butch appearance”. Two thirds of the way into the novel, he finally works out what he thinks is wrong with the whole set-up and this is that it is overwhelmingly male: “The women don’t rock the boat, they don’t try to feminize the place, they just adjust their natures to fit in.” However, Grainger has already told him that the problem is not the absence of “real” women and she might be expected to know better than him. While Bea assumes that the Alex Grainger who writes to her to inform her of the safe arrival of her husband is a man, and is extremely annoyed with Peter when she finds out that this is not the case, Peter also finds his attitude to Grainger changing across the novel as he comes to notice her beauty and then her body in a sequence when the two are stranded together after their vehicle is struck by lightning. Yet, in defiance of conventional plotlines, their relationship is never consummated and its significance lies in helping Peter recognize that he is a sexual being who can exist for others rather than merely an inhabitant of the subject position of the male gaze. The other main locus of gender confusion in the novel are the Oasans, who remain politely but implacably unforthcoming on this topic with respect to themselves. Peter, therefore, exists in a continual state of uncertainty which he relieves by designating gender to individual Oasans – who have helpfully labelled themselves numerically from Jesus Lover One upwards – based on whim because he is “unwilling to clutter his brain with unwieldy repetitions of ‘he or she.’” Unsurprisingly, he forms his strongest relationship with an Oasan he takes to be female, Jesus Lover Five, and this functions within the novel as the counterpart to the relationships with Bea and Grainger. However, at their final meeting in the novel, when he confesses his favouritism, she replies “I know but God has no favourites” and goes on to say farewell to him with the words: “I will always be your brother.” This does not necessarily imply a plot twist that Lover Five is in fact biologically male; it might also be interpreted both as her way of indicating resistance to being included within his male frame of reference and as part of a more general objection by the Oasans to being slotted into the patriarchal order in general.
Throughout the novel, there is always the slight hint that something is wrong and that any moment might reveal a sinister side to the USIC project. However, nothing of this sort emerges and Peter eventually learns that he is not on Oasis because USIC are using him as part of a classical nineteenth-century colonial project but because the Oasans forced his recruitment by refusing to supply food to the base until they had a pastor. The nearest thing to a real plot twist in the novel is that their faith turns out to be stronger than his. What he sometimes refers to as his “grand adventure” proves to be no more than a boy’s own tale as he comes to realize that developmentally he remains a child compared with the long-suffering women who enact the roles of mother, wife, and friend who are required to support his reckless and unreflective existence: “When it came down to it, it was not Jesus but these women on whose mercy he threw himself, and who must finally decide if he had gone too far.” Viewed from this transfigured perspective, the awkwardness and unease of Oasis is that of a society in need of a different mode of symbolic organisation from that of the Earth. Tentative steps are being made in this direction as indicated by the water-catching plant that is being constructed, consisting of two large concave superstructures, which is nick-named the “Big Brassiere”. Early in the novel, Peter simply dismisses a talk he hears on the Big Brassiere by Hayes, a woman with a “military-style masculine haircut” for being too “deadly earnest”. Yet, her argument that they should change the informal name of the building to the “Mother” is actually a foreshadowing of the concluding feminist logic of the novel. It is not incidental that the key female characters in the novel, Bea and Grainger, work in the medical profession as respectively a nurse and a pharmacist.
One reason that we finish the novel remaining optimistic about the maintenance of good relations with the Oasans is that contact is now in the hands of the base nurse, Flores, who promises that she will find out how their biology works and therefore how to treat them for injuries. For we have finally learnt that what distinguishes the Oasans from Earth humans is their inability to recover from physical wounds. Hence their desire to learn the way of Jesus, so that they can be healed. In their understandable focus on bodily being, the Oasans share a common ground with the work-out orientated personnel of the USIC base that suggests the possibility, at least, of a lasting peaceful and productive accommodation. Ultimately, as Peter realises, we cannot fault the USIC staff for choosing to move beyond Earth concerns. As BG says, “I faced all the reality I got to face.” While The Book of Strange New Things is a novel that will retain its strangeness and newness over repeated readings, it is the sixth word of that title which promises the possibility of a future for humanity beyond the Earth-based patriarchal order.