If I have a literary weakness, it’s for stories about the improbable. Not the impossible — because really, how exasperating — but for things cast far out into weirdness with just enough realism and humanity winking at the edges that I start believing it could, maybe, just maybe, be real. Michel Faber in The Book of Strange New Things (which EW reviewed here) has done just this. It twisted and bent my mind around an alternate universe, the apocalyptic demise of a near-future Earth, and the small, robed aliens waiting for humans on the other side. It also happens to be full of meditations on relationships, religion, and the power of love.
Our protagonist Peter Leigh is a reformed addict who has found God. He is chosen for a special, highly mysterious mission by a special, highly mysterious organization called USIC. At first, I honestly thought he was leaving England, his wife Beatrice, and his cat for a destitute region elsewhere on earth that needed the Gospel. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t be able to talk to his wife (because, Skype?) or how real his fear of death was. Then they were pumping his veins full of a pudding-like substance to subdue him for the month-long trip across the stars towards the barren planet Oasis where he would be greeted by a community of aliens with faces akin to brains.
Safe to say, I underestimated Faber there.
“The Book of Strange New Things” is how these creatures refer to the Bible. They already know and respect it — they even fear mentioning its name in an odd Voldemort/He Who Must Not Be Named-way, and USIC’s need for Peter to be present on this mission only grows as he settles into the barren USIC base. His mission teammates are all experts, the experts, in their respective field and have personalities as sterile as their shared environment. Very little humanity walks those hallways, and no one will tell Peter what happened to his predecessor.
As Earth falls apart below (or…next to?) him and his experiences grow increasingly odd, communication with Bea dissolves. How do they tell each other of their experiences? What from their prior world can they ground their tales in? Cracks form. The relationship bends — and threatens to break. The dive back into human relationship begins.
If you struggle with sci-fi, there’s a good chance I’ve failed at convincing you to pick up a copy. But you still should. Between the aliens and spaceships and odd pudding-like drug injections and hurtling through space with a band of misfits, there is a very delicate, very pointed conversation about people and our relationships (romantic, platonic, and religious) under pressure. It’s a novel of enchantment, an alarmingly tender dirge, that I think everyone just might love.