LitStack Recs: The Drifters & The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel FaberBook of Strange New Things

It’s hard to describe Michel Faber’s newest novel The Book of Strange New Things. It’s a science fiction book, set in the not so entirely distant future, partially unfolding in a distant galaxy, and yet while it is filled with otherworldly things, it is not all that outlandish. Even though religion plays a major role in the book, it is not a faith-based story, not really. And there are no explosions – not that we see, anyway. But it’s still a brilliant book, surprisingly delicate and strangely disturbing in equal measures.

The main character, Peter, is a drug addict turned pastor, chosen to travel for a multi-year contract to the USIC corporate campus on a planet in an entirely different galaxy. He leaves behind on Earth his beloved and incredibly down to earth wife, sensual and worldly Beatrice. He hasn’t been recruited to bring succor to USIC employees, but to bring the word of the Gospel to the indigenous population – which, for some reason, he is given scant information. In fact, he’s not given much information about anything, including what’s happening back on Earth. If it weren’t for Bea’s “letters” to him, he wouldn’t know that the Earth is on the edge of economic and societal collapse, brought on by escalating climatic disasters and massive disruptions of the global infrastructure.

So you hear this scenario and you think to yourself, “Man separated for years from his wife back at home – bound to be some issues with fidelity, or at least temptations. And a man brought in to placate – or infiltrate – an indigenous population with religion? Must be some attempt to wrest control of the natives, or at least an excuse for colonization or even indoctrination, right? And a corporation set up to utilize a planet that operates under a lack of communication? There has to be corporate manipulation here, malfeasance at the least, some kind of nefarious profit-mongering agenda, surely.” These are the tropes we’ve come to expect.

Wrong, wrong and wrong. There is a glance at these token plot motifs, but merely because we expect them – to not have them at least nodded at would feel disingenuous. But they do not supply the gist of the story. What The Book of Strange New Things is really about is relationships: new and strange relationships as a constant, the toll of being physically close but emotionally distant, of having distance erode emotional intimacy, the challenges of seeking relationships when communication and perspectives are vastly different, how to have personal relationships with others without placing personal standards and expectations on them, maintaining a relationship with a higher existence, maintaining faith – in yourself, in others – without the framework of support that you have come to expect.

Peter turns out to be a pretty unflappable and very patient man (which is hinted at as the reason he was chosen for the mission with USIC whereas his more empathetic wife was not). Yet even he finds himself overwhelmed in such an alien landscape, that is both foreign and startlingly familiar, both isolated and intimately open, both mundane and exhilarating.

And this book itself is unflappable and patient – and beautifully rendered. You will read pages and pages of it and ask yourself, “Gee, when will something actually happen?” And then you realize that a whole helluva lot has, it just doesn’t have the bells and whistles and fireworks that you’ve come to expect from genre fiction.

So while The Book of Strange New Things may not have explosions, fisticuffs, murder or mayhem, it packs an awfully huge wallop. And the impact of it will sink surprisingly deep, will manifest itself as amazingly evocative, and will last an extraordinarily long time. Highly, highly recommended.

—Sharon Browning