There is a powerful moment in Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, when Peter Leigh, transported across light years to minister to a alien congregation on the planet Oasis, delivers a moving eulogy about a man he has hardly known. The scene captures Peter’s ability to get to the core of the life of a near stranger and make him real to his listeners. As the novel progresses, though, Peter struggles to achieve this level of honesty and directness in his own life.
He finds himself unable to communicate with his wife back on earth while grappling with the problem of how to talk effectively using the alien language of his non-human parishioners. This is a beautifully written book that probes deeply into its characters lives amid a strangely beautiful yet empty world.
In some ways, this novel presents the opposite situation to that of Faber’s first book, Under the Skin. In that story, an alien being has come to earth to help exploit humans, whom she sees at first only as a resource for her planet. She has had to distort her body to appear more like humans, and in so doing has cut herself off from the path in life she really wanted. She has to come to terms with a drastically altered existence.
In The Book of Strange New Things (the title refers the native Oasans’ name for the Bible) Peter Leigh has to find a path to a new form of personal revelation. Before becoming a minister, he had been an alcoholic. Although he has gotten the alcohol out of his life, he has yet to break through to a deeper understanding of who he is.
His early life had been out of control. He lied, stole and abused himself and others to maintain his habit, until he landed himself in a hospital with two broken ankles. There he met his future wife, Bea, who supported him in his faith and became his co-practitioner while holding down her own job as a nurse. Christianity became an important part of his recovery, to the point where he had memorized much of the King James Bible. Its quotations became a mainstay of his preaching and the practice of his faith.
Lights Years of Emotional Distance
Peter has gotten the alcohol out of his life but not some of the patterns of self-abuse and inner damage that led to addiction. He has built part of his recovery on the language of the Bible and often too quickly pulls out a quotation to cover a difficult moment. The distance he has traveled to Oasis comes to symbolize the emotional distance he must travel to reconnect with his own feelings, with Beatrice and with his new parishioners.
Language, especially the alien language of the Oasans, becomes a key in his struggle to re-form these basic human bonds of feeling. The people, both human and non-human, he lives and works with on Oasis present a continual challenge to his expectations.
The planet is strangely featureless, consisting of a flat plain extending as far as the eye can see. The workers assembled by their corporate employer, USIC, at first seem to match this blank environment. They have all had to pass detailed interviews and psychological tests to winnow out all but the most equable in temperament. Many have lived through difficult pasts, but they have left that behind and refuse to dwell on or to share personal problems. They are there to work (though the purpose of their attempt to colonize the planet remains obscure) and are not allowed any news about events on earth. Only comfortable calling each other by their last names, they make themselves as emotionally featureless as the landscape around them.
Finding a Language of Connection
The aliens Peter encounters also seem lacking in overt emotion. That is partly due to the radical differences of their physical appearance (they lack anything like a face that would enable humans to read their inner state) and partly to their focus on the present moment to the exclusion of worries about the past or anxiety about the future. It is very hard for Peter to distinguish one individual from another, yet their devotion to him and to their understanding of Christianity is real and deep.
It is against this background, stripped of human conflict and the normal cues of emotional life, that Peter sets about his work as missionary. To his surprise, he finds that the Oasans already know the Bible. Peter’s predecessor along with a linguist, both of whom have disappeared without explanation, had already familiarized them with basic English and helped a portion of the population adopt the new faith.
His real test is how to connect on a deeper level with these beings, who are already a devoted flock of parishioners. This happens as he steps into their lives as fully as he can, cutting himself off for long periods from the USIC base of operations, immersing himself in their daily lives, even neglecting his own health. He constructs a church with them. He helps them with the difficult process of harvesting their food (which is also crucially supplies the human settlement), witnesses a death and learns how they reconcile themselves to the changing nature of living.
As he is doing this, he exchanges a warp-speed form of email with Bea and learns that conditions on earth are rapidly deteriorating. Natural disasters abound, economic giants collapse, food distribution becomes uncertain, government is breaking down. And far more personal difficulties and painful experience start disrupting the calm of the life Peter and Bea had known together, to the point where she begins to lose her faith in God.
Re-Forming the Self amid Loss
Peter at first finds himself incapable of responding to her messages, adding to anxiety and doubt. Either he finds his ability to write at all is blocked, or he resorts too quickly to biblical quotations of homiletic advice. He has to learn to cut through the screen of aphorism to express his own feelings. He also has to learn how to respond to Bea as partner rather than preacher.
As his relationship with Bea becomes more strained, Peter becomes more attached to the woman who has been assigned to look after him, the pharmacist, Grainger. Very gradually, she emerges from the norm of USIC emotionless work life to share something of her life and deeper need with Peter, but she remains bound in her own alcoholism and can’t really reach out to him.
Peter achieves an important breakthrough with the Oasans by adapting the King James English of the Bible into terms they can grasp within the limits of their alien language and experience. Since they lack the ability to articulate several English sounds, he has to find words that minimize them. And many of the metaphors and stories of the bible are inaccessible until Peter strips out references to animals like sheep and to human roles like shepherd. He produces a series of handwritten stories from the Bible expressed in Oasan terms that his parishioners treasure.
This exercise is emblematic of his struggle to set aside the stories and moral formulations he has depended on for his sermons, and to some extent his recovery, to express his real feelings to Bea and to offer her the kind of support she needs from him.
This may not be the stuff of SF adventure among alien peoples, but it is a powerful story, told with grace and sensitivity, about human connection. The SF tropes take on new depth as metaphors of emotional distance and the need to search for the essential bonds that make life meaningful.