Everything I heard about this book in the last few months indicated that it was a sort of spiritual (haaa) successor to The Sparrow, which I think we’ve established is my favorite book and is super awesome and therefore I was like, well, gotta read The Book of Strange New Things, then.
But what’s really fascinating about this book is how completely unlike The Sparrow it is. It has the same basic premise — dude goes to space on a mission trip to hang out with aliens — but that’s basically the only thing it has in common. So come at this book without all those preconceived notions, or you’ll find yourself fighting the story the whole time.
So in this story, a fella called Peter is chosen after rigorous interviewing to become a Christian missionary to a place called Oasis. He doesn’t know much about the private company, USIC, sponsoring his trip; he doesn’t know much about the aliens he’s going to meet; all he really knows is that he’s leaving his wife behind on Earth for a few months in exchange for an amazing missionary opportunity and lots and lots of dollars.
On Oasis, Peter finds his job both easier and weirder than he expected. The aliens already know about Jesus and are in fact clamoring to hear more stories from what they call the Book of Strange New Things. But Peter can’t figure out why his new congregation is so super into Jesus or how to tell these fetus-faced (his words!) aliens apart or whether said aliens have any emotions that he can work with in his ministry. And when he goes back to the USIC base, things are strange there, too. The place has almost no locks on any door and the technology is primitive and the workers communicate solely face-to-face and the magazines have any useful information about Earth ripped out and it’s just weird.
Meanwhile, Peter is getting messages from his wife, Bea, that indicate that life on Earth is not going well at all, with natural disasters and supermarket shortages and public services becoming completely ignored. And speaking of ignored, Bea is getting more and more irritated that her long and descriptive messages about her life are being met with simple responses or, more often, no response at all. Peter knows that he should care more about Earth and Bea, but he is just so far removed from everything except his aliens that anything else seems unreal.
And that’s the whole story, really. With all the mysteries and oddness in the space part of the book, I kept waiting for the Big Reveal — that USIC was actually some nefarious corporation, that Oasis was something more akin to Area X, that Bea’s notes to Peter were totally faked, something. But this particular story is just about a guy who goes on a dangerous mission and finds out that not going might have been the more dangerous option. Which is pretty cool, actually.
Also cool is just the way that Faber writes. He gives his aliens an accent by replacing some English letters with unpronounceable symbols, his descriptions really make you feel the difference between the sweltering but open outdoor living of the Oasans and the climate- and everything-controlled living of the humans, he writes the letters between Bea and Peter in such a way that you know exactly what is going to be misconstrued and how, and it is all so lovely. I will definitely be checking out his other book, The Crimson Petal and the White, as soon as there’s an opening in my reading schedule (a totally not metaphorical thing that I have).
Recommendation: For people who want to think some thinky thoughts about life and love.