Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White is a favourite of mine. A playful, sprawling, vibrant novel that takes you from the rancid, stinking alleys and raucous bawdy-houses of nineteenth-century London into the heart of its supposedly respectable upper echelons guided by seventeen-year-old Sugar, one of the smartest narrators you could possibly hope for. Set on a different planet, clearly The Book of Strange New Things is entirely different. I should say that such a setting would usually see me tossing it aside sniffily assuming it wasn’t for me but this is Michel Faber and it is, he announced earlier in the week, to be his last novel.
It opens with a journey to the airport, obviously not any old airport. Both evangelical Christians, Bea and Peter Leigh are about to face their first real separation, one that neither of them can quite comprehend: Peter is to be propelled into space to become a missionary on Oasis, a settlement set up and run by a shadowy multinational corporation. They bid each other a passionate farewell. Three days later – days are somewhat longer on Oasis than on Earth – Peter is getting over the effects of the Jump, becoming acquainted with his new colleagues and exploring Oasis as best he can. Everyone else is an engineer or scientist. They treat him with a tolerant acceptance but there’s an air of jocular cynicism about the place. Blandness is the order of the day – the posters lining the wall are hackneyed, the muzak is inoffensive if dated, everyone is caught up in their jobs, carefully chosen for their lack of emotional attachment – all except Peter who desperately misses Bea and their pet cat. It soon becomes clear that his mission is not with the USIC employees but with the Oasans – quiet, enervated beings who have already gladly embraced the Christian message through Peter’s predecessor who has mysteriously disappeared. He becomes fond of these gentle, quiet people who revere and love The Book of Strange New Things as they call the Bible but who live at some distance from the USIC settlement, exchanging food for medicine. When he returns intermittently to base he finds ever more desperate messages from Bea but as his ties with the Oasans become stronger, she becomes a fading memory – he loves her dearly but can’t quite remember her face. There’s a church to be built, a colleague to be counselled. Meanwhile, back on Earth, everything’s going to hell in a handbasket.
All manner of things are addressed in this compelling and unusual novel. Peter has turned his back on a life of alcohol and drug addiction, finding his salvation in evangelism and his love for Bea. Such is his faith – or naivety, depending on your view-point – that he overcomes the dread of separation and physical peril to take on a mission which has never been explained. He’s never asked why USIC might have employed him or just what it is they’re up to on Oasis, an answer that comes as no surprise when it’s revealed. Faber handles the problems of his setting well, describing Oasis without over-egging the pudding. The Oasans are sketched lightly – their faces like ‘massive whitish-pink walnut kernels’ – their different coloured robes acting as handy markers for the human eye. The compassionate relationship which grows between Peter and his strange new congregants is tenderly described. At the heart of the novel is the love story between Peter and Bea, their messages to each other threaded through Peter’s experiences made all the more poignant by the knowledge of the death of Faber’s own wife, knowledge that coloured my entire reading of this novel. It flows beautifully, a kind of rhythm established between each chapter whose heading is repeated in its final sentence. It’s an involving novel, full of humanity which may sound odd for one set on another planet but then it’s SF, Jim, but not as we know it.