To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before
Michel Faber’s rich, opulent novel about power and sexuality in Victorian London, The Crimson Petal and The White, was, all those years ago an strange and immersive read.
Now, with The Book Of Strange New Things he has gone in an entirely different direction, producing something equally unusual, compelling, disturbing and memorable.
This is a genres-bending book – apocalyptic, spiritual, specifically Christian, SF, taking on board multinational corporate politics, what it means, after all, to be a human animal, a creature at all, and, what it means to be in relationship, specifically a sexual relationship. How do we connect with each other – and, how do we, how will we connect with other life forms, assuming we are not the only intelligent life forms in the universe, how will we manage to accept ‘extreme otherness’ when we can hardly manage each others’ otherness?
I found myself curiously distressed and disturbed, all shaken up, by this read. Rarely have I felt so strongly that in writing about ‘other life forms’ and our attitudes towards them, the author is not using this as a metaphor to make us think about racism, how we carry attitudes towards other groups and members of our own species – but instead, is really tapping in to some very primal potential disgusts about what ‘other’ looks like. Suppose, for example, intelligent alien life forms had an appearance close to something many of us felt an almost hardwired, visual disgust for – large maggots, bubbling goo with a rotting aroma or the like? How would that work if this were married with a progressive pan-religious idea that encompassed ‘made in the image of God’ as being something to do with soul quality rather than appearance. Faced with the challenge of recognising – let us not call it ‘humanity’ but some sort of ‘advanced and soulful creaturedom – created-dom’ – in a species which shares a lot with us, in many ways seems more emotionally, co-operatively ‘whole’ than we do – less aggressive, less egoic, wiser, more thoughtful, and yet, evokes that sense of disgust. How would we manage?
Set at some close future time where life is very similar, politically, geopolitically, to how it is now, with current climate and political flashpoints as they are, we have managed to jump space-time, and set up at least one community on a planet in another galaxy with an indigenous, intelligent, humanoid life-form
Peter Leigh is a British man with a damaged past, due to alcohol and drug abuse. All that is behind him though, having found sobriety, a loving and adult relationship with his wife Beatrice, a nurse, the two are evangelising Christians. Leigh is a pastor. The denizens of that other planet ‘Oasis’, named by us after a competition, are desperate for the words of Jesus (for reasons which become clear much later on) Leigh along with a small community of more obviously required professionals – thermo-engineers, experts in building, doctors, heating and air-conditioning engineers and the like, are building infrastrucutres and relationships with ‘the aliens’ on the new planet. Leigh is there to minister the word of the Lord to the aliens, at their request.
This is NOT a book about Christian evangelism. It is however a book about how we might keep a sense of faith, belief, integrity, humanity when all around us is heading for meltdown. Shortly after leaving for his tour of missionary duty, events back on Earth begin, rapidly, to head towards meltdown, both in terms of cosmic disasters, and the inevitable human response to apocalypse.
Leigh begins to build respectful connections with the aliens (though, in truth, as he realises, it is their planet, and it is ourselves who are aliens), with his fellow, far stranger, less humane human companions, even as his long distance relationship with Bea begins, steadily and painfully, on both sides, to fracture and crumble, as is evidenced by their ‘letters’ sent through space-time
This is a fascinating and absorbing read – one which can give rise to all sorts of challenging debates about ethics, philosophy and futurology ‘what-ifs’
I recommend it highly. I have some slight stylistic reservations about how things end for Bea and Peter, not quite convinced why one of them acts as they do, but this is a minor mark against what is an extremely thought provoking, well written addition to the modern SF canon.
I received this as a remarkably early ARC from the publishers, via NetGalley, as it is not due to see the general light of day till late autumn. Worth waiting for. Come October, I’ll start doing alerts and posts back to this. meanwhile, it is available to pre-order