What if you were hand-picked for a mission of a lifetime, but your spouse couldn’t go with you? You’d be working among real aliens–beings from a far-distant planet named Oasis. Would you be able to stay in contact with your significant other you ask? Why yes, of course! You passed the tests with flying colors, even if the questions were a bit…odd. But never mind that. Just sign on the dotted line to join USIC today!
Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things chronicles the journey of Pastor Peter Leigh to a distant planet called Oasis, where he ministers to a group of aliens, creatures he soon refers to as Oasans. While learning about the Oasans, Peter tries desperately to remain in contact with his wife Bea back home in Britain, because she wasn’t able to join him in missionary work. Their usual closeness is challenged not only because of the light-years between them, but because of the catastrophic weather that is suddenly plaguing the Earth.
Faber creates a planet that I’ve never seen before in science fiction: a world where the ground is devoid of life, except for plants called whiteflower. The ground itself sucks up the moisture when it rains. The atmosphere itself is unique, too: it’s kind of thick, and sticks to your skin. It’s akin to walking into a swimming pool, and walking slowly through the water.
The aliens have weird bodies, and an odd way of speaking. The narrator makes them sound a little garbled; but this makes sense, since English isn’t their native language. At first, I was taken aback by the description of the Oasans. But, by the end of the novel, when something bad happens, I found myself crying at an unexpectedly touching moment. (I know I’m being vague here, but I really don’t want to ruin the story.)
Despite the dark undertones of Bea’s letters to her husband, I loved this book. While I won’t spoil anything, there’s definitely some amiss on Earth. As Peter learns more about his flock, Bea fills Peter in on what is happening in Great Britain and all over the world. I enjoy the contrast of Peter’s ebullience as he breaks barriers with his flock, while Bea becomes ever paranoid and depressed. As time goes on, as the months stretch on, the connection that this married couple has begins to dwindle. This is a couple that has never been apart, which makes the notion of one of them going light-years away daunting. The idea of being separated from the one you love for a long time is terrifying, worrisome at any age. I love how relatable this aspect of the novel is, it really helped me get into the headspace of Peter and Bea.
One of the central themes of The Book Strange New Things is devotion. Peter is devoted to Bea, but he is also devoted to his flock on Oasis. Husband and wife must work to keep their level of connection alive, while Peter is breaking ground with the Oasans. In the end, Peter must choose whether he will stick by his wife, or delve further into the alien society he’s still learning about.
The characterization of the main characters was well done, the dialogue was natural, and the planet was fresh. Filled with humor, pastoral discoveries, and an underlying darkness that kept me reading. This is a truly interesting novel, one that focuses on being apart, questioning your beliefs, realizing how a community and love can reach across the stars.