The Book of Strange New Things
In between watering plants and testing a new wide-angle lens (more on that in a subsequent post) and re-writing this blog's software (almost done), I've been reading Michel Faber's "The Book of Strange New Things." It's a love story with a little sci-fi and philosophizing thrown in. Faber uses science fiction but doesn’t dwell on it. The story invokes yet-to-be-developed transportation and communication technologies, but neither is important to the story. Peter could be in Antarctica and the story would still work. He includes just enough description for me. Some of the settings are familiar, such as USIC’s corporate outpost, and some are odd, such as the green water and the shimmery, refractive air that moves with a water-like thickness.
Peter and Bev are a British couple in their mid-thirties. He is a preacher with a checkered past and she is a nurse he met while under her care. They’ve applied to USIC, an opaque multinational corporation, to work as Christian missionaries at USIC’s outpost on a far-away planet. Unfortunately, only Peter gets the green light. They decide he should go. The story begins with the couple driving to Heathrow where they say goodbye. Given that inter-planetary travel is involved - even in the future it's riskier than a commercial flight over the pond - this may be the last time they see each other.
So Peter goes alone. He makes the physics-defying jump to a far-away planet. I envision a ride in a space-shuttle-like vehicle with warp-drive thrills followed by an exotic landscape populated by skinny green aliens, but the reality is more mundane. The trip itself isn’t notable aside from the unpleasant sedation process and the intense hangover felt upon being waken on arrival. And USIC’s outpost resembles a nondescript office park in San Jose. The natives aren't terribly exotic, either. They are small and low-energy and distinguished by their different-colored robes. They live in simple stone dwellings. The Christian natives have odd names, Jesus Lover One on up to Jesus Lover Ninety-something.
Peter was not hired by USIC to convert the natives. He was hired to serve a native population that has already discovered the bible and latched onto it as their sacred book, which they call "the book of strange new things”. There is a lot of biblical verse in Faber's book, but it's spread light enough to not be oppressive.
Faber's book revolves around the separation of Peter and Bev and how their relationship evolves. As Peter settles in to his missionary work and Bev remains in England they no longer share experiences so the focus of their attention diverges. Faber observes the evolution of Peter’s beliefs as he lives with the natives and his USIC co-workers and as he struggles to communicate with his far-away wife.
To recap: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they marry, and then they get separated. And here the book starts, asking the question: will Peter and Bev get back together given the very different paths their lives are following? And will Peter's beliefs survive experience? It's a good book.