A very long song
Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is about Peter and Bea, husband and wife, separated by billions of miles of space. It’s a beautiful story that left me thinking deeply about it long after I read it. Although the plot is straight-forward and the prose itself satisfyingly plain, Faber managed to fit in so many different themes – miscommunication on a monumental scale, biological inequalities, faith, the end of the Earth, hope. And loss. At the start, in fact, during the opening chapter, all I felt was loss – poignant, yet uncomplicated. But as the story unfolds the emotions become increasingly confused, a whirlwind of frustrated feelings, and all the while each chapter heading tells in advance the last sentence of that chapter, so I felt as if I was being propelled forwards towards some horrific, yet unavoidable conclusion.
Peter is a missionary who has been sent to Oasis, a geographically dull yet habitable planet that a multinational corporation (USIC) has been developing. Bea was not invited by USIC to join Peter in his mission. Their separation is a shock to them both, as they’ve barely ever spent time apart since they first met. They are devout Christians however, and trust that since they are doing His work nothing could go terribly wrong.
Oasis’s local inhabitants (the ‘Oasans’ as Peter calls them) trade food for medical supplies. They had already learned of Jesus Christ from a former missionary, and are extremely eager to hear more. Peter’s work with them is easy – stupidly so. The Oasans are a peaceful folk (dressed in full body cloaks, gloves and boots), and their thirst for Christ is a pastor’s dream. Although the USIC base is within driving distance of the Oasan settlement, Peter chooses to spend two weeks about (Earth time) at both the Oasan settlement and the base. He would sooner not travel back to the base at all if the apparatus with which to contact Bea was not back with his human colleagues. The story is told through Peter’s eyes and experiences, but through Bea’s letters to him we see snapshots of what is going on in their life back home.
Snapshots. Pools of electric light in the darkness. Windows. Car headlights illuminating a thin band. The imagery throughout the book creates the feeling of being utterly confined by our own meagre viewpoint of the world. We come to conclusions without knowing the full story. We only ever see part of the picture, and only ever from our own perspective.
At the start it just seems a shame that USIC didn’t allow Bea to come along, but as the story progresses it begins to seem like a terrible mistake. His time alone with the Oasans beings to change Peter. Firstly, he’s terrible at looking after himself (Bea is a nurse, she’s the practical one) and allows himself to become underfed, dehydrated, exposed to the sun, which leads to unclear thinking. But it’s not just that. He doesn’t fit in at the base. He’s a pastor so his world revolves around philosophy, thought, the human struggle. USIC has chosen particularly unimaginative scientists and engineers, fit to survive a bland alien landscape far from home. They don’t question why they continue to follow Earth time when Oasis has a perfectly good sun to set time by; they aren’t disturbed by the sterility of their environment, the constant air conditioning to mimic Earth’s atmosphere. Peter becomes further and further alienated from the humans, drawn to the Oasans who live naturally from the land, who desire to think and learn. Only one other at the base stands out from the rest – Granger, but she has problems of her own.
As Peter becomes lost within his work in this whole new world, his life and Bea’s drift apart. Experiences are unshared; vital details from Peter’s day are not recorded for Bea, who is desperate for any news she can get. But mostly, Peter doesn’t hear what Bea is saying. Things are falling apart rapidly for her. She faces struggle after struggle, and Peter seems hopelessly incapable of truly realising how badly his wife is suffering (or how quickly things are deteriorating back on Earth), so certain is he that his mission had been sanctioned by God, so stuck is he within the path they’d chosen. Their tightly knit whole begins to break apart into separate pieces because he’s unable to properly communicate with his wife or see things for what they truly are.
And if Peter is unable to properly communicate with Bea, his love, the person who knows him best in the world, what hope does he have with an alien species? Oasis is mostly just dirt and ground-hugging plants. It’s devoid of trees, rocks, mountains, crags, branches (sharp things barely occur naturally). The Oasans have evolved into biological beings quite different from humans. Their facial expressions, their tones of voice – unrecognisable. Their history, unknown. Their symbolism (if they have any) entirely different. How can he know if the word he is using means the same thing to both species? A word like ‘pain’, for instance, has layers of complexity. And if ‘pain’ is difficult to explain, what about the Bible passages? Why do the Oasans sing Amazing Grace, when they appear to live sinless lives? What does it mean to them? When an Oasan hears Peter crying, she mistakes it for a song.
It’s a sad story. I found myself guessing all the way through (“the Oasans don’t like sharp things because they are unnaturally occurring shapes”, “they are hiding something under their long cloaks”, “they are using the USIC medication for nefarious ends”, “they have killed the old pastor”). Maybe it’s because I’m human that I think that way, or that being human allows me to think that way. The truth is that those peaceful folk who sing sweetly to their Lord are afflicted by a biological disadvantage that Peter could not have fathomed. They simply wanted to be able to self-heal like they’ve seen humans do. Even the smallest injury to their body causes them to rot, and die. They weren’t seeking eternal life after death – the abstract concept probably didn’t register with them at all – but probably presumed that this miraculous gift had been bestowed to believers by God. And this realisation – when it hits Peter – the unfairness of it (if God loves every creature equally..?), and the hopelessness of his cause, shakes him like nothing ever has.
Too late, it feels, Peter decides to travel back home, to find Bea, wherever she is in a world gone swiftly to ruin. It ends with him waiting to leave, and you can only presume that USIC will let him. But who knows? Everything is left up in the air. Left to hope. Peter’s hope that he’ll find Bea. The Oasan’s hope that the ‘Technique of Jesus’ will help their people live longer; my own hope that science eventually will. I knew before I started reading The Book of Strange Things that Faber had written it while his wife was dying, and so, maybe because of that, the beautiful story felt like a very long song.