Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review, _The Book of Strange New Things_, by Michel Faber

As a person of faith and--as I like to tell myself, at least--a person of some intellect, I found in Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things that rarest of works: a modern novel that embraces Christianity without defending it, ridiculing it, fawning over it, sensationalizing it, or glossing over its
problems, either historical and contemporary. Set in a future that, while including interstellar travel, still borrows uncomfortably from the dystopian trends all too evident in this morning's headlines, Faber's tale is inhabited by characters to whom the author has granted as much free will as any Supreme Creator or Arminian could possibly wish. And the inhabitants of this novel--both human and alien--make full-spectrum use of that perilous gift.

Peter Leigh, the protagonist, is a minister who is a recovered alcoholic, drug addict, and petty thief. His wife, Beatrice, is a nurse. Remarkably, I found very little to criticize in Peter's theology; his Christianity is not overbearing, uncharitable (he is respectful, mirabile dictu, to Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists), naive, or historically uninformed. In short, he is exactly the sort of Christian that I, personally, would enjoy meeting and perhaps having as a close friend.

"This is a novel that raises more questions than it answers ... "

Nor is the Leighs' faith timid; Peter is chosen by the mysterious USIC Corporation to be a Christian missionary to the planet Oasis, a human-habitable world in a different part of the galaxy that is occupied by a strange, humanoid race, some of whom have evinced an unaccountable and fervent desire to embrace the Christian faith.

Along the way, we learn not only of Peter's many shortcomings and failings, both potential and actual, but also of the fragility of faith in the face of overwhelming catastrophe. Peter and Bea's marriage is stretched to the breaking point. On Oasis (which, it turns out, is anything but), Peter and the other inhabitants of the human outpost are spared none of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and their reactions to events, both external and internal, chart the full range of possibilities, from placid acceptance to rage. At the same time as we learn the motivation behind the passion of the  Oasans (the human name for the planet's original inhabitants) to embrace Christ's teachings, they also remain remote, mysterious, aloof, and, well, alien.

In other words, this is a novel that raises more questions than it answers, that leaves the reader busy composing his or her own ending, considering the many possible sequels. It does what any great story does: it holds up a mirror to our own lives, and causes us to ask, "What if ... ?"