Published by Hogarth on Oct. 28, 2014
Genres: Speculative Fiction
Source: Giveaway / Gift
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Peter, a minister with a history of alcohol and drug abuse, gets the opportunity of a lifetime when USIC, a mysterious multinational corporation, selects him to be the new minister to the native population of Oasis, a planet where they are building a settlement. Although Peter feels God’s hand in his appointment, he is sorry to leave his wife Bea, who saved him from his self-destructive behavior years before.
When Peter arrives on Oasis, he is pleasantly surprised to learn that the humanoid Oasans have already learned about Jesus from a previous missionary and are eager to learn more stories from the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things. However, as he becomes more and more involved with life in their village, the messages he receives from Bea via the “Shoot” become increasingly desperate. Life on Earth is deteriorating rapidly as natural disasters strike with unprecedented frequency, wars break out, and the local supermarket can’t keep food on the shelves. While Peter makes great strides with the Oasans, Bea battles a crisis of faith back at home, and their messages back and forth fail to bridge the gap between them. Their physical separation becomes an emotional distance, too, and their relationship grows tense and strained.
When faced with the question of who he should serve — the God that guides him or the wife he loves — who will he choose?
There are enough reviews of this book out there without me adding to the noise, so I won’t be sharing a traditional review. Additionally, my feelings about The Book of Strange New Things are a bit too personal to be very objective about this book. So instead of writing a review, I would just like to share a few of the thoughts and questions I had while reading it.
1. I had some trouble with the premise. Why would USIC, a non-religious corporation, seek out a Christian missionary to send to Oasis? I understand that the Oasans demanded a new minister after the first one disappeared, and that’s why Peter was hired. But why did they send a missionary in the first place? The only reasons I can come up with are cynical ones.
2. Along the same lines, if Jesus died for the sins of man (humans), why send a Christian missionary to (non-human) aliens? Maybe I’m just being obtuse here, but the whole “Jesus died for our sins” thing doesn’t seem like it would really apply to them. For some reason, this didn’t bother me as much in The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
3. I predicted the reason the Oasans were so eager to embrace Christianity pretty early on, but it took a LONG time for the book to get there.
4. Peter really annoyed me. I have a lot of problems with missionary work and evangelism, so it was probably a lost cause to begin with. I disliked the way Peter and Bea would engage in conversations with strangers, just waiting for the opportunity to bring them to the light. There’s nothing more infuriating than people who think they know what’s best for you, and I found Peter’s conviction that ‘deep down, everyone is just waiting to be saved’ to be obnoxious.
5. There were a lot of things I liked about this book, but the religious aspects did wind up tainting it for me. I’m still trying to work out why I felt this way about The Book of Strange New Things just a few months after really loving The Sparrow, which is about a Jesuit mission to make first contact with the music-making beings of a nearby planet. Perhaps I found The Sparrow to be more accessible because it centers on a crisis of faith, whereas Peter’s faith never wavers. It would probably take a whole separate post to unpack my differing opinions about these two books, so I’ll leave it there.
6. I didn’t dislike this book as much as it may seem. I mostly enjoyed it; it’s so imaginative, and I liked the rich world-building, the revelations about USIC’s true purpose for settling Oasis, and the realizations about why USIC values the personality types they chose to inhabit the planet. I particularly liked the conflict between human attachment and divine purpose and the way Faber handled the emotional distance between Peter and Bea as his work thrived and her world fell apart. The last element was particularly poignant after learning that Faber wrote this novel while his wife was suffering from terminal cancer.
To sum up: There were some things I liked about this book, but they were overshadowed by the things that bothered me.
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