Conflicting Feelings On The Book of Strange New Things

Posted January 19, 2015 by LeahAdmin in Reviews / 12 Comments

The Book of Strange New Things
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Published by Hogarth on Oct. 28, 2014
Pages: 500
Genres: Speculative Fiction
Format: Hardcover
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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  • I’ve thought about 5 pretty seriously since I finished, because I think that (and my annoyance with Peter, but I try not to hinge my distaste for a book on not liking a character) is what ruined the book for me…and I think it comes down to a few things. The major issue for me was the serious focus on losing Christianity, where The Sparrow was a crisis of faith (even though the characters were Christian). As an agnostic, all the problems you raised in questions 1 and 2, among others, had pretty much shut me out of the book’s big questions because they were centered around organized religion, which is something I just don’t buy into to begin with. There was nothing mind blowing there for me. The Sparrow, on the other hand, raised some interesting questions about creation and God in general, which I found more accessible.

    • I think that’s it. This book felt more overtly about Christianity, whereas The Sparrow dealt with faith in general. This book just sparked ALL of my problems with organized religion.

  • The premise of this one never really appealed to me…so I skipped it 🙂 I couldn’t really figure out what the book was about..the whole thing was confusing to me.

  • Kelly TheWellReadRedhead

    I have been wondering if it’s worth it for me to pick this one up. The premise is SO interesting, but I worry that I would struggle with the religious aspects (as you did). Sounds like I might keep this one on the back burner for now.

    • I’ve read other books with religious aspects that didn’t bother me, but this one just really rubbed me the wrong way, which I didn’t expect from the reviews I had seen.

  • I’m really excited to try this one to see where I fall in my opinion of it. Lots to chew over from the reviews I’ve seen. Well done, Leah!

  • After living in Utah for 10 years and having 19-year-old boys show up at my door to tell me why I needed them to show me Jesus I’m totally with you on #4. As for the rest of your questions they are very insightful and I’m not sure I know the answers to any of them!

    • This makes me so sad. I’ve traveled around Utah a few times and loved it there (those landscapes! And the dry heat!), but I don’t think I could live in a place that is so deeply tied to a religion.

  • This review, and the comments, are so interesting to me. I haven’t read this book. I’ve been mildly curious about it, but only because I’ve seen it all over the place. For some reason my mild curiosity never really turned into a “have to read it” feeling. I have a good feeling that I would feel much the same as you did.

  • Point number two had me laughing out loud. I haven’t decided whether to read this one yet but I kind of want to just so that I can have an opinion.