Author: Michel Faber
Rating: 3 stars
I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.
The Book of Strange New Things is high concept science fiction, and boy, what a concept it is. There was a lot of interesting–I suppose you would say, philosophical inquiry. But most of the time, the characters and the slow, slow, slow burn of the novel left me out in the cold.
I’m actually rating this one a little higher than I feel comfortable with. It’s already gotten so much talk in the bookworld, and most of that seems so positive, that I have to wonder if there is a little something wrong with me, if I just didn’t get it. Well: so I didn’t get it.
In the future, (I never did figure out exactly how far; it seemed relatively 21st century and then suddenly jazz was considered “ancient”) former alcoholic and current Christian minister Peter takes a commission to travel to a newly discovered planet and act as a missionary to the alien population, leaving his wife, Bea, behind on what appears to be an increasingly dangerous Earth.
So far, so good. I was hooked. How, exactly, does one minister not just God, but Christ, whose very point is his humanity, to people who are not human? Why does no one on Earth seem to know or care much about this planet we are suddenly colonizing? And why are we colonizing it at all, when there are almost no resources to speak of?
Those questions were eventually addressed, to a point, but it was a slog to get there. The first three quarters or so of this book were insanely, mind-numbingly boring. Some of that tension and slow burn lead to the payoff, yes. But that’s almost three hundred pages where I was bored out of my skull. And I see absolutely no reason why a ton of it couldn’t be cut. (I would whack two hundred pages off this book, easy. Then again, maybe that’s why I’m not a novelist.)
My main problem with The Book of Strange New Things was Peter. I didn’t get him, and, more relevantly, I never liked him. I suppose I’m already inclined to dislike missionary type people, who are so superior in their infinite knowledge and wisdom, and smugly sit back and watch the rest of us poor schlubs wander blindly in the land of the faithless. He was so judgmental and self-absorbed, all under the guise of being godly, and I just couldn’t connect with him in any way.
I also wanted to actually see Bea. The Earth is rapidly falling into chaos, and she suffers a huge crisis of faith, but we only hear of it through her letters, half of which Peter misunderstands and which we later find out were censored anyway. There could have been any number of letters that didn’t get through to Peter–and us–at all. I came to resent Peter’s remove, I wanted to be with Bea at least once in awhile where things were actually happening.
That wasn’t the book Faber set out to write. But it was the book I wanted to read.
One final note. The book casually fat shames, sex shames, just plain shame shames, and I couldn’t figure out if it was just Peter’s inherent asshole nature or something more troubling (things that were incredibly bothersome to me: the black characters adding “bro” to literally every line of dialogue to denote their blackness, “ugly” women constantly being referred to by their butchness and (subjective) ugliness, body fat equated with moral dubiousness (and American-ness, cause, haha, everyone knows that all Americans are fat pigs), and virginity being derided because it supposedly signifies a lack of “passion”). It left me deeply uncomfortable a lot of the time. Much of The Book of Strange New Things is designed to make the reader uncomfortable, but I honestly can’t tell if those choices were part of that design, and that bothers me.