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Book Review: "The Book of Strange New Things"

Discussion in 'Books & Publications Forum' started by InTheLight, Mar 11, 2015.

  1. InTheLight

    InTheLight Well-Known Member

    Dec 17, 2010
    "The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

    The book is a somewhat slow moving yet fascinating hybrid sci-fi/religious tale about Christian missionary Peter Leigh and his missions trip to the planet Oasis. On Oasis, a flat, featureless, warm and humid planet Peter teaches the natives about Christ using what they call "The Book of Strange New Things", or the Bible. (Peter brought along two translations, the KJV and the NLT. The aliens are KJV-preferred, LOL.) Peter is a born again Christian whose church denomination is never revealed (though obviously Protestant) and he is succeeding the previous missionary to Oasis, a Baptist, who has gone missing.

    A mega-corporation, USIC, is building an industrial complex on Oasis and has brought workers there to explore, experiment, and build things. There isn't much information given about USIC. The workers have been selected by USIC because of their technical skills and their propensity to work alone. Peter tries to minister to the workers but they are almost all agnostics or atheists.

    The story is about the challenges that Peter faces teaching the gospel and the Bible to aliens with a somewhat indecipherable language. They can't/don't pronounce "T's" or "S's" for example, and many of Jesus' parables won't work because they don't have sheep, wolves, fish, etc. on the planet Oasis. So one of Peter's tasks is to translate the Bible into language that the Oasans can understand. He also attempts to learn their language, with limited success.

    The story is also about the deteriorating relationship between Peter and his wife Bea, who was not allowed to come along with Peter on his missions trip by USIC (it's too expensive). They communicate via "The Shoot", which is similar to an email device. Peter will write Bea about his successes with the aliens and Bea will write back about how terrible her life is back on Earth. These exchanges are very poignant and reveal much about the characters but as a story telling device it fails. There are way too many of these email exchanges for my liking.

    When I say that life for Bea back on Earth is terrible, I mean it is approaching the level of the Tribulation in its scope of nastiness. Hurricanes, volcanoes, and other natural disasters; corporations failing, hunger, loss of electricity and other utilities, looters, etc. I thought the author was going to reveal that it literally was the end of the world (and maybe it is....)

    The book was overly long and I kept waiting for some conflict, some action, some crisis to develop. There is only so much interest for me in the day-to-day minutiae of being a missionary (your mileage may vary, though.) The drawn out nature of the story along with the frequent interruptions to read emails between Peter and Bea made for a long read. It took me more than a week to read this book. I had the e-book version from my library, the hardcover is 512 pages long.

    Be warned there are a couple of mild sex scenes (though they are between Peter and Bea, married people) and some foul language, mostly by the human workers on Oasis. Generally speaking, I don't care for this in a story but it fits the characterizations.

    The book gets glowing reviews on Amazon:

    • A New Yorker Best Book of 2014
    • An NPR Great Read of 2014
    • A New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014
    • Selected as one of the Independent’s Books of the Year 2014
    • An io9.com Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of 2014
    • An ABA Indie Next Pick
    • A Fresno Bee Favorite Book of 2014
    • A Guardian Writers Pick of 2014, Selected by Jackie Kay
    • Selected as one of Kansas City Star’s 100 Best Books of 2014
    • Selected by Financial Times’ David Mitchell as a Favorite Book of 2014
    • A Book Riot Best Book of 2014
    • A BookBrowse Top Book of 2014
    • Goodreads.com Best Book of the Month
    • A Kirkus Must-reads
    • A Barnes & Noble Fiction Selection, Top Books for the Holiday Season
    • A ShelfAwareness Best Books of 2014 Honorable Mention A Minnesota Public Radio Best Books of 2014 Selection Publishers Lunch news editor Sarah Weinman’s best of the year list, honorable mention
    • A Rick Riordan Favorite Read of 2014
    • A PopMatters Best Books of 2014


    If I were to rate it, I'd give it 3 out of 5 stars. There just isn't much going on here except missionary work, a decent description of an alien planet and the natives that live there, and email exchanges between two people in a marriage that is in trouble.
  2. Deacon

    Deacon Well-Known Member

    Aug 23, 2002
    I'd have a few questions:

    1) Why would missionaries to a foreign world use any English translation? And one would suspect that if aliens preferred one foreign language translation over another it might be a bias introduced by the missionary.

    2) Do aliens need saving?

    3) Would Christ's sacrifice be efficacious for a non-human's salvation?

    4) Would they be concerned that God loved humans more because he became like us rather than them?

    So many questions???

  3. InTheLight

    InTheLight Well-Known Member

    Dec 17, 2010
    The aliens wanted to learn English. The KJV was the Bible used by the previous (Baptist) missionary and they had come to like it. Peter does make condensed Bible booklets with the popular stories substituting words that contained alphabet characters the aliens couldn't pronounce with other words that they could pronounce.

    In the context of the book, the aliens themselves thought they needed saving, although it was clear that it was a small minority of them.

    "...preach the gospel to every creature..." [LOL]

    In fact, the aliens knew this and accepted it. Jealousy over something like this wasn't in the mindset of the aliens

    Yes, and part of the fascination for me to keep reading even though the pace of the book was slow, was to see how the author handled these sorts of things.