Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Now this is different. It's sci-fi, but it's more about faith than science, and "faith-fi" won't attract any readers, so I guess we have to call it sci-fi. The story concerns a Christian missionary sent to minister to a tribe of native creatures on a distant planet. The planet is different enough to be intriguing, but it doesn't really hold together on a scientific level. Yet it does hold together (mostly) on a faith level.

There's some unevenness to the pacing and the way the narrative is presented. Information is withheld in the beginning. which ended up annoying me rather than creating suspense. In one case we don't know crucial information because the narrator doesn't remember his introductory tour of the facilities, which is almost a textbook use of amnesia to keep the reader going. There's enough going on that those sections could be streamlined considerably. The first half of the book drags in places and the reveals of what makes the biology of this planet different are placed toward the end of the book (if they come at all). And yet on a scientific level there must be some fascinating convergences that the author isn't interested in. The main biological divergence that sets up the drama is interesting and its consequences are pretty well thought out, but I doubt it could actually happen to such an extreme.

Normally this would frustrate me to no end, but in exchange for the lack of science we get a deep psychological study of faith, isolation, marriage, and the stresses of a mission, even in success. As someone who traveled to a distant land myself recently, much of the feeling of being so far from home is captured expertly by Faber. A few moments of faith don't ring true, which lead me to conclude that the author is writing about faith from the outside. If anything, that makes me like the book more and tend to overlook its overlookings. The main characters should have deeper spiritual resources than they are shown to have when crisis hits, and they should also have more vacillation and variation in their faith in the good times. They should doubt more; the internal life of a Christian is never quite so even and shiny. They also should depend more on the person of Jesus rather than the Bible stories in general, especially if the narrator has memorized Matthew as the book implies. The internal lives of the characters are not quite nuanced enough, but they come close enough to make the characters live and to remind me of my own time in the field.

By the end of the book, a subtle but thought-provoking contrast emerges between science and faith that centers around issues of safety and God's providence with shades of color and angles that I don't normally see outside of the typical great Christian authors. The way the story is left unfinished in terms of faith feels right, while the ways it's left unfinished in terms of science feels more wrong to me. But it's not really about the science -- so I can't help but consider this book a success and hope that more authors explore these questions and these kinds of characters. I know how I've reacted given my own surprising parallels to this story, so I'd like to know how others who don't share that history or faith react as well. But as for me and my brain, this strange little book did contain some new things, and some solid old ones as well.


Patrick said...

Have you read The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell? Similar themes, it seems like.

BenMc said...

I own it (inherited it with marriage) but have not read it! I thought of it as I went through this book, guess I should move it up the list. Would be interesting to compare.