Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Book of Strange New Things

Crown: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Crown: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Crown: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Crown: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things

by Michel Faber

The Book of Strange New Things is a major work by an author who never repeats himself but continues to push the limits of cutting-edge literature. Michel Faber's novel about the spreading of the gospel in an alien world, and the possible end of our world, is also an exploration of a marriage in crisis and how faith and fidelity are tested in extremis.

Peter Leigh is a missionary recruited by the vaguely sinister multi-national corporation USIC to preach to the inhabitants of the recently discovered planet Oasis, lightyears away. Peter's wife, Bea, is left back on Earth--deemed unfit for the mission by USIC--where the situation becomes increasingly desperate, possibly apocalyptic. Bea's faith is being shaken while Peter is moving in the other direction with great success and emotional epiphanies in his evangelization of the Oasans. USIC's awareness of the Earth's precarious position adds a paranoid, Orwellian aspect to the novel.

Peter and Bea's solid, loving relationship is reduced to fumbling, intermittent communications on "the Shoot," a device that sends typewritten notes across the galactic distance, as the couple try to share diametrically opposed experiences--Peter reaching almost transcendent moments of euphoria with his Jesus-loving alien brethren; Bea, increasingly desperate and isolated back home as the world suffers a series of unprecendented natural disasters. Faber manages to convey the emotional rawness and sense of how a few wrong words can send a relationship hurtling into dangerous realms.

Faber, the author of the acclaimed Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White, moves into new territory (literally) with The Book of Strange New Things. The speculative aspects of his novel are seamless, intriguing, thought-provoking and ultimately shocking. The Oasans are a fully realized species, and very other: "Here was a face that was nothing like a Face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel." They speak a limited English, with a soft, asthmatic sound-- "Where the 's's should have been, there was a noise like a ripe fruit being thumbed into two halves."--and Faber uses symbols to substitute for some common sounds. His description of the planet and its ecosystems have that touch of the odd and sublime that marks a great work of science fiction--on Oasis, even the rain is different: "They truly were rains, plural. Three colossal networks of water were advancing independently, separated by substantial spaces of clear air. Each network had its own internal logic, replicating and reassembling its glittering patterns over and over." The Oasans--already familiar with Christianity via a previous preacher who went missing--call the book Peter shares with them "The Book of Strange New Things."They never say the word "Bible," because " 'Power of the book forbid. Flame give warmth....' With outstretched hands, [the Oasan] mimed the action of warming oneself on a fire, getting too close and being burned." But they are eager to hear the "technique of Jesus." Why they are so keen, even desperate, is one of the surprises Faber has in store.

Faber describes Peter's interactions with his fellow USIC contractors who've been gathered at the utilitarian base, a group of odds and sods nearly as frustratingly opaque to him as the indigenous population. In particular, Peter develops a relationship with Grainger, a woman with seemingly no use for his faith, who has her own unresolved issues on Earth.

Faber manages to weave echoes of imperialism and "white man's burden" into the narrative without making Peter into a straw man of an over-zealous evangelist. Peter remains compassionate though naïve; he can misread situations, whether with his wife or the gentle Oasans to whom he ministers. Faber has given him the back-story of a bruiser and addict whose salvation came through Bea and her faith; it is one of the ambiguities of the novel that the reader wonders how much of his faith is rooted in wanting to please her and how much will remain of it if her faith is lost to her.

Bea's narrative of her domestic Armageddon is harrowing. The breakdown of Earth's infrastructure and the daily amenities that have become necessities are presented with clinical horror and compassionate skill. In Faber's version, the world will end with a bang and a whimper. Peter, increasingly absorbed in his alien world, is helpless in the face of Bea's increasingly dire situation.

Faber presents complex ideas and grand themes here with penetrating insight and he never once loses track of the story or lets it bog down in narrative detail. There are moments in this novel of such devastating truth that they are capable of wiping away old world views, scenes of such revelatory power and tenderness that they will stay with the reader for a long time.

The Book of Strange New Things is an unsettling, thought-provoking exploration of faith, love and redemption, deserving of a wide audience. --Donald Powell

Hogarth, $28, hardcover, 9780553418842, October 28, 2014

Crown: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Zachary Wagman on Michel Faber: A Boundless Imagination

Michel Faber has proven to be an electic and visionary writer. He has tackled Victorian England in The Crimson Petal and the White, followed an extraterrestrial with bad intentions through Scotland in Under The Skin and retold the Prometheus myth in The Fire Gospel. The Book of Strange New Things is Faber's most ambitious novel yet. It tells the story of Peter, a missionary to the planet Oasis, and his wife, Bea, back on Earth as the planet experiences catastrophic events. Shelf Awareness interviewed Hogarth/Crown senior editor Zachary Wagman about The Book of Strange New Things and his experience of working with Faber.

Michel Faber
Zachary Wagman

How long have you been working with Michel Faber as an editor? What was it about him and his writing that piqued your interest?

The Book of Strange New Things is the first book that we've worked on with Michel. I was aware of him, of course, from the phenomenal success of The Crimson Petal and the White. Because of that book, his reputation as an inventive and fluid storyteller who has a unique command of language preceded him. We started reading The Book of Strange New Things with that in mind and we weren't disappointed. It's such an ambitious premise--a pastor travels to another planet, but tries to stay connected to his wife on Earth--but he handles it so subtly, and with great emotion.

If you were trying to sell Michel Faber to a reader who has never read him before, what would you say?

We would say you're in for a treat! He's a tremendously gifted writer. He's confident, methodical and utterly fearless. From the strange and thrilling Under the Skin to the sweeping bravado of The Crimson Petal and the White to haunting short stories and provocative essays, he's an innovative, curious and deeply creative writer.

Each book Faber writes is so different than the last. What are the rewards and challenges of working with him?

Michel is a thoughtful and serious writer, who wholly inhabits the worlds he creates--his imagination is boundless. The reward for any editor working with him is to be able to live in those worlds alongside him.

One essential aspect of The Book of Strange New Things is the love story between Peter and Bea. Because of the distance, their relationship is reduced to computer text exchanges. Do you think this was Michel's commentary on our own increasingly tech-centered communications in our own lives?

That's interesting. Peter and Bea's correspondence is so crucial to Peter's experience on Oasis--without it, he might have totally lost himself. So, actually, technology is extremely important in this case. It allows Peter to maintain his humanity, to remind him of the love he has at home. I can't speak for Michel's intentions, but we read it as a sort of tribute to how technology can keep us connected to those far away from us.

The novel works on so many levels--science fiction, love story, societal commentary. From a publisher's standpoint, does the sheer scope of the book present any challenges?

All books present their own set of challenges, but the scope of The Book of Strange New Things is, if anything, an asset to its publication. After The Crimson Petal and the White, readers know that Michel Faber writes long, immersive books. While The Book of Strange New Things is not set in Victorian England, it sets you firmly in its version of the future. Michel's great talent is in how he brings his novels to life, and this book is no exception.

The Oasans are a fully realized species, as is ecosystem of their planet. How did Faber develop the science fiction aspects of the book?

It seemed to me that Michel wanted to create a new world that would thoroughly disorient Peter, but also serve as a stark contrast to Earth and what Bea has to endure. I knew Michel was well versed in science fiction--his novel Under the Skin has SF elements as well--so this wasn't very surprising. However, we were pleasantly surprised by his acknowledgements, where he thanked the writers of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. They were incredibly influential on him and their world-building influenced how he envisioned Oasis.

The cover of The Book of Strange New Things made its debut on a giant banner at BookExpo this year, along with ARCs featuring gilded edges that resemble a Bible. How did you decide on a direction for the artwork?

Our cover director, Chris Brand, started by looking for religious iconography to try and play off of. One of the things that inspired him was Michelangelo's Creation of Adam--the cover became a sort of cosmic version of that. The hands reaching out across stars speak to Peter's journey, but they also mirror the distance growing between him and Bea in their relationship. --Donald Powell

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