Linked reviews: ‘The Bone Clocks’ and ‘The Book of Strange New Things’ (part 2)

 

Part 2 of a linked review looking at these two hybrid genre novels, this time focusing on The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber. As before, some of what follows could be considered spoiler-y.

In short: it’s rather special.

On the face of it, the novel is a straightforward science fiction tale. An English pastor named Peter is employed by a multinational corporation, USIC (we never find out what the acronym stands for) and sent to the planet Oasis. He is tasked with preaching the Gospel to the native Oasans, a species in some ways familiar— they have a human-like anatomical body plan— and in other ways very alien (they have faces that resemble “a placenta with two foetuses… nestled head-to-head, knee-to-knee”). He is not allowed to bring his beloved wife Bea with him, but can send messages to her using an email system called the ‘Shoot’.

The story develops through two main strands: the pastor’s ministry to the Oasans (with his relations with the USIC base personnel forming an important sub-strand), and the growing strains of a supremely long distance relationship, which is largely revealed through the couple’s emails. These strains are exacerbated by a series of increasingly extreme personal, national and international mishaps and disasters related by Bea back home on Earth.

While life on the ‘home front’ becomes ever more desperate, it turns out that the Oasans have taken to Christianity like ducks to water. For Peter, life on Oasis falls into a dream-like pattern: long stints living with the native converts followed by recovery periods on the USIC base and feverish bouts interstellar marital messaging.

As might be expected, religion is important in the novel (The Book of Strange New Things being the Oasans’ name for the Bible). But the religiosity is handled surprisingly lightly: Peter’s Christian faith is largely accepted at face value, as is the lack of religious feeling in the USIC personnel he meets. It’s the uncertainty around the validity of the Oasans’ enthusiastic embrace of Christianity that forms one of the novel’s key questions. Despite this, there’s no sense of a Christian/religious agenda being pushed by Faber, nor for that matter an atheist one: just a keen interest in, and exploration of, the nature of human (and non-human) faith, hope and love. And the concluding sentiments could come right out of Corinthians.

To what extent is this a science fiction novel? Compared to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (see part 1), The Book of Strange New Things is more obviously upfront with its genre trappings. Although the first few pages don’t give much away, it’s not long before we meet a spaceship and land, with Peter, on an alien planet complete with a Golden Age of Science Fiction-esque syrupy intrusive atmosphere and green tinted water. While this won’t go down well with those readers who suffer literary anaphylaxis to anything with the slightest hint of space alien, underneath the pulpy science fiction skin the novel feels closer to timeless ‘mainstream’ literature. The underlying story would work almost as well with an entirely Earth-based setting, and if it had been written at any time up to the mid twentieth century I’m sure Africa would have supplied the distance and sense of ‘other’ required by the plot. But in the thoroughly post-colonial and globalised twenty first century, only deep space can provide these attributes. (Early on, we are told USIC “started up in Africa”, so we know things have moved along in a District 9-like full circle.)

That said, the science fiction elements work well enough: nothing is downright implausible, or at least contradictory to our common understanding of standard science fiction tropes. The faster-than-light ‘jumps’ and ansible-like ‘Shoot’ are so familiar from all the other science fiction ever written that long explanations would feel superfluous. It helps that Peter, the character we experience these wonders through, is profoundly uninterested in technical matters. It’s almost as if the science fiction elements are hiding in plain sight, neatly sidestepping the genre-confusion problem apparent in The Bone Clocks.

What else to say about the two books? Well, they both deal, in part, with what appears to be the collapse of Western civilisation. In the final segment of The Bone Clocks it feels immediate and viscerally frightening, but our close proximity to the calamity makes us closely question everything that’s happening. In The Book of Strange New Things the extreme distance between Peter and the misfortunes afflicting Bea— which we experience from Peter’s remote point of view— obfuscates the nature of the collapse. It appears to  be a particularly fragmentary accumulation of different disasters, some of which may or may not relate to climate change (in The Bone Clocks, it’s clearer that this is the primary underlying disaster). But this lack of clarity doesn’t really matter, when the novel’s overriding sense of threat relates to one couple’s marriage, rather than the Collapse of Everything.

In summary, then: both books are extremely well written on a sentence level— a joy to read. Both are fun, but for different reasons. I would heartily recommend both of them to anyone reading this, if these reviews haven’t ruined them for you. In terms of brazen carried-along-by-the-story reading enjoyment, The Bone Clocks carries it, but in terms of lasting overall emotional and intellectual satisfaction, and sheer I’ve-never-read-anything-like-it novelty, for me The Book of Strange New Things is the clear winner.

 

 

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