A Sense of Dread in The Book of Strange New Things

indexIf you were a writer of books, and your world was ending, what kind of book would you write?

In 2012 Michel Faber gave an interview with the Telegraph in which he talked about losing his ability to immerse himself in the world of his work, since his wife had been diagnosed with cancer. He says that his art requires a head space that shuts other people out, but he couldn’t do that when he was focused on taking care of his wife. In that interview, Faber says his wife is in remission so he is hoping he will be able to disappear back into the world of his novel, to complete the book that he had been trying to write for years. That book is 2014 The Book of Strange New Things. Faber’s wife, Eva, died while he was completing his final revisions.

The Book of Strange New Things is a work of science fiction of speculative fiction, depending on your point of view. It’s about space travel, climate change, Christianity, love, addiction, obsession, aliens. Faber’s writing doesn’t deliver a strong opinion on any of these themes, what it does deliver is a strong and constant set of dread.

Peter, a former homeless addict and current Christian minister, is selected to travel to Oasis, a colony run by the shadowy corporation USIC. Peter hopes to travel with his beloved wife Beatrice, but the corporation decides to send him alone. We never learn exactly where Oasis is or exactly what USIC does, only that they a major employer, on earth and otherwise. Peter makes the journey and is tasked with ministering to the local alien population. As he becomes closer to the natives he receives increasingly panicked emails from his wife about the state of affairs on earth; whole countries wiped out by weather events, no food in the supermarkets. And, you know, hilarity ensues.

It is the sense of not knowing that delivers the dread. First about USIC; what is this organization? What do they want with Oasis? There are hints of course, the increasingly dire situation on earth suggests USIC is looking for another option to house the human race but our only knowledge comes from Peter and that knowledge is limited.

Peter and Beatrice communicate via an email-type system. We hear from Beatrice via her letters about the state of the world and about her own state. Peter seems unconcerned as she begins to panic so as the reader one wonders, is Beatrice just an exaggerator? When it becomes clear that is not the case the reader craves more information about the world but with Beatrice as the only source of this knowledge there is only speculation and imagining the worst.

Dread too about the aliens. Can they really be as benign as they appear? Why the obsession with Christianity? Is Peter’s relationship with them growing too close? There are hundreds of questions and as Peter gets even closer to certain aliens, a female with a beautiful yellow robe in particular, the dread grows.

In the end we’re left with only our dread. The world might end, Peter may lose his wife, USIC may commit unspeakable evil. There’s no happy ending, just the inevitable one.


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