A cross is seen as the moon is illuminated by sunlight during a total lunar eclipse, 8 October 8, 2014. Photo: Getty
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Christians in space: Michel Faber’s science-fiction “last book”

We are in a future that is mostly just like the present. This isn’t the world of The Jetsons: Peter and his wife Bea shop in Tesco, have a cat called Joshua, drive a regular old car and read the Daily Express.

The Book of Strange New Things 
Michel Faber
Canongate, 592pp, £18.99

If Armageddon were headed our way, we might not even see the news at first. It would be buried in the back pages, a brief item that would be all too easy to ignore. It might be a story about events in a distant land; we’d only sit up and take notice when things came a little closer to home.

The Gospel of Mark says: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” But who, exactly, are our neighbours? Just the people in the house next door? What about the people in the next street? What about the next galaxy? It all depends on your point of view. This is one of the most striking questions raised by Michel Faber’s compelling new novel, The Book of Strange New Things. At its launch he remarked, almost casually, that he reckoned he would never write another novel after this. His devoted readers – and there are a great many – can only hope he changes his mind.

On the surface, this tale begins like straight sci-fi: Peter Leigh is leaving for “Oasis”, a colony light years away from earth, in order to minister to its natives. We are in a future that is mostly just like the present. This isn’t the world of The Jetsons: Peter and his wife, Bea, shop in Tesco, have a cat called Joshua, drive a regular old car and read the Daily Express. Peter is a vicar who was rescued from alcoholism, homelessness and atheism by Bea; she is a nurse who brought him to God after he’d crashed out in her hospital. Now they are upstanding Christians, always on the alert for opportunities to proselytise, though never obtrusively so. But when a Christian is required – it would seem – out on Oasis, Peter feels called to go.

Here our present and Peter’s diverge. Space travel has been solved by something called the “Jump”, which sounds rather like the stasis Ripley and the crew endure in Alien. Peter is sent on his mission by USIC, a giant, faceless corporation about which we learn hardly anything at all, except that it bought Cape Canaveral after Nasa went bust. (We don’t even discover what its initials stand for. I thought there was an echo of SCI, the huge international funeral business that calls itself, euphemistically, Service Corporation International.)

In an endnote, Faber writes of his admiration for the Marvel comics of the 1960s and 1970s and one of the pleasures of this book is sensing the echoes of other science-fiction worlds. In Alien, however, Ripley’s ballpoint pens didn’t explode during her interstellar transit: this is the kind of detail that makes this book so convincing and appealing.

Peter – a plain-speaking, not particularly complex fellow – must adjust to his fellow humans in the strangely neutral world of Oasis. He must try to comprehend a planet that seems to be composed of featureless earth stretching out in every direction, where there are no rivers or oceans but rain dances through the sky like a swirling flock of starlings and where the natives, or at least some of them, seem oddly hungry for the teachings of Jesus Christ. And Peter must adjust to them, too: small creatures of indistinguishable gender, whose faces resemble, disturbingly, “a placenta with two foetuses . . . nestled head to head”. They call the Bible “the Book of Strange New Things”. How did they learn of the Bible? From the last missionary who served Oasis. What happened to him? He vanished.

No one – not the human settlers, not the Oasans – seems to want to discuss that. Peter ignores it. He is drawn ever deeper into his mission, so much so that the letters that come (via “the Shoot”, a sort of turbo email) from Bea hardly register with him. And yet they begin to describe an earth descending, bit by bit, into chaos. To the reader they are pretty alarming. First Tesco doesn’t stock the puddings Bea likes; then things quickly get much worse.

With its unadorned language and eerie, sincere sense of the power (and powerlessness) of faith, this is a haunting skin-crawl of a read. Faber has form, both with science fiction (Under the Skin) and in thinking about religion, Christianity in particular (The Fire Gospel). One of the most striking aspects of this novel is the way in which Peter’s faith is portrayed: it is a necessary mystery. But then, the novel asks, what is not a mystery? The aliens – who have learned to speak a simplified form of English, though sibilants are nearly unpronounceable to them and expressed in the text by coiling symbols with which Peter grows more and more comfortable as he moves into their world – are no less strange than the motley band of humans who make up the skeleton staff of the colony.

The first half of this novel might make you think it’s a straightforward space-age mystery: reader, turn the page and discover the terrible secret of the spacemen! It is not, however, that sort of book. It would be giving too much away to reveal which puzzles are solved and which are not. The greatest mystery is that engendered by every fully realised fiction. Here is a world that is both like and unlike our own, one in which we tell stories to console ourselves: it’s up to you which you listen to. “You don’t really believe that,” says one of Peter’s fellow colonists when he briskly, half-jokingly, describes the basis of Christianity. “Believe me, I do,” he says. Believe me, you will. 

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear