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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.