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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era