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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.