A cross is seen as the moon is illuminated by sunlight during a total lunar eclipse, 8 October 8, 2014. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt