“Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah…you are Peter, and upon this rock will I build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.” Matthew 16:17-18, excerpted
Peter, a Christian pastor from England — denomination unnamed but probably Anglican or Methodist — is selected out of many applicants to go to a distant planet as a missionary. After much discussion with his wife, Bea, Peter accepts the challenge and rockets away to Oasis to preach the Gospel to the natives.
Upon arrival, Peter quickly makes the acquaintance of the Oasans, as he calls them, and decides to live among them to better deliver God’s Word daily, rather than stay at the human settlement and visit the Oasans once or twice a week. He commences leading Bible studies; he oversees the construction of a church; he starts translating the Bible, known by the Oasans as The Book of Strange New Things, into the Oasan language; and he begins losing all but the most tenuous contact with his fellow humans, even his wife. Meanwhile, Bea is sending increasingly frantic and frightening messages from Earth, where all Hell seems to be breaking loose.
Let’s talk about Peter for just a moment. A former drug addict and alcoholic, he turned his life around when he met Bea; he became a Christian under her influence, and not just a Christian but an ordained minister. His name is no coincidence: like Simon bar Jonah above, he became a different person when he met Christ, and literally built a new church in a new world, despite facing opposition and misunderstanding and prejudice on nearly all sides.
Allegorical characterization aside, this is not a “Christian” novel by any stretch of the imagination and non-religious folks should not hesitate to dive right in. It’s a fish-out-of-water story. It’s a do-the-best-that-you-can-with-what-you-have story. It’s a character study of a man under extraordinary stress. The parts of the story that focus on Peter’s missionary work aren’t intended to evangelize the reader: this is simply what Peter does and who he is, and his story couldn’t be told without discussing the teachings of Christ.
Michel Faber leaves a few dangling threads in his narrative. For example, it seems odd that USIC, the multinational conglomerate funding the Oasis expedition, would want a minister as part of their team until one discovers that the native population of the planet in question demands it, and is withholding the food supply from the humans currently on the planet until said missionary arrives. So, Peter as replacement is easily understood, but why was a missionary — specifically, a Christian missionary — included in the first place? That question is left unanswered. And the grim foreboding that seemed to be building up about the planet, its climate, and its natives, was left completely unresolved. The plot didn’t take the direction I expected, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it did leave me wondering if I had misinterpreted all that foreshadowing. The ambivalent ending left me somewhat dissatisfied, even as I realized there was no other way to resolve the storyline: thus, the three-star rating rather than a four-star. Regardless, writing and characterization were excellent, and for a non-traditional SF writer, Faber did a pretty good job with his world-building. While I still regard The Crimson Petal and the White as Faber’s best work, The Book of Strange New Things showcases his versatility.