At the end of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
For a while now, evangelicals have had to restrict their preaching to creatures on this planet, but someday, who knows? Will the heathens of Andromeda embrace the good news about a man who was nailed to a cross a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
I can remember debating that essential question late at night as an undergrad at my little Christian college in Illinois. (We were a wild bunch!) The issue of extraterrestrial proselytizing has attracted some attention from notable science fiction writers, too. Captain Kirk was more interested in spreading his seed than the Gospel, but Trekkies will remember Episode 54, when the intrepid crew of the Starship Enterprise stumbled upon Son worshipers on a distant planet. And far more powerfully, Mary Doria Russell wrote her first novel, “The Sparrow,” about a Jesuit priest who travels four light years away for the glory of God.
The latest story to boldly go into this final frontier of theological speculation comes from Michel Faber, a Dutch-born writer who lives in Scotland. Best known for “The Crimson Petal and the White” (2002), which took place in the Victorian era, Faber now launches us into the future, when interplanetary travel is almost routine.
For all its galactic wonders, “The Book of Strange New Things” is a subtle, meditative novel that winds familiar space-alien tropes around terrestrial reflections on faith and devotion. The story opens with Peter Leigh’s last night on Earth. He has already completed the difficult steps from drug addict to man of God. Now, he’s ready for one giant leap. The pastor of a small church in England, he has been chosen from thousands of applicants “to pursue the most important missionary calling since the Apostles had ventured forth to conquer Rome.” His job — classified as “urgent” — is to serve as “Minister (Christian) to Indigenous Population” of a planet called Oasis.
Faber seems largely uninterested in the technical apparatus of science fiction. The spaceship, the physics of “the Jump,” the physiology of inanimate suspension, along with the scientific breakthroughs that would be necessary to support such a voyage — he constructs all these details from an old refrigerator box with some tempera paint, like the special effects in an early episode of “Dr. Who.” But that spottiness gradually comes to reflect Peter’s own lack of attention to the fallen world. His sponsor is USIC, a shadowy multinational corporation about which Peter shows little interest. “I don’t really follow politics,” he confesses. “I don’t have access to social media.” None of those temporal distractions are relevant to his eternal vocation. “God will guide me,” he tells his nervous wife before shooting into the heavens.
Once the good pastor arrives in the new world, the novel sinks into its setting in fascinating ways, most cleverly by resisting our expectations of this impossibly alien place. Oasis appears almost without form, and void. It’s “a dark, moist tundra,” marked by searing temperatures and ferocious, magical rainstorms. The earthlings’ headquarters, too, are suspiciously bland. “There was something weird about the USIC personnel,” Peter thinks, but they treat him with cheery deference and give him a sparse room from which he can exchange e-mail (but no photos) with his wife. As she describes Earth falling into environmental and political ruin, he responds sporadically with perfunctory expressions of concern. More than a poignant demonstration of why long-
distance relationships never work, their correspondence suggests the dark side of Peter’s ministry: No matter what calamities his wife outlines, the crisis that interests him is always the one in which he gets to play the savior.
Strikingly, “The Book of Strange New Things” isn’t a story of first contact. Peter’s new colleagues have been trading drugs and food with the aliens for years. Indeed, he’s the replacement for an earlier minister who went native and vanished. Yet as Peter heads off wearing his Pauline sandals and robe, he knows nothing about the creatures he’s meant to serve. “This world’s indigenous inhabitants, thriving or otherwise, were scarcely mentioned in USIC’s literature,” Faber writes, “except for fastidious assurances that nothing was planned or implemented without their full and informed consent.”
Of course, we read that bland corporate assurance with the dismal history of exploration and Christian mission work crying in our minds: Columbus brought salvation and smallpox; the first Thanksgiving feast began with grace but eventually gave way to war and a trail of tears. Despite raising these concerns about exploitation, though, the novel remains focused on Peter’s sweet interaction with the beings of Oasis. They’re a delicate, private race, mostly humanoid, except for their faces, which look like “a pile of entrails.” They don’t like to be touched. No problem.
Faber’s most remarkable creation is not just the aliens’ physiology but their whole unearthly culture, with aspirations, concerns and customs that we can’t possibly fathom. Their murmuring voices sound like “wet bracken being crushed underfoot.” Their language, which has no consonants, is transcribed throughout the book in a kind of Cyrillic script.
Expecting skepticism and doubt, or at least “monolithic barriers of foreignness,” Peter finds instead scores of faithful Oasans eagerly waiting for him. These gentle souls can’t get enough stories about “the technique of Jesus.” They insist Peter read more from the Bible, which they call “the book of strange new things.” (The gold-edged pages of this novel are a clever sanctifying touch by the publisher.)
What could be more seductive for a minister than to be embraced by a community of such loving congregants? The Oasans’ thirst for the Word exceeds anything Peter has experienced — perhaps it even exceeds his own enthusiasm. “Peter had a good feeling about his ministry here,” Faber writes. “God was taking a special interest in the way things were panning out.”
Classic sci-fi puts us on guard in pleasant situations like this — “Soylent Green is people!” — but Faber has something more subtle and mournful in mind. It takes a while to realize that, despite its bizarre setting and all the elements of an interplanetary opera, this is a novel of profound spiritual intimacy. Peter knows the Bible well, and if you do, too, you’ll see that he experiences everything through the fabric of its metaphors and parables. He prays like someone who actually believes, which in literary fiction is far more exotic than a space alien with a hamburger face. But there’s something naive and self-centered about his devotion. The purity of the Oasans’ belief in the Gospel that he preaches will test his faith in a way he never expected.
As someone who harbors a fondness for science fiction and thirsts for more complex treatment of religion in contemporary novels, I relished every chance to cloister myself away with “The Book of Strange New Things.” If it feels more contemplative than propulsive, if Faber repeatedly thwarts his own dramatic premises, he also offers exactly what I crave: a state of mingled familiarity and alienness that leaves us with questions we can’t answer — or forget.
Charles is the editor of Book World. His reviews appear in The Washington Post every Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS
By Michel Faber
Hogarth. 500 pp. $28