ARMCHAIR BOOK CLUB: Exploring Strange New Things

Heather Allen explores Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things in this week's Armchair Book Club.

When I talk to friends and people on the street about one of the top-rated books of 2014, The Book of Strange New Things, I always end up making it sound ridiculous. In fact I’m such a poor evangelist, I’m not sure that I’ve convinced a single person to pick up the book. I’m going to try again now.

Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things centres on a Christian pastor, who is selected by a secretive mega-corporation to travel to a faraway planet to preach to aliens. The pastor prepares for the hardest mission of his life. After all, if fellow Earthlings are hard to convince about the ways of the Lord, what’s it going to be like to convert alien life forms?

Like many missionaries, Peter hasn’t brushed up on his subjects. When he gets to the new planet, he’s dumbfounded by the strange looking aliens who greet him singing Amazing Grace, and call themselves not by name, but by Jesus Lover Number One, Two and so on.

At first, Peter is overjoyed with his pious congregation. But, ironically, it’s hard to preach to the converted. What should be an evangelist’s dream starts to make Peter question his own faith.

The Book of Strange New Things is certainly quirky, but Faber manages to take on plenty of life’s big questions. Some of his messages hit you over the head: We shouldn’t fly off to other places because there isn’t going to be any place as well suited to us as Earth.  And, of course, Peter eventually figures out that our home isn’t necessarily Earth, but just where the people we care about live.

Faber has fun with the idea that some of us actually think a colony on another planet would work – even  when we haven’t even begun to figure out how to live happily on earth. He also cleverly spoofs the notion that extraterrestrials would appear humanoid.

The actual humans living on the new planet’s space station alongside Peter are accepted to the program only if they are the type who never kick up a fuss. They are the kind of people who are happy in bland cafeterias, eating bland food, and listening to bland music. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to have only scientists on the selection committee. They’ve figured out how to stay alive, but not why.

With each passing day, I feel myself further converted to the idea that The Book of Strange New Things isn’t a joke, but a masterpiece. Perhaps I’ve had some success at converting you. I keep thinking about new ways of interpreting the book — and at times I’m jolted into looking around at what other people do, and thinking that they might as well be aliens.

Heather Allen is a book reviewer living in Penticton.


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