Clarke Award 1: The Strange and The New

I’m mak­ing myself a host­age to for­tune by imply­ing, in the title, that I’ll review each of the Clarke Award final­ists, but that’s what I’m intend­ing to do.

First, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things.

What fas­cin­ates me about Strange New Things is the con­trast between the lav­ish treat­ment by the crit­ic­al estab­lish­ment and my own reac­tion to it, which is much cool­er. M John Harrison (whose work I’ve always found self-con­sciously unortho­dox but in a good way), writes that the nov­el is ‘deeply affect­ing’.

David Mitchell, anoth­er writer I admire, has blurbed:

Michel Faber’s second mas­ter­piece, quite dif­fer­ent to The Crimson Petal and The White but every bit as lumin­es­cent and mem­or­able. It is a por­trait of a liv­ing, breath­ing rela­tion­ship, frayed by dis­tance. It is an enquiry into the moun­tains faith can move and the moun­tains faith can’t move. It is mani­ac­ally grip­ping.

Before I set down my thoughts, here’s a thumb­nail of the story: a young, evan­gel­ic­al priest called Peter is selec­ted to bring Christianity to ali­ens on the plan­et Oasis. He does so, while his mar­it­al rela­tion­ship deteri­or­ates over email.

One dif­fi­culty I had with Strange New Things con­cerns the ‘strange’. The ali­ens are not very. Strange, that is. They are, indeed, start­lingly famil­i­ar, and so is their plan­et, in as much as it is human-hab­it­able atmo­sphere-, grav­ity-, and nutri­tion-wise. Nothing wrong with that (Star Trek gets away with it, as did Iain Banks), but it jars against the groun­ded, real­ist­ic England Faber describes at the begin­ning of the story—if we take the rep­res­ent­a­tion of Earth ser­i­ously, why not the plan­et Oasis?

And then there’s the banal­ity of the human out­post. It has all the char­ac­ter of pro­vin­cial air­port. Again, noth­ing wrong with that in itself, but banal­ity and bore­dom are tox­ic ele­ments to stir into your fic­tion; you need to be care­ful mak­ing the read­er under­stand that a char­ac­ter is feel­ing bored, or that a place is banal, by mak­ing the read­er feel the same way. I don’t want to be bored.

Speaking as what reli­gious people term an ‘athe­ist’, I found it refresh­ing to read a book from the per­spect­ive of a Christian, par­tic­u­larly in a sci­ence fic­tion con­text. It was a real shame that oppor­tun­it­ies for fric­tion between his beliefs and his experiences—particularly the tech­no­lo­gic­al ones—remained unex­plored, basic­ally because the char­ac­ter, as writ­ten, is unin­ter­ested in how the world works. He’s only inter­ested in propagat­ing Christian beliefs, and the Oasans make this easy for him.

M John Harrison again:

This is a big nov­el – partly because it has to con­struct and explain its unhomely set­ting, partly because it has such a lot of reli­gious, lin­guist­ic, philo­soph­ic­al and polit­ic­al freight to deliv­er – but the read­er is pulled through it at some pace by the goth­ic sense of anxi­ety that per­vades and taints every ele­ment.

Without wish­ing to make an unfair com­par­is­on, check out Tolstoy’s Ana Karenina if you want a nov­el truly freighted with ideas. Two of his char­ac­ters can dis­cuss psy­cho­logy in the con­text of the philo­sophy of mind and cov­er just as much ground, and more effect­ively, as schol­arly works on the sub­ject. En passant, Tolstoy the­ory-checks pretty much most of the mod­ern psy­cho­lo­gic­al lit­er­at­ure, blaz­ing well ahead of Freud. And he tells a story at the same time. Much of the word­count of Strange New Things can be attrib­uted to char­ac­ters mov­ing from A to B, and hav­ing mean­der­ing conversations—which some­times hap­pen while they’re mov­ing from A to B.

There is one com­pel­ling idea in the nov­el, but I can’t tell you what it is without ruin­ing the story. It comes too late, how­ever, for Faber to pay expli­cit atten­tion to it. A re-read might bring up inter­est­ing fore­shad­ows.

Overall, it’s a nov­el with a sale­able premise—‘missionary in space’—but an exe­cu­tion that con­sciously sands-down the ‘new’ and bases the ‘strange’ on what is, essen­tially, the famil­i­ar.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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