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.