Book Review: THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS By Michel Faber

I am a little disappointed in myself because I have been trying to read books by non-white or non-male authors (because of my obvious interest in the trend). I will admit this book was not worth breaking my commitment to it. I go so far as to say that only a white male writing about this concept would have been published in the first place; only they are given the right to explore and fail in the attempt so entirely. To add insult to injury, the way Faber talks about race in the book (or, has his character think about race, made me a bit uncomfortable at times. But I’ll leave that for below). This book, I don’t think, even passes the Bechdel test. It’s infuriating to me that this book is/is going to be read as more “literary” than “genre.” But that goes with the traditional publishing/traditional author territory, I guess.

In a nutshell: This book is a very interesting concept that falls flat by having no purpose beyond said concept or its underlying platitudes.

Here are my scattered thoughts on the book (I’m not really going to sum up the plot, because other people on Goodreads have done a better job. Really, this is for those who have read the novel too and want to see a fellow reader’s opinion) [Spoilers]:

In the book, no phones were used. There is only this email-like technology used between planets called the Shoot. The Shoot’s purpose (over phones and so on) may be to limit costs and etc., but I found it hard to believe that no other methods of communication could be thought of (cheaply) when humans in the book were smart enough to know how to “jump” through time. Also hard to believe was that Peter, the main character, was so old fashioned (he didn’t like cell phones). But the dude lives in the future. He should be more comfortable with technology then we are by default. It made no sense.

In one scene, Peter sees an Asian man and before the man even tells Peter is name, Peter knows he is Chinese (p 69 in my book, hardback). This is just one example of how Faber’s use of race seemed a little… forced? Glazed over? Disengaged? All of the above, sometimes.

I found it odd that Peter didn’t really know much about the Oasians (the lifeforms on the planet Oasis) before even meeting them. I mean, I can see how people on earth might not know about them if the company that discovered them did a cover up, but that point is never really fleshed out or explained logically. It seemed more like a ploy to let the reader learn along with the character instead of info dumping. Not that I like info dumping, I just didn’t like the ploy because it didn’t make sense story-wise. Yes, it was hard to take pictures on Oasis (the planet), and, yes, it was hard to send messages back to earth. But Peter didn’t even know if the aliens were humanoid beforehand and I thought that was grossly unbelievable. Why would you even agree to go on a “missionary mission” if you weren’t even sure what the “people” you’d be witnessing to would look like?

Which brings me to my next point. I thought it was pretentious of any human to assume that aliens would need “salvation.” The Oasians were as sinless as…animals. How dare any human assume they needed Jesus or that they were in some way fallen? So, I was biased against Peter and humans to begin with. But that’s beside the point, because of course it is realistic that some human—somewhere—would be holier-than-thou and feel the need to spread religion. The twist of the novel (or, the only twist I noticed) was that the aliens wanted to be witnessed to. That was the best part of the novel. They were a missionary’s wet dream. Which also supports my bias against the mission to begin with. They didn’t need Jesus.

When Bea, Peter’s wife, mentions how horrible things are back home, she usually said something about a new natural disaster going on, which I found dull and impractical. NO ONE knows that much about the world and what is going on. Even if you’re of a futuristic human population that is constantly connect to news sources. I mean, she can know all about what is happening in twenty different parts of the world (and care about it), but humans don’t know what the Oasians look like? Seems unrealistic.

I was offended that Faber never fully explored the real reason behind all the chaos going on in the world: overpopulation. Only at the end does Bea admit that her tricking Peter into getting her pregnant was a selfish idea. No shit. The world is falling apart and you want to bring another person into it? That made me dislike Bea. I probably was supposed to. But I found it unforgivable that Peter would leave Oasis to go back to a selfish person like her. Does that make me a terrible person, for not being able to forgive? Meh.

Some of the lesser characters fall flat and are just names on a page. I got tired of keeping track. It was easier to keep track of the Oasian’s names. Jesus-lover-number-five, one, whatever. But maybe that speaks more for the book than I originally let it. The Oasians are fleshed out while the humans on base are just boring vessels. However, I find that unfair to those humans. I liked them more than the ones stuck on earth, for sure.

Another thing that bothered me was that the end went too fast and didn’t match the pacing of the rest of the book. And all the while you saw it coming.

This was not a life changing book. I find it hard to make excuses for its faults. It could have been a platform for a lot of theological and environmental issues, but it never really had the courage to complete or fully express its thoughts (if it really had any. I’m not sure. The fact that I’m not sure is part of the beef I have with it).

Edit: P.S. I knew the cat would die. I’m very frustrated that Faber would offer poor Joshua up as a literary sacrifice like that. All for the sake of manipulating readers into sadness. It didn’t really work on me, because it was too real and too much like what I experience for animals every day. Though, it was nice to see someone write about an animal with due respect. Even if it was killed off for effect.

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