Review: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Brian G Turner

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This is a story that opens with no infodumps, no explanations - it's a journey of discovery. To begin to recount any part of the plot effectively tells the story, and I wouldn't want to spoil that for anyone.

What I can perhaps say is that it's a literary science fiction novel, about a Christian preacher who has to leave his beloved wife behind to help with something like a first contact situation. And that's as much as I'm saying. :)

The way it's written is extremely affecting. The whole feeling of other worldliness, the psychology of being isolated from loved ones, the tension that builds up from it all, is brilliantly done and totally got under my skin. Throughout most of my reading I was planning on giving it 5 stars.

But at the end I found that though the reader in my greatly enjoyed it, the writer in me equally hated it - for the simple fact that it felt like the ending was missing. If this was a genre novel, there would be another act to conclude all the tensions - perhaps even a sequel or trilogy to finish the story properly. But this is a standalone novel only, and it felt like it was lacking a proper resolution.

Structural complaints aside, I did find this to be a very interesting and intelligent story - the psychological experience really did envelope me in a way I can't recall any recent novel doing. The Christian preacher was an intelligent and sympathetic character, his situation was filled with believable conflict, and the alien world was one of the better described and engaging ones I've read.

I'm not sure how to compare it - perhaps with the recent film Arrival, but in a less visual and more of a close experience.

In the end, I'm glad I read it and would certainly recommend it for the reading experience. It's simply that the writing critic inside me says there should have been more - the open-ending ultimately left me far more dissatisfied that I wanted.
 

Hoverdasher

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Brian: Great review, period.

This review drew up within me similar sensations experienced while reading Heinlein's, Stranger in a Strange Land, not that I'm comparing the two.

The affect you mentioned draws me to my Amazon tab (shiver-shiver), to spend the paucity of my remaining funds, until my next payday.

(Yikes and, gulp).

I already have another book in my cart, just now: The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.

But, here goes--you've piqued my interest.

H.
 

Brian G Turner

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Just to add, the friend who recommended this book mentioned that at the time of writing Michel Faber's wife was very ill with cancer, and that's one reason for the open ending.

Knowing that, the story makes more sense and puts me somewhat in awe of the intense emotions he was probably putting in from his personal life.

Also, after her death, he apparently announced he would never write another novel.
 

Vertigo

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I'm afraid I had a very different response and hesitate to write a review on the basis that it's liable to just become a bit of a diatribe. I know it's meant to be a literary novel and I did watch an interview with Faber (he came across to me as being thoroughly pretentious and rather full of his own worth) in which he specifically called it a science fiction book and talked about how it has loads of layers. Now I normally like books with layers of understanding but I need to be sufficiently interested to delve into those layers. However, at no point in the reading of this book did I ever become interested; I found all the characters unlikeable and irritating in the extreme, the story just stumbled along pretty much aimlessly, everything about it - the characters, the events, the setting - was, for me, utterly implausible, it was filled with inconsistencies and contradictions. Maybe it's all meant to have been very allegorical but again I have to be interested to bother with that. And the ending simply wasn't an ending, I only really persisted with the reading in the hope that Faber would give me something that might help it all make some sense and that never happened.

I guess I just don't get this book; it totally failed to work for me and I just wish I'd given up around page 100 when it became obvious how much I wasn't enjoying it.

One other point, which is drifting into forbidden territory, is that I hate people who abrogate all responsibility for decisions and events to someone or something else, whether that be a God or any other belief. And this book was filled with "XXX will decide for me," "it's XXX's will," "XXX will tell me what to do," etc. and it just gets my hackles up every time. I almost permanently wanted to shout at Peter to show a little backbone and take responsibility for his own decisions.

Oh, well I guess it ended up a bit of a diatribe after all! It wasn't helped by all the special characters for the Oasans' language totally messing up the formatting in my ebook, making some passages, where there was a mixture, almost unreadable.
 

tinkerdan

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I just read his Under the Skin written in 2001...
Just to add, the friend who recommended this book mentioned that at the time of writing Michel Faber's wife was very ill with cancer, and that's one reason for the open ending.

Knowing that, the story makes more sense and puts me somewhat in awe of the intense emotions he was probably putting in from his personal life.

Also, after her death, he apparently announced he would never write another novel.
I would characterize it as being much the same as what you have said of this novel.
Well executed characters, plot and themes with intense involvement for the reader.
Real close examination of morality in respect to what is alien, what is human, what is animal and what is duty.
The end was a great disappointment.

I think it might be his standard way of writing.

Great ideas executed well; however somehow lacking in the ability or necessity to resolve an ending.

However, this is often the case with literary novels, so it might be said that he is following the guidelines to literary fiction.

This is funny, because
I'm afraid I had a very different response and hesitate to write a review on the basis that it's liable to just become a bit of a diatribe. I know it's meant to be a literary novel and I did watch an interview with Faber (he came across to me as being thoroughly pretentious and rather full of his own worth) in which he specifically called it a science fiction book and talked about how it has loads of layers. Now I normally like books with layers of understanding but I need to be sufficiently interested to delve into those layers. However, at no point in the reading of this book did I ever become interested; I found all the characters unlikeable and irritating in the extreme, the story just stumbled along pretty much aimlessly, everything about it - the characters, the events, the setting - was, for me, utterly implausible, it was filled with inconsistencies and contradictions. Maybe it's all meant to have been very allegorical but again I have to be interested to bother with that. And the ending simply wasn't an ending, I only really persisted with the reading in the hope that Faber would give me something that might help it all make some sense and that never happened.
It could easily be describing Under the Skin.
There was not much external conflict in the story, and the one time something happened to the MC I didn't feel invested in her enough to really feel the tension of the whole scene. And then apparently neither did Faber when he has her get up from that and go on to continue to do her job. Then much later when she seemed affected--I as the reader felt numb about her internal conflict(however maybe that's what he was going for).

I'm still trying to decide if I will read any more of his work.
Maybe I should read this one before serving judgement on his writing.
 
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tinkerdan

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I just finished this book--The Book of Strange New Things---about a week ago.
I have to say, after having read the author Michel Faber's Under The Skin, that the ending of this book is quite satisfying in comparison.
It's to be expected as I viewed it as a literary novel.

However, I must admit that in researching it, while waiting for my copy to arrive, I found that in an interview Faber said that he viewed it as a Science Fiction novel and that might muddy up the thing. I do think it is fair to say that If it is, then perhaps he was trying to bring a bit of the literary into Science Fiction.

In a way it's a compelling book, and unlike @Brian G Turner, I'm perfectly happy to give a bit of an idea of what it's about. I'm getting this from the leaf of the jacket on the Hardbound edition that I have.

Peter, a devoted man of faith, is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Perter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter's teaching--his Bible is their 'Book of strange new things".
I think it's fair to reveal this because the reader never does find out just why they call the bible The book of strange new things.
Because of their 'illness' the only compelling argument might be that they marvel at the concept of everlasting life.

What is interesting about this story is that there is no real conflict outside of man against the alien nature of the planet. So Peter lives a rather idyllic life on this planet while things on earth go poorly for his wife. The only reason Peter suffers is mostly because of his own inattention to his own needs(he is more a threat to himself than anything else on the planet).

What I found lacking in the story was the fact that the real conflict of the story, what happens to his wife, comes through to the reader in the long messages that they send back and forth. And once again it seems that Peter is somewhat his own enemy here. Why I found this weak was that the whole concept of the Ansible type communication was used to basically show the disintegration of his wife's personal resolve in their marriage and some inability in accepting the consequences of some of her own decisions. In part it might be guilt that drives her downward spiral. Needless, she comes off as a spoiled, whinny, self involved person whose only outlet seems to be in vilifying her absent husband. Receiving this through written messages minimized what was occurring on earth and around his wife.

Peter is little help because the woman writing to him is not the same woman he lived with all the early years of their marriage, he has no clue and is constantly responding to that other woman he remembers.

And that is really what this book is about, the slow disintegration of their relationship when separated by great distance.

There is another thread in the subtext of the messages that comes close to a description of events that could be onset of Armageddon,; though by the time that becomes clear, it is difficult to sort the truth of the events from her rants and her need to blame Peter, who she rightly assumes is somewhere so far away having a rather pleasant time of it.

I could give this Five of Five stars; however, the weakness of the wife's POV being absent(only represented by her long diatribes)makes me more inclined to go with 4 stars.

I recommend it, keeping in mind that it is less Science Fiction than it is an examination of human nature under strange circumstances.

By the way the Hardbound edition I received has gilded pages.
 
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