I love a good book about priests in space. Though I am willing to interpret this genre loosely (more on this in a moment), its epitome is Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which is about a Jesuit mission into outer space. I read it a few years ago, and then Jill read it too, and we both read the sequel, Children of God, and have been fans of this genre ever since. I include in the genre books like A Canticle for Leibowitz, in which the priests don’t depart for space until the very end of the novel, and the Ender series by Orson Scott Card, in which there aren’t any actual priests in space (although there are priests on other planets; three guesses how they got there?) but which is nevertheless preoccupied with the coupling of theology and science fiction. A few years ago I read a weird C.S. Lewis novel called Out of the Silent Planet that felt like a cheap remake of The Sparrow (yes, I know – chronologically the influence, if any, would have to have worked in the other direction, but Russell’s novel is so much better that it makes Lewis’s seem rather silly) but which nonetheless belongs in the genre.
So imagine my delight when I learned about Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Though its protagonist, Peter Leigh, is a Protestant and therefore technically a minister rather than a priest, he does in fact go into space. Before he does so, he makes love one last time with his wife, Beatrice, and exchanges some final endearments with their beloved cat, Joshua (he doesn’t actually have sex with the cat, but close enough). Then he flies to the United States (Peter and his wife are from England), where a company called USIC puts him in suspended animation and rockets him off to a planet called Oasis.
USIC reminds me of the Dharma Initiative, from the TV series Lost (which perhaps also belongs in the Priests in Space genre; the island is sort of like space, right?). No one knows what the acronym stands for, and there is a certain sterility surrounding everything the company does. No one complains or gets into arguments, and no one has any passions or individual interests; everyone works long hours and then engages in lukewarm recreational activities like running on treadmills and reading years-old magazines from Earth. No one at USIC is especially interested in talking with Peter about religion, either, but that’s OK because, as Peter learns, he wasn’t really sent to Oasis to minister to the USIC employees. Instead, he was sent to serve as a missionary to the natives of Oasis.
Peter is the second missionary to visit the local residents. The first was a man named Kurtzberg (a Conrad reference? I’m guessing yes), who has disappeared. No one knows where he is – or if anyone does, they’re not telling. A linguist named Tartaglione also visited them and disappeared (if you’ve read The Sparrow, you’re probably thinking that this whole schematic sounds a little familiar, and you’re right – it does). Thanks to Kurtzberg and Tartaglione, many of the natives that Peter meets speak basic English and have already been introduced to Christianity, a fact that allows Faber to skip a lot of tedious preliminaries. This does not, however, prevent the novel from being tedious. We never meet the natives who have not converted to Christianity – they are simply described as “private” and never show their faces – and the ones who have converted are rule-bound true believers who take everything Peter says as gospel truth and never question orders. In other words, this component of the novel contains absolutely no conflict. There is conflict elsewhere in the novel (more on this in a moment), but for me the clash of Peter’s world and the world of the Oasis natives was an important part of the suspense of the novel, and it never amounted to much. We also never know why the natives (some of them, anyway) are so receptive to Christianity, and we’re never even told their names. Every native who has converted has taken the name “Jesus Lover” and then a number. This is a fine way of revealing that this is a society that does not value individuality very much, but my society does value individuality, and I was none too pleased to have to sift through 450 pages of dialogue among people called “Jesus Lover Thirty-Six” and Jesus Lover Seventy-Seven” and “Jesus Lover Twelve.”
There’s more to say about the Jesus Lovers, but I want to fill you in on some of the other parts of Peter’s experience on Oasis. His room is equipped with a device that allows him to send “shoots,” which are basically emails, to other USIC personnel and also home to Beatrice. Peter worries from the beginning that he won’t be a good correspondent with Beatrice; he is a gifted speaker but finds it hard to express himself in writing. Sure enough, Beatrice writes long, detailed letters every day and becomes annoyed with Peter when his replies are delayed, curt, or nonexistent. More concerning, though, is the content of Beatrice’s letters, which reveal that the planet Earth is falling apart. Every day seems to bring another earthquake, tsunami, flood, nuclear accident, or other catastrophe, and there are poorly-explained food shortages that eventually cause local grocery stores to go out of business. Crime rates soar as people jockey to meet their basic needs. Beatrice’s “shoots” grow more and more desperate as these crises encroach closer and closer upon their community in rather implausible ways, and for some reason Peter can’t even bring himself to offer her any basic consolation or even to express the outrage the disasters seem to call for. His total apathy toward Beatrice’s panic made me wonder if there was some kind of drug administered to the USIC employees (or something in the atmosphere – the Jesus Lovers and their non-Jesus-loving confreres are pretty apathetic too) to cause them to emotionally detach themselves from their former lives – but nothing comes of this.
After several failed attempts to make friends with his USIC colleagues, Peter starts spending most of his time with the natives, who are helping him build a church. I should mention, by the way, that the natives of Oasis don’t have faces. The ones who are Jesus Lovers cover themselves from head to toe in colored robes and wear gloves on their hands, so Peter really doesn’t know much about what they look like. The parts of their bodies that peek out of the heads of their robes, however, do not contain eyes or noses or mouths or any other feature that we would recognize as belonging to a face. Instead, their faces are pink and bulbous and kind of blister-like; Faber devotes a long, confusing paragraph near the beginning of the novel to a simile stating that each Jesus Lover’s face looks like two side-by-side fetuses – an image that I never quite visualized or made sense of. Peter remarks that he does not know exactly how they see, hear, and speak – a reasonable mystery at the beginning of the novel, but one that is never resolved. Peter does eventually witness a native childbirth, in which the bulbous blistery pink “face” of the pregnant native parts in the middle and the baby pops out amid much misery and pain. I was intrigued by this detail and made what I think is the reasonable conclusion that what Peter assumes is the natives’ faces is actually their genitalia. I assumed this detail would be important as the novel progressed, but it wasn’t. Maybe the faces were really genitalia, and maybe they weren’t. Apparently it is not important.
This is how the novel proceeds. Peter cares about the Jesus Lovers, but nothing much happens between the two species (compare this plot to the riveting interaction between the human characters in The Sparrow and the two sentient species on the planet Rakhat). Peter wants to know more about USIC and its mission in space; he learns a little, but without consequence. Earth is enduring a shitstorm of natural and man-made disasters, but we only hear of them through Beatrice’s increasingly rattled, paranoid “shoots.” I became emotionally caught up in this novel only twice. The first time was when Peter gives a eulogy for a deceased USIC employee that seems to borrow from the idea of the “speaker for the dead” in the Ender series (the purpose of this episode seems to be to reinforce the idea that Peter is a good speaker even though he is not a good writer in his shoots to Beatrice); the second involves the tragic fate of Joshua the cat. The novel briefly picks up some momentum when Peter finally meets Tartaglione the missing linguist, who supplies some missing information about the mission of USIC and also delivers a passionate speech about human nature. This is another above-average moment in this supremely tepid novel, but the thing is: Priests in Space novels are supposed to be like this on every single page. One paragraph of grandeur and blowing the pretensions of the governing body aside like so much space dust roundabout page 423 just does not cut it.
I have high standards for novels about priests in space. This isn’t a genre that just anybody can muck around with. I’m not a religious person myself, and for the most part I am happy not to be, but every so often I like to live vicariously through a literary character in a novel that really engages me on intellectual, emotional, and linguistic levels all at once. If this novel had more of an ironic edge, I would think Faber was suggesting that there are no answers, that other worlds are just as banal and meaningless as our own, and that no one is waiting in the great beyond with the answers to all of our questions. But the novel isn’t even philosophical enough to warrant this interpretation. I was so willing to follow Michel Faber into space. I trusted this novel implicitly even before I opened it. It has some strengths (general premise; Beatrice’s “shoots,” Peter’s eulogy; Tartaglione’s rant; native childbirth-via-face), but even in its strengths it is not good enough: a disappointment to me and to everyone else who adores the great Platonic Priest-in-Space novel in the sky.