Monday, November 03, 2014

Superfluous us, I see?

Illustration by Paul Sahre

For the New York Times, Marcel Theroux reviews "Michel Faber's 'Book of Strange New Things'" (October 30, 2014):
At the outset of Michel Faber's latest novel, "The Book of Strange New Things," its protagonist, Peter Leigh, is about to venture into space. Peter is a pastor who has been selected to travel to a newly colonized planet at the request of its native population. His official job title is "minister (Christian) to indigenous population." His vocation will set new records for both missionary work and long-distance relationships: Peter is going to be separated by light-years from his wife, Beatrice. Leaving Bea; their cat, Joshua; and a 21st-century planet Earth where the current sense of climatic and geopolitical chaos has been magnified by a couple of sadly too-­plausible degrees, Peter heads off to take up his new ministry . . . . [T]he ingredients of "The Book of Strange New Things" . . . . include a planet, named Oasis by the mysteriously acronymed corporation (USIC) that runs it; a complacent and incurious human work force at a base on the nascent colony; a predecessor [pastor] who has gone missing in unexplained circumstances; and an inscrutable alien people . . . . [R]eaders . . . will recognize the method: taking a standard science fiction premise and unfolding it with the patience and focus of a tai chi master, until it reveals unexpected connections, ironies and emotions. "The Book of Strange New Things" squeezes its genre ingredients to yield a meditation on suffering, love and the origins of religious faith. As Faber reminds us, the phrase in the Old Testament that is variously rendered as "of old" or "long ago" in different versions means, in Hebrew, something closer to "from afar." It is as though the moral precepts that govern much of the world's behavior are derived from far-off and alien civilizations.
That word would appear to be rachowq [רָחוֹק]: "remote, far, distant, distant lands, distant ones."
Peter's mission, which he takes to with great enthusiasm, is to satisfy the Oasans' mysterious hunger for religious instruction. Not the least of the obstacles is the Oasan language, which thanks to their strange physiognomy "sounded like a field of brittle reeds and rain-sodden lettuces being cleared by a machete." On the page, this is rendered by an unfamiliar orthography that transmits an alien shock to the reader . . . . Their bizarre appearance aside, the calm, agrarian life of the Oasans so closely resembles a Christian ideal that it risks making Peter's preaching redundant. But as the novel goes on, it becomes clear that the Oasan condition is in its way as unenviable as the human one.
That sounds intriguing. We travel halfway around the universe, only to learn that we are superfluous, as lost in the distance as we are at home - such is our message. What need, then, to go anywhere?

Still, I might learn something, so I'll probably order this book . . .

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