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It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter 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 teachings - his Bible is their "book of strange new things". But Peter is rattled when Bea's letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea's faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.
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By KHarrang on 11-11-14
The Book with a Strange New Setting
This book has received much critical acclaim, the New York Times Book Review labeling it “the literature of enchantment.” Another reviewer pronounced it the best novel of the year. With an interesting premise of a missionary traveling to another galaxy, I eagerly went off my usual audiobook diet of non-fiction to try more exotic fare.
Fans of Marcel Faber will no doubt enjoy more of his elegant prose and detailed character development. And if there were an Olympics for audio book narration, Josh Cohen would take home the gold medal with his uncanny mastery of countless voices and accents. Faber explained in an NPR interview that he wrote this book after his wife was diagnosed with incurable cancer, and his understandably dystopian world view definitely comes through in his writing. Although some may categorize this book as science fiction, Faber uses the alien civilization and distant human outpost as more of a device for examining estrangement and relationships.
That said, I found the book ultimately frustrating, and all the favorable reviews surprising. Science fiction fans will probably not consider this book in the genre at all, given how incidental are the details of the other world and its inhabitants. If one would have thought that the first contact with other life forms would have been a momentous historical event, none of the characters in the book apparently think so. The missionary, appropriately named Peter, spends no time reflecting on this singular marvel, but rather sets off for the distant galaxy as if he were traveling to Africa or somewhere, giving more thought to things like how his cat will do in his absence.
Much of the book is devoted to Peter’s communications with his wife back on Earth, who he corresponds with via a crude form of intergalactic email (apparently attachments are too data intensive, sort of like in the early days of dial up). Readers hoping a lot more will happen in this story will be disappointed. For example, we learn that Peter has been hired to replace the pastor who preceded him on the alien planet, who has gone missing without a trace. Tantalizingly named Kurtzberg (hint, Conrad), I won’t drop any spoilers here, but suffice it to say Peter never ventures up river.
Similarly, readers hoping that something enlightening (heck, anything!) will come of the biblical exegesis Peter presents to the childlike aliens will have little to show for a lot of reading, except perhaps Peter’s adept rephrasing of the New Testament into words more easily pronounced by the locals.
In the end, I found myself thinking the setting the author chose was distracting to his purpose. The novel could as easily taken place in any far off corner of the Earth, like Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord. And then readers like me who were hoping for something more like Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris would not feel like they bought the wrong book.
But still, that British narrator’s American accents are crazy good…
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