The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber is a mammoth 500-page novel that deals with science fiction and religion in one neat little package. It also manages to be quite the dystopian novel without actually dealing with the dystopia itself. The premise is short – a Christian missionary travels to another planet and ministers to the native population, while being separated from his wife. The plot revolves around these two topics: the topic of faith and relationships. Not too much thought is put into the extraterrestrial world or its natives, who somehow get pushed to the side and are just… present by the end of the novel.
It was a struggle for me to finish reading the novel – taking me wholly 10 months, as I found it very unappealing and the pace was way too slow for me for the first half. The book certainly found its stride in the last quarter of the book, but I still came away feeling disappointed. In the head-to-head dystopian blockbuster matchup of 2014, I felt that Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was the far better novel and much more readable. Both novels have brilliant language, and in fact Faber’s writing is lovely for other wordsmiths to read.
As I’ve stated time and time again, luminous language alone doesn’t qualify a book as being “good” in my view – witness Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!. However, I do feel that The Book of Strange New Things actually had a cohesive story. As such, I rank it above Swamplandia! but, in terms of literary prose, Russell has a slight edge. It was also tedious at times to have to deal with Faber’s orthography for the alien language that makes an appearance in the novel. That’s always a fine line for an author to walk – balancing the readability of the novel with the realism of a foreign language. In my view, it’s best used sparingly, which it isn’t in this book. On the other hand, some of the emails that Faber composed for some narrative scenes are wholly unbelievable, despite being carefully composed. It’s probably because they were intentionally composed to be sloppy and hasty, and suffered from being over-composed for that appearance.
The first edition hardcover of The Book of Strange New Things has a few physical features that mark Faber’s effort as being earmarked for publishing success. The pages are cut perfectly and then gilded, giving the book a Bible-like appearance, which was a fantastic design decision given its subject material. If only all published books had these small bells and whistles tying the design in to the story, the book as a physical object would make a resurgence in the public consciousness. There is so much design space to play with for books that we need to stop and appreciate the truly stellar efforts that get produced today.
Isn’t that gilding simply stunning, especially for a mass-produced modern work of literature? And that’s not the end of it – the endpapers were stunning as well. And the cover titling (and color of the cover itself) was simple and elegant.
All in all, a gorgeous package. Hats off to the designers: Book (Lauren Dong), Jacket (Christopher Brand), and photography for the jacket (George Baier IV).
Overall grade: B-
Binding: Hardcover paper, sewn pages, headbands (Excellent)
Paper: Mate, slightly transparent, but gilded (Good)
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.