In Which I Give Up On A Book

First of all, let me be clear about one thing: this never, and I mean never, happens. I don’t stop reading books. Partly this is because I have a good sense of what I like as a reader; partly this is because “what I like as a reader” happens to be an extremely wide field; and partly this is because I have a weirdly Protestant work ethic/competitive streak when it comes to completing a book. Even if I’m not particularly enjoying it, I’ll push through to the end. Very occasionally, I’ll stop a book halfway through because it’s too dense or I don’t have enough time or something else comes along (see, for instance, The Hobbit and The Portrait of a Lady), but I always keep those books on hold in my head; I always intend to pick them up again. (In the case of The Hobbit, I actually did, when I was ten or eleven. I have yet to return to The Portrait of a Lady, but I know precisely where my copy is and I have every intention of reading it properly in the future.)

Putting a book down and thinking, no, I’m done now, I’m not going to finish this? Never. I can’t ever remember doing it before.

The book that made me do it this time is Michel Faber’s novel The Book of Strange New Things.

Plenty of people have loved this book, and they’re not necessarily wrong. I was excited for it. Its premise is thrilling: a not-quite-first-contact mission to a faraway planet undertaken by an evangelical Christian. A chance to play out the tropes of colonization, with its ingredients of racism and religious fervor, in a new arena; whenever I see an author trying to play out tropes in a new arena, I get excited. I think, maybe we’ll learn something about ourselves that we couldn’t learn if we used an old arena, a familiar setting. Maybe something true will come to light.

But a little more than a hundred pages in, I realized I wasn’t enjoying it at all. I carried on for a few more pages, and then had one of those epiphanies about my own agency: I didn’t have to keep reading it. You’d think this would be fairly obvious, but see paragraph one, above: I don’t stop reading a book. It’s not something that even occurs to me 96% of the time. It’s a really nerdy version of the mentality I heard a triathlete describe a few weeks ago: Not finishing is not an option. But it was this time; it was a necessity. I had to put the book down. And because I’d promised to review it in Shiny New Books, and because their ethos is a book recommendation site, not a review site, I had to write to them and tell them that I was terribly sorry, but I couldn’t do it. They were lovely about it, but it made me want to write down what, in particular, made me stop.

Partly it was because the protagonist annoyed the shit out of me. In and of itself, this isn’t a huge problem: Holden Caulfield annoys the shit out of me, but I liked (and, more to the point, finished) The Catcher In the Rye. Peter, Faber’s main character and evangelist (you see what he did there with the names, huh? Peter, the bad disciple, the salty-tongued and boisterous, who was still entrusted with being the first pope. Oh, and the character’s saintly wife is named Beatrice. Sigh.)—anyway, Peter is a Christian. One of the first things I read about this book, in a New York Times review, was that Faber does an unusual thing in portraying a Christian who isn’t rabidly exploitative, a la TV Tropes’s Corrupt Church. I grant that this is unusual, but I don’t think Faber’s solution is much better. Peter and Beatrice are kind of guerrilla evangelists: there’s a scene in the first chapter, in Heathrow, where they talk to a couple going on holiday with their children, in a manner that one reviewer (I can’t find which one, now) referred to as “predatory”. It’s exactly the right word. This is coupled with a general sense of what the Strange Horizons reviewer calls “unthinking privilege”: Peter and Bea are constantly internally judging and assessing other characters in a manner, at best, flippantly thoughtless, and at worst, cruel. The couple they talk to in the airport are “none too bright, and not very fascinating” (but that’s okay because Peter and Bea recognize that “they were human beings, and precious in the eyes of God”. Isn’t that generous of them.) A woman who works at the USIC base on Oasis is described three times as “butch” and “hefty”, though none of this contributes to her character in any way. Bea jokes, of a young Muslim woman whose husband has just beaten her for attending their church in secret, that she doesn’t want their house to be “the scene of an Arabic honor killing!”, which would be a sufficiently tasteless remark even without the exclamation point.

All of this isn’t to say that such Christians don’t exist—they most assuredly do. It just means that Peter (and Bea to a lesser extent, as someone with fewer pages) is a self-righteous asshole, and Faber (as the Strange Horizons reviewer again so brilliantly says) never interrogates that. We’re meant to think of Peter as a good man, a flawed “human being…precious in the eyes of God” who’s trying his hardest. Instead, he comes across as pompous, dour, and a bit stupid. His backstory as an addict and homeless person doesn’t help; he’s curiously naïve for someone who has supposedly experienced rough living, not to mention that his devoutness seems, in this context, more like a symptom of displaced obsession than of profound spirituality. Again, this could have made him a fascinating, rounded character, if Faber had acknowledged the inconsistency, but he doesn’t seem aware of it.

The patronizing, self-congratulatory, middle-class form of Christianity that the book espouses wouldn’t be so bad if the plot compelled me or the world and situation seemed built with care. None of this is the case. Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow does a beautiful job exploring the practicalities of a mission, both scientific and religious, to another planet. Faber’s novel doesn’t. Russell takes care to outline the deep background in linguistics that her protagonist has, which he needs in order to communicate with the indigenous folk on Ra’kat; Faber invokes a shadowy linguist named Tartaglione, who disappears before Peter arrives on Oasis. There’s talk of fuel, something called the Jump (like a warp drive?) and various disasters occurring on Earth in Peter’s absence, but there’s no follow-up. What kind of fuel? How does the Jump work? What the hell is going on? What is USIC? How have they been allowed to essentially colonize a new planet? How did we find this damn planet in the first place? Maybe all of this is explained later (although I doubt it, since there was no serious attempt at world-building in the first 150 pages), but it’s still not good enough. Of course, this is a matter of personal taste, but it’s a taste I share with a lot of other people, including ones who read sf far more seriously and regularly than I do.

Here’s the takeaway: read The Sparrow. It does what this book is trying to do: it tells a story about a Jesuit priest who, along with some actual scientists, embarks on a journey to a newly discovered planet. It builds its world carefully—there are explanations of telescopes, technology, biology, physics—without being impenetrably technical. It’s also emotionally engaging from beginning to end, and the actions and reactions Russell describes in her characters ring true: even the less savoury stuff (and there is plenty of that; it’s a visceral, at times very violent book) adds complexity to the work. The Book of Strange New Things simply left me feeling uncomfortable as, time and again, our solipsistic hero muses on the “childlike” innocence of his “sexy” wife, or congratulates himself for being able to get over the shock of looking at the aliens’ unhuman faces. Ultimately, I felt I’d already read a better version of this book. It’s a shame, because I loved Under the Skin and am really looking forward to The Crimson Petal and the White, whenever I get around to it. But it feels strangely nice to put down a book that’s bothering me. Maybe I’ll do it again sometime.

Further Reading: Here’s the Strange Horizons review that really helped me get a handle on the nature of the issues I had with this book, and here’s the New York Times review.