Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things transports readers to a distant planet where a preacher named Peter is undertaking an highly unusual mission.
The challenges he faces while on Oasis ultimately test both his faith and his relationship with his wife Beatrice, who has been forced to stay at home where normal life on Earth as they know it seems to be disintegrating.
Part science-fiction, part-love story, The Book of Strange New Things has been described by Adelaide Writers’ Week director Laura Kroetsch as one of the best novels she read last year.
Faber, also author of the acclaimed The Crimson Petal and the White, will be speaking about his latest novel at two free sessions at Writers’ Week, which begins on Saturday in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens.
The extract below is from chapter two of The Book of Strange New Things, titled He would never see other humans the same way again.
Now, on a balmy morning in Florida, having earned the corporation’s stamp of approval, Peter turned to face the driver and posed the question to which, in all these months, he hadn’t been given an answer.
‘What is USIC exactly?’
The driver shrugged. ‘These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does. Time was when a car company made cars, a mining company dug mines. It’s not like that anymore. You ask USIC what they specialise in and they tell you things like … Logistics. Human resources. Large-scale project development.’ The driver sucked the last of the Tang through a straw, making an ugly gurgling sound.
‘But where does all the money come from?’ said Peter. ‘They’re not funded by the government.’
The driver frowned, distracted. He needed to make sure his vehicle was in the correct lane. ‘Investments.’
‘Investments in what?’
‘Lots of things.’
Peter shielded his eyes with one hand; the glare was giving him a headache. He recalled that he’d asked the same question of his USIC interrogators, at one of the early interviews when Beatrice was still sitting in.
‘We invest in people,’ the elegant female had replied, shaking her artfully clipped grey mane, laying her scrawny, delicate hands on the table.
‘All corporations say that,’ Beatrice remarked, a bit rudely he thought.
‘Well, we really mean it,’ said the older woman. Her grey eyes were sincere and animated by intelligence. ‘Nothing can be achieved without people. Individuals, unique individuals with very special skills.’ She turned to Peter. ‘That’s why we’re talking to you.’
He’d smiled at the cleverness of this phrasing: it could function as flattery – they were talking to him because it was obvious he was one of those special people – or it could be a preamble to rejection – they were talking to him to maintain the high standards that would, in the end, disqualify him. One thing was for sure: the hints that he and Bea dropped about what a fine team they’d make if they could go on this mission together fell like cookie crumbs and disappeared into the carpet.
‘One of us needs to stay and look after Joshua, anyway,’ said Bea when they discussed it afterwards. ‘It would be cruel to leave him for so long. And there’s the church. And the house, the expenses; I need to keep working.’ All valid concerns – although an advance payment from USIC, even a small fraction of the full sum, would have covered an awful lot of cat food, neighbourly visits and heating bills. ‘It just would have been nice to be invited, that’s all.’
Yes, it would have been nice. But they were not blind to good fortune when it was offered. Peter had been chosen, from among many others who were not.
‘So,’ he said to the driver, ‘how did you first get involved with USIC.’
‘Bank foreclosed on our house.’
‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’
‘Bank foreclosed on just about every damn house in Gary. Repossessed them, couldn’t sell them, let them fall apart and rot. But USIC made us a deal. They took on the debt, we got to keep the house, and in exchange we worked for them, for like, grocery money. Some of my old pals called it slavery. I call it … humanitarian. And those old pals of mine, they’re in trailer parks now. And here’s me, driving a limousine.’
Peter nodded. He’s already forgotten the name of the place where this guy was from, and he had only the vaguest grasp on the current health of the American economy, but he understood very well what it meant to be thrown a lifeline.
The limousine cruised gently to the right and was cloaked in cooling shade from the pine trees on the verge. A wooden road sign – the sort that normally advertised campsites, roadside grills or log-house holidays – announced an imminent turn-off for USIC.
‘You go to any sinking city in the country,’ continued the driver, ‘and you’ll find lots of people in the same boat. They may tell you they’re working for this or that company, but scratch underneath, and they’re working for USIC.’
‘I don’t even know what the letters in “USIC” stand for,’ said Peter.
‘Search me,’ said the driver. ‘A lot of companies these days got meaningless names. All the meaningful names have been taken. It’s a trademark thing.’
‘I assume the US part means United States.’
‘I guess. They’re multinational, though. Somebody even told me they started up in Africa. All I know is, they’re good to work for. Never screwed me around. You’ll be in good hands.’
Into thy hands I commend my spirit, Peter naturally thought. Luke 23:46, fulfilling the prophesy of Psalms 31:5. Except that it wasn’t clear into whose hands he was about to be delivered.
‘This will sting some,’ said the black woman in the white lab coat. ‘In fact, it will be real unpleasant. You’ll feel like a pint of cold yoghurt is travelling up your veins.’
‘Gee, thanks. I can hardly wait.’ He settled his head uneasily in the padded polystyrene hollow of his coffin-like crib and tried not to look at the spike that was approaching his tourniquetted arm.
‘We wouldn’t want you to think there was anything wrong, that’s all.’
‘If I die, please tell my …’
‘You won’t die. Not with this stuff inside you. Just relax and think nice thoughts.’
The cannula was in his vein; the IV drip was activated; the translucent substance moved into him. He thought he might vomit from the sheer ghastliness of it. They ought to have given him a sedative or something. He wondered if his three fellow travellers were braver than him. They were nestled in identical cribs, elsewhere in the building, but he couldn’t see them. He would meet them in a month from now, when he woke up.
The woman who had administered the infusion stood calmly watching over him. Without warning – but how could there be any warning? – her lipsticked mouth started to drift to the left of her face, the lips travelling across the flesh of her cheek like a tiny red canoe. The mouth did not stop until it reached her forehead, where it came to rest above her eyebrows. Then her eyes, complete with eyelids and lashes, moved down towards her jawline, blinking normally as they relaxed.
‘Don’t fight it, just go with it,’ the mouth on the forehead advised. ‘It’s temporary.’
He was too frightened to speak. This was no hallucination. This was what happened to the universe when you were no longer able to hold it together. Atoms in clusters, rays of light, forming ephemeral shapes before moving on. His greatest fear, as he dissolved into the dark, was that he would never see other humans the same way again.
Extract from The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber, published in Australia by Allen & Unwin.
Michel Faber will speak about his book at an Adelaide Writers’ Week session in the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens at 1.15pm on Saturday (February 28), and will also take part in a conversation titled “End Times” with fellow authors Ken Babstock and James Bradley at 5pm on Monday, March 2.
Click here for more Adelaide Writers’ Week and Adelaide Festival stories.
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