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The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber


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Book Review: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber

This tale of a Christian missionary in space tells us more about life, love and faith than most down-to-earth fiction.

Michel Faber once said that he was an atheist. If that is still true, his latest novel — The Book of Strange New Things — suggests that he takes religion so seriously, considers it so valuable, that he cannot bring himself to sully it by believing. Within the novel, the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ is the Bible, and so Faber has written his own bible, what he wants to say to our common humanity about life and death, faith and doubt. He has produced something far more lucid and alive to human joys and sorrows than any bowdlerised attempt by AC Grayling.

The book is full of humour, that warm kind of wit that dimples the cheeks when we catch a glimpse of the fact that everyday human existence was ever part comedy. Yet Faber had me weeping in despair for humanity too, and he gently led me back and forth between the two until I understood the need for both.

Peter Leigh is an English Christian pastor who has been called to be a missionary. To say that Peter’s marriage to Beatrice is a happy one is an understatement: they are a perfect partnership and their love-life is good. But that mission means that they will be apart for the first time since they married. The novel opens with the couple driving to Heathrow Airport, finding a lay-by for last-minute lovemaking, and the nervous separation.

The Book of Strange New Things is sci-fi, but it would be wrong to pigeon-hole it as genre fiction. It depicts a near future: near enough for everything to be totally recognisable as if it were today. The only difference is that a faceless corporation — USIC — has started a colony on the planet Oasis (so named in competition by a schoolgirl in Nebraska). So much, so sci-fi, except that Peter has been called to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of Oasis, the Oasans — when a colleague refers to them as ‘aliens’, Peter reminds her that the humans are the aliens on Oasis. We are saved from too much sci-fi by the fact that we are limited to Peter’s experience and limited understanding of what is going on. As is common practice in sci-fi, Peter is put into a drug-induced suspended animation for the month-long ‘Jump’ to Oasis, resulting in some crazy, mind-bending jet lag. On arrival, his liaison, Grainger, apparently gives him a full briefing, but, as he cannot remember, we too are left in the dark about the practicalities of living in an extraterrestrial colony until Peter find out the hard way. And there is that nagging question: why would USIC want to spend millions to send a missionary into space?

The USIC base on Oasis is described as the most ugly airport terminal imaginable. Its concrete edifice is populated by a skeleton workforce that is still setting things up. Peter’s colleagues are characters, but not that characterful — somewhat self-repressed workaholics. The functional mess hall where the members of the community meet serves some expensive imported earth food alongside simulated earth favourites made from the various flora and fauna of Oasis, all to the background drone of Patsy Cline, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Like the food, all is recognisable and yet somehow alien.

While Peter is bringing the Good News to the Oasans, there is Bad News from Bea about far-away Earth. The ‘Shoot’ — a text-only interstellar messaging relay — enables Bea and Peter to write to each other, but their text-only relationship is awkward, unnatural. Both now inhabit worlds that the other cannot but fail to understand. First of all the news is full of terrible natural disasters, then Tesco stops stocking any decent chocolate desert, and finally Tesco goes bust. Culverting the sewer of Hollywood disaster movies, one wonders whether this is a more real description of how we might experience the beginning of the end of the world from suburbia. Michel Faber is on record for turning down British citizenship because of the Iraq war, and one can see that for him just nudging Cameron’s crumbling Britain up a gear makes for an apocalypse that is both frightening and believable.

At first the Oasans look like mediaeval monks. They are short and thin, wearing pastel-coloured hooded robes, and live a communal life of simple agriculture, without machines or electricity. When Peter first takes a look inside one of their cowls what he sees is described

“Here was a face that was nothing like a face. Instead, it was a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel. Or no: even more, it resembled a placenta with two foetuses — maybe three-months-old twins, hairless and blind — nestled head to head, knee to forehead. Their swollen heads constituted the Oasan’s clefted cheeks, their spindly arms and webbed feet merged into a tangle of translucent flesh that might contain — in some form unrecognisable to him — a mouth, nose, eyes.”

For Peter’s first, official visit to the Oasans, they have scrawled ‘WELCOME’ above the door to one of their houses. As his new flock gather, rather surprisingly they break into a few verses of ‘Amazing grace’, lisped and warbled by alien throats. They are desperate for him to read to them from the ‘Book of Strange New Things’ about the ‘technique of Jesus’.

The book design in itself is a delight: the white-and-gold dust jacket represents the spiral dance of the rain of Oasis. As a lover of fine typesetting, the publishers Canongate made the commendable decision to set the text in Eric Gill’s Perpetua, the ‘Shoot’ messages between Peter and Bea are in the clean, typewriterly Officina Sans, but best of all is the book’s use of Blambot’s We Come in Peace, a comic-book font for representing alien languages. Some of the Oasans have learnt English, but their inability to pronounce ‘s’, ‘t’ and ‘ch’ means that these are replaced by Blambot’s symbols. Later, as Peter learns their language, we see whole words, even speeches, in this script, and the reader is left to imagine how these alien sounds are made.

The Book of Strange New Things deserves rereading. Michel Faber has packed it with little observations and cryptic references. Faber litters the narrative with hanging questions and mysteries, letting a few go unanswered, and surprising the reader with some rather mundane answers to others, bringing sci-fi bang down to earth — and rather wonderfully.

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Ancient & Modern: a review

Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013).

My copy of Ancient & Modern: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (2013) has just arrived. It is the ninth edition of what is the most enduring and popular lineage of hymnals in the Church of England. We currently use Common Praise (2000, the eighth edition of A&M), in the College Chapel. My former churches have used Sing Glory (1999), Ancient & Modern New Standard Edition (1983) and New English Hymnal (1986) as their main hymnbooks, which is progress of sorts! Unlike some churches, the Church of England has never had an official hymnbook, but the Ancient & Modern stable comes closest to a standard.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.

Ancient & Modern has 847 items: the largest inventory in this hymnbook’s history, beating the 779 hymns of the Standard Edition (1916 & 1920). Not all of these are hymns, some are liturgical songs and ‘short chants’. It is not too much of a surprise that this is an increase on the 628 hymns of Common Praise. However, seeing that the intermediate supplement Sing Praise (2010) has 330 entries, there has been a bit of a cull. I guestimate that around 150 hymns in Common Praise have been cut (inexplicably, the cloying ‘In a world where people walk in darkness’ (CP 476, AM9 677) has survived!). I confess to some alarm that so many hymns that were thought necessary of inclusion 13 years ago have proved disposable. It makes me wonder how many of the current volume will last as long. The proprietors actually suggest that those who already have Common Praise should make the lesser investment in Sing Praise rather than switching directly to the new edition. I believe, though, that would mean that there would be around fifty or more items in the ninth edition that those with the two previous volumes would be missing.

Physically, the full-music editions of the two hymnals, eighth and ninth editions, are about the same size. Although this is perhaps due to my old Common Praise being stretched with use, the paper used for the ninth edition is clearly thinner, yet this has not lead to a reduction in print quality. Unlike some poorly produced editions of Hymns Old & New (nothing to do with Ancient & Modern), verso print does not obviously show through on the recto, and vice versa. The same typesetter and music engraver, the laudable Andrew Parker, worked on the two editions, yet there has been progress toward a brighter, clearer printing. Music and textual credits have been moved to the bottom of the page, into space, allowing for a little more information to be given. For the three translations of Phos hilaron are given their Greek title in Greek script: a nicely revived tradition that flatters the singer. These three are John Keble’s text set to John Stainer’s Sebaste at 17, Christopher Idle’s more recent offering at 18 and Robert Bridges’s at 20, with the latter being the preferred translation of the rival English Hymnal tradition.

It would take 2½ years to sing through all 847 items without repeating one, given four hymns every Sunday morning and three in the evening. Of course, there are always going to be some hymns that are not to the taste of clergy, musicians and congregations, and others that are repeat favourites. Some of the liturgical items might be used week in, week out, or not at all.

The arrangement of the hymns follows the tried and tested pattern of the A&M stable: the diurnal of morning and evening, the seasons of the church year, saints’ days, a few service themes and the lucky dip of ‘Hymns throughout the Year’ (the odd name of the category used in Common Praise) or ‘General’ (the more sensible title in the ninth edition). The ninth edition’s categories are a joy: after the saints’ days, there are decent selections of hymns for Christian initiation, marriage, and funerals and the departed. Then there are selections of hymns chosen for use in a generalised sequence of sections of church services: gathering, penitence, the word of God, canticles and affirmations of faith, prayer and intercession, Holy Communion, and sending out. These mix hymns with liturgical texts, like the three modern Kyries (370–2) in the penitence category; the first is that from James MacMillan’s Mass of the Blessed John Henry Newman. The word category begins with the traditional sixth-mode Alleluia (374), and goes on to provide an Alleluia setting by Bernadette Farrell (376) and James Walsh’s Pilgrim’s Alleluia (377) — I am left to wonder why the Stanbrook Abbey hymn ‘Bright as fire in darkness’ intrudes at 375. There is also a Marty Haugen song that can be used as an Alleluia at 385, demonstrating the problem that items are arranged mainly in alphabetical order within categories rather then rational groupings. Thankfully the metrical Magnificats and other canticles are grouped together. The category for prayer and intercession includes a number of simple, modern chants that can be used as sung responses to supplications. It is not necessarily obvious, but four metrical settings of Gloria in excelsis Deo (413–16) are in the Holy Communion category, followed by two settings of Sanctus (417, 418) and one Agnus Dei (419). The 61 items in this category could really have done with a finer level of grouping within the category.

The later categories of themes — the church’s ministry and mission, wholeness and healing, sorrow and lament, creation and the environment, justice and peace, and national and remembrance — are welcome, if still slightly thin. Even with all of these categories, there are still 246 ‘general’ hymns (29 % of the inventory). Still, this is an improvement on the like category of 265 hymns in Common Praise (42 %). There are hymnals, like Mission Praise, Sing Glory and Hymns Old & New, that take the unimaginative approach of arranging all their entries in alphabetical order of their textual incipits (though I do remember some old copies of Mission Praise took a unique approach to the alphabet!). Given a decent index, and the ninth edition has indexes aplenty (read on if you, like me, sadly spend more time in hymn indexes than with the hymns themselves), it makes sense to organise things by sensible categories and relationally. Thus, I am sure the compilers saw the need to keep the lucky dip to a minimum, recognising it as a sign of methodological laxity. A rough grouping of these hymns by theological themes would have been a welcome change, alongside better grouping of items within the other categories. The group of 17 ‘short chants’ at the end, mostly from Taizé and Iona, alongside some in other categories, will be a welcome addition in many churches.

The indexes include the now standard and practical parade of biblical index, hymn suggestions for each Sunday and major feast, alphabetical index of tunes, metrical index of tunes, index of composers, index of authors, and the index of first lines and tunes. Alongside these there is a list of hymns ‘suitable for all-age worship’ that some might use, but also a particularly handy thematic index that lists hymn numbers appropriate to a wide range of theological and other themes. Some of these (e.g. marriage) exactly reproduces a category, adding the belt to the braces. Yet this extra index shows an appropriate response to the problem of categories: what to do with those items that fit multiple categories. It also allows for themes that are too vague to have been categories (e.g. water).

The influence of Hymns Old & New (first Anglican Edition in 1986, with the popular New Anglican Edition a decade later, now superseded by others) can be seen in the ninth edition. Although Hymns Old & New has had major flaws in its musical arrangements and production quality, it brought together favourite hymns with choruses, praise songs and chants. Its coup was to provide what many churches wanted. Starting with Sing Praise, the Ancient & Modern tradition began to incorporate this wider repertoire, and the ninth edition includes symbols for guitar chords above the music for some items, thankfully not following Hymns Old & New in providing them for all items, even where they conflict with the musical arrangement.

For controversialists, Stuart Townend and Keith Getty‘s ‘In Christ alone my hope is found’ is included (678), with its words ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’ in the second verse. Whereas some have rewritten the line, Getty has, understandably, refused to allow it to be used with an altered text. While American Presbyterians have recently decided to omit the hymn because of that line, it now makes Ancient & Modern look doctrinally brave/timid for including it.

For some background and a couple of thoughts about hymnals in the 21st century, see Ancient & Modern: history and future.