Light reading these last couple weeks: Faber and Mitchell

I read Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Definitely compares nicely to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, if you have read that. A missionary travel to Oasis, where the Oasans are a remarkably simply, vulnerable, Jesus-loving agrarian society. It is not unintentional that the colony of humans sent to the distant world is specifically recruited to be just like (almost) the Oasans: simple, vulnerable, Jesus-indifferent high tech society solving exactly the same problems (food, water, shelter) that the Oasans are solving. Peter, the missionary (Peter?!) lives in both worlds (well, for a few months). For me, with my anthropological background and lots of exposure to people “going native,” the book had lots to appreciate… Faber has a keen ear for how 10 days of immersion in another culture makes one an “expert” compared to those whose attitude is “So what do they do all day?” He has some really nice descriptions of that immersion experience. Peace Corps volunteers would totally appreciate the book. Steve Davies would appreciate it too!  It is  a significant brief for travel: for people like Peter, immersion experience accelerates (to light speed?) mental processes of identity and character.  Who are you and where are you going?  May as well be Gauguin in Tahiti.  The book has several neat tricks: a rendering of Oasan speech in English that is clever; excellent description of the thick, humid atmosphere of the planet; “shocker” ending as the reason for the Oasan Jesus-loving is suddenly revealed.  I did not like so much the device of the epistles from Peter to his wife back on Earth.  And in the end, for me, all novels that are fundamentally about “belief in a deity” seem sort of weird, especially even in a world of travel beyond light-speed.  At one level I understand: that’s the way people are.  At another level I cannot understand: how can their thoughts be so different?  But that, ultimately, is the goal of science-fiction, no? To find the stranger/alien inside of us.

And just for fun after that I read through David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  I had seen the movie, I believe while under some kind of mind-altering influence, some years back. I remember it being really annoying, because the breathtaking reach of the story just didn’t match the excruciating mundanity of the journey of the story: to travel ten centuries you still have to have a car chase… Ben Hur, right? So the book was the same, except that since it is in your brain you can skip more easily the mundane parts and go straight to the shivery sections. Reading really is much better.  By the way, Gauguin permeates Cloud Atlas, too, I think. Arsenic poisoning, Pacific islands, masterpieces, missionaries.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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