The author, Michel Faber, came up with a cool premise for this book. It’s essentially a ‘first contact’ story. Mankind has made it to a planet called Oasis, and on that planet we’ve found other sentient beings. When it comes to sci-fi, I think it’s an intriguing conceit to flip the usual assumptions, and make the aliens less advanced/more needy than mankind. These aliens are farmers—and that’s about it. Other than their extremely disturbing faces (I won’t spoil Faber’s descriptions by recapping them here), there’s nothing too notable about them. Except for what they want from us.
They want more Jesus.
Enter Peter Leigh, who has been hired as an interstellar missionary by USIC, which is the corporation that has established an HQ on Oasis. USIC wants to keep the natives happy so they won’t disturb their various, nebulous projects on the planet.
I really loved the beginning of this book. Peter is driving to the airport with his wife. It’s nighttime, and the mood is very mysterious and detached. The couple is averse to listening to music in the car, so instead they discuss the aesthetics of electric light. They kvetch over their loved one, Joshua. How will Joshua deal with Peter’s absence? Can Peter stand being away from Joshua for so long? Eventually we learn that Joshua is a house cat. Just when you begin to assume that these two have never consummated their marriage, Peter’s wife instructs him to pull over and they bone in the backseat.
But this air of mystery doesn’t last for more than the first thirty pages or so. We learn more about Peter, who seems like a very well-grounded, open-minded man—if sometimes high-strung. I wouldn’t have expected a devout Christian to be presented so sympathetically in a science fiction book.
Although Peter is presented as a likable guy—at first—his faith and his marriage are sorely tested as he continues his stay on Oasis. Faber treats us to page-after-page of Peter’s wife’s emails (in a tiny font with super wide margins), in which she goes on and on about her life and every dismaying story in the newspaper. There is a point to these long passages. Faber is showing the reader how distance and isolation can so effectively alienate us from the ones we love. Still, I don’t know if we need so many pages to illustrate that fact. As Peter gets more and more involved with his missionary work, he is less and less engaged with what’s going on in his wife’s day-to-day life. (And honestly can you blame him? Aliens!)
There’s another purpose to these long email exchanges: to show how quickly life on Earth is turning to crap. Meanwhile, all of the USIC employees on Oasis go through their days without seeming to care. One of Peter’s co-workers begins to crack up under the pressure of all of the good-natured ambivalence. (Peter is going a little wackadoo himself.) And Faber begins to build a nice bit of tension. What is the ugly truth behind the aliens’ desire for spiritual deliverance? What’s the dark secret behind the USIC’s workaday purgatory? As the book progressed, I started to expect a final shocking twist, worthy of The Twilight Zone or Lost.
I’ll let you decide for yourself if you think the book delivers on that tension. For me, I’d have to say the last 25% of the book left me cold.