This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
Typical of me, right? I am a fan of literary science fiction. Many SF books are “mainstream” classics, not to be confused with stereotypical novels about interplanetary or time travel. Among my favorites are Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon, Karen Walker Thompson’s The Age of Miracles, Nicola Griffith’s Slow River, John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, and Clifton D. Simak’s They Walked Like Men.
The Book of Strange New Things was supposed to be a masterpiece. How could one go wrong?
I opened my present happily.
And so I read 117 pages on Christmas day, becoming increasingly dismayed by the colorless prose and pedestrian plot. A “man of faith” goes on a mission to another planet. At home his wife sees Earth deteriorating as a result of climate change, and reports changes via “the Shoot.” (Just email, I think.) In the hands of Jonathan Lethem, this would have been poetic, psychedelic, and genre-bending. In the hands of Faber, it is an anonymous best-seller.
Here is a paragraph about how much Peter misses his cat.
He missed Joshua already. Beatrice often left for work at dawn, when Joshua was still fast asleep on the bed. Even if he stirred and meowed, she would hurry off and say, “Daddy will feed you.” And sure enough, an hour or two later, Peter would be sitting in the kitchen, munching sweet cereal, while Joshua munched savory cereal on the floor nearby.
Very dull, isn’t it?
I hunted on the internet to see if any reviewers panned it. The Boston Globe disliked it. And though Niall Alexander at Tor.com (a science fiction website) said it was a “masterpiece,” he added a guilty caveat:
…but I was, if I’m honest, disappointed by bits of it. First and foremost, it’s slow, if not excruciatingly so; a little action in advance of the packed last act would have livened it up a lot. It’s also overlong—and I can’t help but think the book would have been better served if Faber had engaged in some way with the speculative elements of its premise rather than rinsing and repeating certain sequences. Relatedly, there are a load of loose ends, and plot holes aplenty that the science fiction faithful are sure to struggle with.
Does that sound like a masterpiece to you? Why do reviewers so often dither about books? Are they afraid to be too hard on Michael Faber lest they lose work and friends? Can they only criticize him a little if they first say it is a “masterpiece”? Although reviewers in the UK are usually tougher than American reviewers, they are on the same page about The Book of Strange New Things.
From a readers’ perspective, it finally comes down to this: the literature of the 21st century is in trouble. Writers simply are less well-educated, and writing less well.
Some years ago, a famous writer said that he could always tell when a book was written on a computer. He himself wrote on a manual typewriter.
I miss my typewriter. The whole process was messier but easier. On a computer, you’re looking at a screen,. You may have trouble controlling the drafts. It was much easier to arrange the typewritten pages side by side or end to end and combine and compare. Sometimes we literally cut and pasted paragraphs together. And then we rewrote them again. You assume your editing will improve your work but sometimes it goes to hell and you have to start over.
Well, perhaps I’ll finish The Book of Strange New Things, just because it IS well-reviewed. Perhaps it gets better. I don’t see it turning up as a Man Booker Prize nominee, do you? But you never know.
Any reviewers reading this: I do respect your work, but sometimes it goes astray. Work harder!