Over the week-end something big happened to our culture. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber was reviewed by Marcel Theroux for the New York Times (see here).
So what, you may ask?
First, the reviewer, Marcel Theroux is someone worth listening to. He is a successful broadcaster and author in his own right. The son of American traveler and writer Paul Theroux, he works in television (for example, in 2004, he presented on Channel 4 The End of the World as We Know It, part of the War on Terra television series about climate change). His fifth novel, Strange Bodies, won the the 2014 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Not unsurprisingly, this is a speculative novel that explores identity and what it means to be truly human.
Two, this is not Michel Faber’s first book, but his eighth – he has written in many genres, and his brilliant debut novel, Under the Skin, that also happens to be sci-fi like this latest one, was shortlisted for the Whitbread when it came out (in 2000). Under the Skin inspired a fascinating movie that came out in 2014, directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. Here’s a video clip that highlights how profoundly different this movie is from the usual sci-fi run:
It is basically, a search for identity, and yes, you “don’t want to wake up dead!”
Reading Marcel Theroux’ s review of The Book of Strange New Things, you can tell he was knocked off his feet. For those who don’t like sci-fi, Theroux says, “give it 10 pages, it doesn’t start with aliens, it’s about a man going on a long journey to a planet light years away and saying good-bye to his beloved wife.”
Indeed. Here are the first lines from Chapter 1, Forty Minutes later he was up in the sky:
‘I was going to say something,’ he said.
‘So say it,’ she said.
He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city’s outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.
‘God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it,’ he said.
‘Well,’ she sighed, ‘He knows already, so you may as well tell me.’
It is so real, so human! Isn’t that just the sort of thing you say to your loved one as you go off on a trip? This sort of fiction is linked to the here and now, as we live it, with our anxieties and doubts, our loves and regrets.
The key descriptors here are “possible” and “plausible”. That very plausibility is what turns this kind of sci-fi thriller into emotion-laden explorations into the human condition. Our Earth is recognizable but it’s much worse, battered by climate change and geo-political instability. And in that sense, this book links up with the basic tenets of climate fiction, a rapidly rising genre, ever since Dan Bloom coined the term in 2008 (and he’s a vocal part of the debate in that New York Times piece, Room for Debate, published in July 2014).
Theroux in concluding his review of The Book of Strange New Things reveals how he really feels about it and let me quote him:
Since the critical and commercial triumph of Hilary Mantel, the historical novel is newly respectable. One hopes that Michel Faber can do something similar for speculative writing. Defiantly unclassifiable, “The Book of Strange New Things” is, among other things, a rebuke to the credo of literary seriousness for which there is no higher art than a Norwegian man taking pains to describe his breakfast cereal. As well as the literature of authenticity, Faber reminds us, there is a literature of enchantment, which invites the reader to participate in the not-real in order to wake from a dream of reality to the ineffability, strangeness and brevity of life on Earth.
This amounts to a major recognition of the speculative dimension of science fiction that has been often ignored, as millions of readers have become entranced with Star Wars and Ender’s Game. However, the escapist, irrealistic aspect of this kind of sci-fi has also turned off just as many people. Result? Sci-fi has become classified as a commercial “genre”: pure entertainment and nothing else.
Will Faber, with his book, help to make sci-fi “respectable”, repeating what Hilary Mantel did for the historical novel?
I believe he could, because, in fact, Faber is not alone in doing this. Other major writers are doing it too, in particular Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam Trilogy, inter alia) and Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior). Of course,both writers are also considered climate fiction authors, but Margaret Atwood for one has always argued that her fiction is “speculative”.
In my view, regardless of terminology, this is speculative writing of the highest order – it ties back to the founding masters of the speculative sci-fi genre, George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) who always started from highly plausible premises. And that’s why their books fascinated and scared a whole generation that was feeling under the threat of totalitarian communism.
Today, we are under the threat of global warming with big corporations that won’t do anything about it (because they profit from fossil fuels); we witness increasing geopolitical chaos, especially in the Middle East but other places too as Islamic Jihad spreads; we watch helplessly as income inequality takes hold everywhere, including in places like the United States, where chances for the young to “make it” are growing slimmer by the day unless they were born into “big money”.
Speculative authors (like myself) take this world of ours as the starting point for our fiction. And we try to look into the future to figure out what awaits us and our children.
Given current trends, where are we going?
Such questions need to be asked. And as our world continues to unravel, they will become evermore urgent.
That is why speculative fiction is going to be the Next Big Trend in Publishing.
Just one sad last note: Michel Faber has told the press (see here) that he won’t write another novel, he’s been shaken by the loss of his wife Eva who died of cancer as he was putting the last touches to The Book of Strange New Things. I sincerely hope he will change his mind, it would be a terrible loss to literature.
Post Scriptum: If you’re curious about this kind of fiction, my own speculative novel (just published) is free for 5 days, starting today November 4, don’t miss the chance, I’m not going to do it again! Click here to grab your copy before it’s over.
We mortals dream of immortality. What if there was another option? The power of money could make the difference. A few win, the great majority loses, but humanity is saved, or is it?
Excerpt from reviews:
– A prophetic view of our future. Compelling from start to finish (Lit Amri)
– A cast of characters that range from fascinating to despicable (Marsha Roberts)
– A very plausible future, scarily plausible (Bob Rector)
Published May 31, 2014. 326 pages.
UPDATE ON FREE CAMPAIGN:
On Day One (November 4): 264 units were downloaded and that shot the book up to:
Major author and playwright Bob Rector (who reviewed the book, see here) just posted the following on his Facebook page:
Great opportunity to grab one of my favorite books for free. If you like storytelling at its very best, I urge you not to pass this up.
Thanks, Bob, I hope many will follow you and read the book. And I know you love Alice, the protagonist of whom I made a portrait, so I am including it here: