I usually spend part of the summer catching up on contemporary fiction, and often my summer reading ends up falling into some sort of theme. This summer I fell into a science-fiction hole, but I think I’m going to climb back out.
These days, in books from secular publishers, we expect to see pastors depicted as hypocrites and missionaries as agents of exploitation. That’s what we’d expect from Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (Hogarth), which has as its protagonist a pastor called to be a missionary to the strange creatures of a planet galaxies away from his wife. Does he (a) steal precious minerals, (b) molest the females, (c) create a bizarre cult with himself as God, or (d) all of the above?
The answer is (e) none of the above.
The premise intrigued me, but unfortunately the answer “(e) none of the above” proved too true. Not a whole lot happens in the book’s 500 pages.
I’m not the kind of guy that needs action, action, action in a novel. One of my favorite books is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is a decidedly quiet book. In some ways, Faber’s book is like a science-fiction version of Gilead. Both books deal with pastors. Both books have a strong epistolary element. Both books communicate a great deal of emotion through small mundane encounters.
But there’s one big difference between Gilead and The Book of Strange New Things—the page count. Faber’s novel is twice as long as Robinson’s. There’s nothing wrong with a long book, but longer books need to compel the reader to move forward. Faber’s book has trouble standing up under the weight of its page count. The book would have been brilliant if he had told the story in half as many pages. Instead it gets a bit tedious. After reading the first 250 pages, I quickly skimmed the next 150 and then finished the book by reading most of the last 100 pages. As I dipped into those skimmed 150 pages, I realized that I wasn’t missing much.
At the end, I looked at the book with a sort of wistful regret, thinking to myself, “This could have been a great book.”
My disappointment with The Book of Strange New Things was heightened because the novel that I finished just before it had disappointed me too. That novel was Redshirts by John Scalzi, another piece of science fiction, though very different from The Book of Strange New Things.
I picked up Redshirts for some of the same reasons that I picked up The Book of Strange New Things—the novel had won a prize, in this case the Hugo Award, which is one of science fiction’s highest honors, and the book’s premise intrigued me.
Redshirts is a Star Trek spoof. In Star Trek some poor guy in a red shirt seemed to die on every away mission, and eventually the idea of the disposable “redshirt” became a meme among science-fiction fans. Scalzi has written a book in which the redshirts are the heroes, and they’re trying their best to stay alive when they get selected for away teams.
Like I said, the book has a great premise, and it started out being pretty engaging, but about halfway through it lost its way. The book takes a meta-turn, with stories in stories, and it tries to be philosophical at points. Characters start talking about the importance of free will and whatnot, but these speeches tend to be sort of sophomoric. Maybe Scalzi intended for these reflections to be shallow; after all the speakers are just redshirts. Whatever.
Redshirts tries to be a breezy adventure and a thought-provoking reflection at the same time. I didn’t find the book thought provoking, and even in this short book I found myself skipping paragraphs. Speaking of the book being short—the narrative ends two-thirds of the way through the book. The last third of the book is made up of three short stories told from the perspectives of certain minor characters. I found the first short story boring and self-indulgent. I skimmed the second, and against my better judgment I forced myself to read the third since someone claimed that it was the best of the three. It was the best of the three, but I don’t know that it was worth it.
I don’t read much science fiction. It had been over a year since the last time I read this genre, so maybe it was too much too soon for me to read two science-fiction novels back to back. But these were highly acclaimed books. I thought I was reading some of the best of contemporary science fiction. If this is the best there is, then I’m done with the genre for a while.