The premise of the book is this: a pastor, evangelical-ish, signs up with a large corporation with interests on a remote planet. The pastor is going as a missionary, not to the humans, but to the aliens–the natives of the planet. They need the love of Jesus too. The aliens have refused to do business with the corporation unless they send them a preacher. To our pastor’s surprise, they are eager for him, desiring to understand the technique of Jesus. They have had previous missionaries, you see, who went off the reservation after a while. The pastor brushes that aside and takes it as a sign of God that there’s work here for him. He pours himself into it nobly, heroically, with abandon and sacrifice.
The book, in a way, is a coming of age story: it is about a person growing up and outgrowing religion. It is about a loss of innocence in the sense of a loss of wonder. And it’s argument against religion comes from within the leading character–we live through the stages of it. He is in many ways a dismissible character, but in many ways he is not. He is not the most orthodox of believers, but at the same time it is uncanny how much Michel Faber has gotten right in this guy. And while the argument is not persuasive, it is at least unsettling.
There are a lot of weird things in this book. Faber is good, even diabolical, and if you enjoy strange visions, you will enjoy the ones he conjures up. It isn’t really a book of science fiction because those elements are missing which would draw the science fiction crowd (the explanations: where, for example, does all the water the ground absorbs go? And how do they get leather? Why doesn’t the corporation make more thorough investigations to find out how the aliens produce their food? Run tests?). But the story is compelling if you aren’t being curious in more than a literary way. Faber is just using the conventions of science fiction for other purposes. As long as you keep in your mind what he wants you to be curious of, about people disappearing, wonder why the aliens wear gloves to begin with, the things he repeats and brings to your attention, it works.
His message is actually positive. It isn’t a Christian message, and it is achieved at the expense of Christianity, but it is about a fellow coming to evaluate unsentimentally what does and what does not matter. His religion is sentimental, and it is stripped from him ruthlessly. I had a teacher once say that sentimentality is the death of spirituality. It is true, and this book is a demonstration of that axiom. Too much is religion identified with sentimentality, and I for one cheer Michel Faber pointing out the failure of that foolishness.