Critics are mixed on the book. It is literary fiction? Is it science fiction? Is it good fiction, good literary science fiction, bad science fiction by an arriviste? I.e. reviewers get hung up on what category it is. By analogy, I went to a Japanese noodle place in Charlotte that was fantastic. “These are the best Japanese noodles I’ve ever had”, I thought. Noodles with pecan smoked pork belly. Spicy. Fantastic. Unique. Delicious.
So are these Japanese noodles or not? It’s kind of like that. People get irritated when category rules are not abided by. This same thing is happening with a new Scarlett Johansson movie, based on a Japanese manga. Shouldn’t the heroine be Japanese?
Aren’t they appropriating? Should straight actors be allowed to play gay men? Should gay men be allowed to play straight men? Should women be allowed to play men? Should men be allowed to play women? Like appropriating is a really nasty word. Like we don’t appropriate all the time. Boundaries must be respected! So boring. Of course, I got it when Keanu Reeves pretended to be a samurai
(or was it Tom Cruise?),
but I lose patience when people get huffy about comic book adaptions. Because face it, people, manga are comic books, written in a kind of boring, Pikachu, stereotypical style.
Get over it.
So anyway, this book, it’s like that. Take a great science fiction genre (priest visits alien culture), and let a really good literary fiction author cook one up. It’s good. It’s not quite like anything a died-in-the-wool science fiction author would come up with. It’s fresh. So there. I liked it.
What is really great about this book is that it does some things with space exploration and aliens which are really quite novel:
- Space travel is depicted as painful, debilitating, messy, harsh and brief, like flying from Charlotte to Baltimore on American Airlines, only worse. The spaceship is not pretty, dramatic or interesting, the controls are dull and simple, and it is not well decorated in any way. It’s just dull.
- The new world has some mystery elements but it is most of all like being stuck in a truck stop in some abandoned Southwestern town in the middle of the desert with only the most basic amenities. It’s the Jim Jarmusch of new worlds. There are some novel elements to the climate, the ground cover, the air, the water. It’s different. But it’s not really exciting. It’s a habitable place, far away, a lifeline from a dying Earth. But it’s not great.
- The aliens are by and large simple, pleasant and somewhat primitive villagers in some peaceful Amazonian culture untouched by modern technology. They get by just fine. They like aspirin, which they trade for food. They are ugly and different, and also similar in some ways. They can pick up our language. We can’t pick up theirs. They are well characterized, and different. You rarely get to see such a depth of characterization in the science fiction genre, just as you rarely get to see the addition of really delicious pecan smoked pork belly to an otherwise standard Japanese dish that, in Japanese hands, would be rendered competently but unremarkably, and leave no particular memory. We are used to Star Wars bar-level characterization of aliens, different on the surface. This author goes deep on the differences, yet comes up with some believably while not jumping straight to scary. They are different, but in the way some species of squid is different from a hamster. Not like us, but not so different that there is no basis for communication. And there is something about us that they like, and they appropriate it. This literary description of alien appropriation of human culture is fascinating and unique. Some readers found it boring. I do not.
The book and the TV series pilot diverge quite a lot. Really a lot. The TV series, in it’s hour long introduction, doesn’t really get around to the aliens until the end, and it makes them scary. It makes a big deal out of disappearances which the book doesn’t really make a central plot point, even halfway through, where I am now. The TV show centers a lot more on the characters at the human base. The book centers on the alien colony, the existence of which is not mentioned at all in the pilot.
I hope the pilot gets chosen for development. I kind of hope they follow the book. If they don’t, they have their work cut out for them, and it will be quite a different entity from the book. I’m not against this. The TV Series “The Expanse” is quite different tactically from the book series it is based on. Tactically. But it still follows the major plotline running through the books. It will be interesting to see whether the Amazon TV Series for Oasis will follow the same strategy, or whether it will go strategically as well as tatically different. We already know it is tactically different. In the TV show, the wife is dying, and is not a central focus. In the book, the wife is not at all dying, while the world may be, and she is kind of a central, parallel narrative focus, although one of the themes of the book is how the priest detaches himself from the marriage as he gets more involved with the alien culture and the people on the human base.
Final note, in the book he invents an alphabet for the aliens or native Oasans that are central to the book (not clear how the TV show will go on this, it could throw them out completely, as depicted in the book, which may be an unhappy experience for the author but typical for Hollywood). Writing the book he used Thai characters. The publisher then had someone design a type font not related to any current language, so as not to offend. Faber only actually gives us a phonic correspondence for the “s”, “t” and “ch” sounds, in cases where the Oasans are trying to pronounce English words and fail. On occasion he makes up longer words in Oasan, unpronounced and in so doing introduces another 10 or so letters that we don’t have sounds for. I had hoped there would be more clues and I was prepared to reproduce the full alphabet here along with English phoneticisation of the untranslated Oasan words, but there just aren’t enough examples and when they are trying to speak English, they only stumbled on “s”, “t” and “ch”. So that’s disappointing. But apparently this was not the most fun part of writing the book for him, he didn’t really care about it that much, it was just a gimmick to convey a little more otherness. He also gives some rules for the Oasan grammar, in particular:
- A few thousand words
- No cases
- No distinction between singular and plural
- No genders
- Three tenses: Gone, here, and expected to come