Recently I read Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. I read it without reading a summary, which is how I’m reading most of my books this year. At one point I read the summary for each book on my TBR list and thought it was interesting enough to read so now I’m trusting my past self and reading the books on the list in any order I can get my hands on them.
So, when in the first chapters of the book I found that the book was about a missionary, I was excited. Although, honestly, the only books I’ve read featuring missionaries paint them in a horrible light. Which is fine because horrible missionaries exist and ignorance in the name of religion is a topic that needs to be addressed. So I was excited to read about this missionary but I also braced myself for some cringe-worthy stunts.
Peter is a missionary to aliens. They’re pretty boring aliens and (SPOILER ALERT) they have actually already heard the gospel so Peter’s job is pretty cush. What stuck out to me throughout the story, though, was how Peter’s relationship to other humans was affected by his relationship with the aliens.
Humans have built this big ol’ complex on whatever planet they’re on in the name of science and discovery and education. So there are a bunch of scientists and doctors and researchers living and working in this complex when Peter shows up to be a missionary. He gets a room in the complex but soon finds himself spending weeks at a time living among the aliens. On his trips back to the complex he experiences an escalating case of reverse culture shock.
In one instance Peter is talking with two of the humans in the complex about the alien’s community. One of the others mentions that those silly aliens don’t even grow any crops (or something about their crops). Peter knows better and knows that, in fact, their method of crop-growing is very intelligent and convenient. So he opens his mouth to explain that and then realizes he just doesn’t have the energy to explain everything about the alien culture that he would have to explain for these people who have never seen the community to understand how the aliens grow their crops. He’s just not up to it.
Going back to the States for me is exhausting in every way. It’s exhausting physically, emotionally, and definitely financially. Having become accustomed to one way of life and then being plopped back into another way of life is exhausting. The transition time on either side of a trip back to the States is rough. And I’ve found myself feeling exactly like Peter. Feeling like it’s not worth explaining one little thing if I can’t explain it in the context of the greater culture, while at the same time not having the energy or the patience to explain that entire culture.