The best in fiction and history

2015 Books Issue | Excerpts from two of WORLD’s Books of the Year
by Michel Faber & Erik Larson
Posted 6/20/15, 08:33 am

Last Saturday we ran an excerpt from WORLD’s Book of the Year in the Accessible Theology category. Today we run brief excerpts from our winners in two other categories, Fiction and History/Biography. 

Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a novel our committee of five WORLD writers could not put down. It’s set on a planet far, far away but it’s neither science fiction nor adventure. It’s really a romance of sorts. Creatures meet Jesus, a missionary meets them and honorably serves them. This excerpt will give you a tiny taste, and the whole story is a banquet.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is a history of how and why the Lusitania in its 202nd crossing of the Atlantic sailed into a Germany navy trap exactly one century ago. One well-aimed torpedo led to the deaths of 1,200 passengers and crew members. Some British leaders apparently thought they didn’t die in vain, because all those civilian deaths changed American public opinion on World War I. —Marvin Olasky

The Book of Strange New Things

By Michel Faber

Peter stepped through the sliding door into the air of Oasis and, contrary to an irrational apprehension, he did not instantly die, get sucked into an airless vortex, or shrivel up like a scrap of fat on a griddle. Instead, he was enveloped in a moist, warm breeze, a swirling balm that felt like steam except that it didn’t make his throat catch. He strolled into the dark, his way unlit except by several distant lamps. In the dreary environs of the USIC airport, there was nothing much to see anyway, just acres of wet black bitumen, but he’d wanted to walk outside, and so here he was, walking, outside.

The sky was dark, dark aquamarine. Aquamareeeeeen, as BG might say. There were only a few dozen stars visible, far fewer than he was used to, but each one shone brightly, without any flicker, and with a pale green aura. There was no moon.

The rain had stopped now, but the atmosphere still seemed substantially composed of water. If he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he’d waded into a warm swimming pool. The air lapped against his cheeks, tickled his ears, flowed over his lips and hands. It penetrated his clothing, breathing into the collar of his shirt and down his backbone, making his shoulderblades and chest dewy, making his shirtcuffs adhere to his wrists. The warmth—it was extreme warmth rather than heat—caused his skin to prickle with sweat, making him intimately aware of his armpit hair, the clefts of his groin, the shape of his toes inside their humid footwear.

He was dressed all wrong. Those USIC guys with their loose Arabic duds had it sussed, didn’t they? He would have to emulate them as soon as possible.

As he walked, he tried to sort out which unusual phenomena were occurring inside of him and which were external realities. His heart was beating a little faster than usual; he put that down to excitement. His gait was a little wonky, as though skewed by alcohol; he wondered if he was merely suffering the after-effects of The Jump, jet lag, and general exhaustion. His feet seemed to bounce slightly with every step, as though the bitumen was rubberised. He knelt for a moment and rapped on the ground with his knuckles. It was hard, unyielding. Whatever it was made of—presumably some combination of the local earth and imported chemicals—it had an asphalt-like consistency. He stood up, and the action of standing seemed to him easier than it should be. An ever-so-slight trampoline effect. But this was counterbalanced by the watery density of the air. He lifted his hand, pushed his palm forward into space, testing for resistance. There was none, and yet the air swirled around his wrist and up his forearm, tickling him. He didn’t know whether he liked it, or found it creepy. Atmosphere, in his experience, had always been an absence. The air here was a presence, a presence so palpable that he was tempted to believe he could let himself fall and the air would simply catch him like a pillow. It wouldn’t, of course. But as it nuzzled against his skin, it almost seemed to promise that it would.

He took a deep breath, concentrating on the texture of it as it went in. It felt and tasted no different from normal air. He knew from the USIC brochures that the composition was much the same mix of nitrogen and oxygen he’d been breathing all his life, with a bit less carbon dioxide and a bit more ozone and a few trace elements he might not have had before. The brochures hadn’t mentioned the water vapour, although Oasis’s climate had been described as “tropical”, so maybe that covered it.

Something tickled his left ear and, as a reflex, he brushed at it. A fragment of semi-solid matter, like a wet cornflake or a rotting leaf, passed across his fingers but fell off before he could hold it up to his eyes and examine it. His fingers were streaked with a sticky fluid. Blood? No, not blood. Or if it was, it wasn’t his. It was green as spinach.

He turned around and looked at the building he’d emerged from. It was monumentally ugly, like all architecture not built by religious devotees or mad eccentrics. Its only redeeming feature was the transparency of the mess hall’s window, lit up like a video screen in the dark. Although he had walked quite a long way, he could still recognise the coffee bar and the magazine rack, and even fancied he could make out the Asian man still slumped on one of the chairs. At this distance, these details looked like a neat assortment of items stored inside a coin-operated dispenser. A luminous little box, surrounded by a great sea of strange air; and above it, a trillion miles of darkness.

To be honest, he’d experienced moments like this before, on the planet that was supposed to be his home. Sleepless and wandering the streets of shabby British towns at two, three in the morning, he would find himself at a bus shelter in Stockport, a woebegone shopping mall in Reading, or the empty husks of Camden market in the hours before dawn—and it was at those times, in those places, that he was struck by a vision of human insignificance in all its unbearable pathos. People and their dwellings were such a thin dust on the surface of the globe, like invisible specks of bacteria on an orange, and the feeble lights of kebab shops and supermarkets failed utterly to register on the infinities of space above. If it weren’t for God, the almighty vacuum would be too crushing to endure, but once God was with you, it was a different story.

Peter turned again and kept walking. His vague hope was that if he walked far enough, the featureless tarmac of the airport environs would finally come to an end, and he would step over into the landscape of Oasis, the real Oasis.

Excerpted from The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. Copyright © 2014 by Michel Faber. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishing, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson

A Word from the Captain

On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship ap­proached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and tal­ent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings. The room was large and warm, paneled in mahogany and carpeted in green and yellow, with two fourteen-foot-tall fireplaces in the front and rear walls. Ordinarily Turner avoided events of this kind aboard ship, because he disliked the social obligations of captaincy, but tonight was no ordinary night, and he had news to convey.

There was already a good deal of tension in the room, despite the singing and piano playing and clumsy magic tricks, and this became more pronounced when Turner stepped forward at inter­mission. His presence had the perverse effect of affirming every­thing the passengers had been fearing since their departure from New York, in the way that a priest’s arrival tends to undermine the cheery smile of a nurse.

It was Turner’s intention, however, to provide reassurance. His looks helped. With the physique of a bank safe, he was the embodiment of quiet strength. He had blue eyes and a kind and gentle smile, and his graying hair—he was fifty-eight years old—conveyed wisdom and experience, as did the mere fact of his being a Cunard captain. In accord with Cunard’s practice of rotating captains from ship to ship, this was his third stint as the Lusita­nia’s master, his first in wartime.

Turner now told his audience that the next day, Friday, May 7, the ship would enter waters off the southern coast of Ireland that were part of a “zone of war” designated by Germany. This in itself was anything but news. On the morning of the ship’s departure from New York, a notice had appeared on the shipping pages of New York’s newspapers. Placed by the German Embassy in Wash­ington, it reminded readers of the existence of the war zone and cautioned that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction” and that travelers sailing on such ships “do so at their own risk.” Though the warning did not name a particular vessel, it was widely interpreted as being aimed at Turner’s ship, the Lusitania, and indeed in at least one promi­nent newspaper, the New York World, it was positioned adjacent to Cunard’s own advertisement for the ship. Ever since, about all the passengers had been doing was “thinking, dreaming, sleeping, and eating submarines,” according to Oliver Bernard, a theater-set designer traveling in first class.

Turner now revealed to the audience that earlier in the evening the ship had received a warning by wireless of fresh submarine activity off the Irish coast. He assured the audience there was no need for alarm.

Coming from another man, this might have sounded like a baseless palliative, but Turner believed it. He was skeptical of the threat posed by German submarines, especially when it came to his ship, one of the great transatlantic “greyhounds,” so named for the speeds they could achieve. His superiors at Cunard shared his skepticism. The company’s New York manager issued an official response to the German warning. “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.” Turner’s personal ex­perience affirmed this: on two previous occasions, while captain of a different ship, he had encountered what he believed were sub­marines and had successfully eluded them by ordering full speed ahead.

He said nothing about these incidents to his audience. Now he offered a different sort of reassurance: upon entering the war zone the next day, the ship would be securely in the care of the Royal Navy.

He bade the audience good night and returned to the bridge. The talent show continued. A few passengers slept fully clothed in the dining room, for fear of being trapped below decks in their cabins if an attack were to occur. One especially anxious traveler, a Greek carpet merchant, put on a life jacket and climbed into a lifeboat to spend the night. Another passenger, a New York busi­nessman named Isaac Lehmann, took a certain comfort from the revolver that he carried with him always and that would, all too soon, bring him a measure of fame, and infamy.

With all but a few lights extinguished and all shades pulled and curtains drawn, the great liner slid forward through the sea, at times in fog, at times under a lacework of stars. But even in darkness, in moonlight and mist, the ship stood out. At one o’clock in the morning, Friday, May 7, the officers of a New York–bound vessel spotted the Lusitania and recognized it immediately as it passed some two miles off. “You could see the shape of the four funnels,” said the captain, Thomas M. Taylor; “she was the only ship with four funnels.”

Unmistakable and invulnerable, a floating village in steel, the Lusitania glided by in the night as a giant black shadow cast upon the sea.

Reprinted from Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Copyright © 2015 by Erik Larson. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on March 10.