Review: Voyage to Alpha Centauri

Voyage to Alpha Centauri by Michael D. O'BrienThis was initially posted at Castalia House’ blog.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction in my life, and there tend to be some words I love hearing to describe a book I’m about to pick up. (“Space opera” ranks high among them.) On the other hand, there are also some words I dread hearing attached to a scifi novel. Words that, really, I shouldn’t dread hearing: “literary” and/or “Christian.”

Modern Christian fiction is, by and large, terrible. (I say this as a devout believer and seminary student.) The Christian fiction industry is appears to be afraid, primarily, of two things: publishing a book without a Message, and publishing a book that might push some boundaries a little bit. Modern Christian science fiction tends to be worse; it’s usually just more trite End Timesy stuff. Literary fiction is, by and large, also terrible; it’s usually about wallowing in the angst of terrible people failing to do anything about their terrible lives.

Funny thing, then, that a literary, Christian science fiction novel should turn out to be so darn good. Maybe Catholic readers more familiar with Michael D O’Brien right now are thinking, “Duh. Of course the book is good,” as he seems to be warmly talked about on Catholic radio. But I’m fairly new to Catholicism and Voyage to Alpha Centauri was my first introduction to the writing of Mr. O’Brien.

Voyage to Alpha Centauri tells (shockingly!) the tale of humanity’s first interstellar expedition, and (shockingly!) this expedition is to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Aboard this ship are a number of scientists, social elites, and government officials, all living in the relative comfort of the Kosmos, a ship designed to make the trip at 50% of light speed. It’s not quite a generation ship, but the folks there are in for the long haul. Kosmos is more or less a city in space, and Earth’s benevolent nanny state is running the show.

Among the scientists is one Neil Ruiz de Hoyos, a Nobel prize winning scientist whose research made the Kosmos possible and, really, kind of a cantankerous old fart. De Hoyos is old enough to remember life before the world state, before the constant surveillance by clouds of insect sized drones. The trip to another star is as much about escaping the nanny state as it is about anything else.

To be perpetually observed is as basic to the natural order as breathing without thinking about it, or in more alert moments, to feeling the wind on one’s cheek. It is simply background. One strains to imagine that there was a time in mankind’s history when the worst sort of surveillance you might suffer was a bad tempered neighbor peeking through the curtains of his house in or order to keep tabs on your comings and goings, as fuel for gossip. But we of a later age have been born in the culture of omnipresent inspection by invisible authority. All lives are examined lives.

But, of course, even though the government has promised that those on board Kosmos are responsible enough to be free of monitoring, no government has ever meant that. And so de Hoyos begins to find, over the course of the trip out to Alpha Centauri, that the government is still just as present and still just as stifling to individuals as before. Given that the kind of people who would travel to another star are the kind of people who are more than a little independent, and who might want to escape the Earth for one reason or another– such as the followers of the now suppressed Christianity– the eventual conflict is inevitable.

Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a slow burn. It’s a book that demands some patience right off the bat; there were times when what I wanted was to talk about spaceships and oppressive nanny states, but I got flashbacks to de Hoyos’ childhood in the Southwest US. But as the journey progresses, and de Hoyos and his friends clash more and more frequently with the DSI (the government’s arm aboard Kosmos), the story begins to ramp up. True to its name, maybe half to two-thirds of the book are spent on the actual trip out to Alpha Centauri and– I’ll be honest– that initially worried me. But the trip is where the conflict that eventually takes place on the world orbiting Alpha Centauri A really begins to foment, and long before they’ve reached Alpha Centauri, we’re dealing with a plot that reminds me, of all things, of Poul Anderson’s Harvest of Stars. On one hand, we have a government that seems to really want to take care of its citizens in the ways it thinks are best; on the other, we have people fighting to live life with purpose.

I applaud the ideals of literary folks to some extent; we should have good, character driven plots. But a literature professor would look down their nose at you if you used the word “plot” in conjunction with a literary story. Fortunately, O’Brien doesn’t. Voyage to Alpha Centauri has literature in its DNA, but it’s also a science fiction novel, and in a move that I wish more actual science fiction authors would follow, O’Brien gives us an actual science fiction story. The world orbiting Alpha Centauri A is a mysterious, Edenic place hiding a dark secret, and O’Brien actually investigates that secret. (Compare to Emma Newman’s Planetfall, where she seriously phones it in.) I happened to be reading it on airport parking lot shuttle when the secret came to light, and I’m not ashamed to say that I sat in my car turning page after page until I was satisfied enough to drive home. (It was a hot day. I shed a lot of sweat reading it that day, and I don’t regret it.)

If you’re not familiar with us folks over at Superversive SF, we have this theory of works that positively “undermine” cultural expectations. Subversion, but aimed at building up rather than tearing down. There are three main qualifiers for a superversive work: Good storytelling, heroic characters, and a sense of wonder. We tend to rule out Christian fiction as superversive because it’s usually message fiction, but there are exceptions. (Compare, say, a movie like God’s Not Dead to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) Voyage, even though there is clearly a Christian philosophy behind it, is about as far from message fiction as one can get. De Hoyos was raised Catholic, but by the time the novel starts, he has long since turned away from any sort of faith at all. The narrative for much of the book is clearly seen through the lens of someone who expects that the visible world is all there is, and when things begin to change, when that sense of wonder and heroism really begins to rear its head, this is where the book clearly begins to shine. All the passages dealing with de Hoyos’ past are ultimately justified because they root us so strongly in what he was that we understand all the better what he becomes.

  • Fractal Rabbit

    Have you ever read The Sparrow be Mary Doria Russell? It sounds like, while an ultimately different story, there are a few similarities. I’m eager to give this book a try.

    • You know, you’re the second person to mention The Sparrow to me. I’ve kind of waffled back and forth on reading it, but I probably should. It’ll make a post if nothing else 🙂

      • Fractal Rabbit

        I enjoyed The Sparrow. Somewhat against my wishes, if that makes any sense, because I was so prepared to dislike it.

        I didn’t care for the resolution (or the sequel) but that book really stays with me, even now after ten years.