Sounding like a modern, the Greek writer Callimachus once penned an epigram where he quipped, “a large book is a great misfortune.” Does not the legitimacy of such an assertion depend on the author and the reader? Novelist Michael O’Brien gives all lovers of fine novels another marvelously large book. As one who enjoys good science fiction, it is always a treat when a first-rate novelist ventures into a genre different than what is the norm for that novelist.
Often when talking about literature, someone will ask, “what is it about?” This question is sometimes confused with the more important question of, “what are the possible meanings of this work?” While the storyline of Voyage to Alpha Centauri is about a trip of the spaceship Kosmos to Alpha Centauri and given to us primarily in the form of the diary of Neil de Hoyos, one might be able to say that the novel is really about what it means to be a human being, the human civilizations that we make, and the civilizations that make or unmake us.
Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a sci-fi dystopian novel which functions as an aesthetic critique of what is wrong with the world and how all might be as it should. O’Brien offers the reader part critique of totalitarian governments and part examination of how such social disorders come to exist. Similar to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn, O’Brien’s work is philosophically and theologically rich dealing with the fullness of our humanity considering such issues as life, death, habits, longing for order, and our fallen human nature. How many other novelists would put Virgil’s Eclogues and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into conversation with one another to demonstrate the Biblical truth of the glory of creation and the fallen nature of humans? The greatest novels, by the truly great novelists, look at human aspirations, longings, dreams, the goodness of the particulars of our existence, human finitude, zeal for freedom, and our recurring tendency to get it wrong, and Voyage to Alpha Centauri does just this.
The big picture setting of this novel spans almost 400 years and the territory from Earth to Alpha Centauri. While the practically minded may be able to take a journey across the cosmos without contemplation of the divine, not all the characters can escape such Pascalian questions posed of the infinite by the finite. “Whoever looks deeply into the cosmos, and continues to look, cannot rest content with what he observes through the telescope. If he persists with courage and honesty, he will ask himself about the meaning and end to which the whole of creation is oriented.” Again, while philosophical truths can be eclipsed by the gadgets and gizmos in some futuristically imagined literary works, O’Brien has characters who think beyond the superficial matters.
“Does relativity relativize existence? We may feel that it does, since our psychological/perceptual/conceptual bearings are determined by planetary-based measurements, and tend to blur and even disorient us in the face of principles of cosmic physics. Yet relativity has no pretensions to being an ontological system. Indeed, philosophy may in the end prove to be a more coherent model of existence than physics.”
By its very nature, science fiction as a genre, tends to either celebrate the science or demonize science. As with much else in the work, a theologically acumen calls for a different approach. O’Brien does not refrain from reflection of the nature of applied science. He is conscious of the truth that some of the tools we design to give us power over nature and other humans can act back upon the makers and bring unintended consequences. There is much in this novel that stands as critique of the big technologies that affect our lives (bombs and spaceships), and also the little technologies that affect our everyday in ways that we are often unaware. Such is the content of the discussion between the characters Dwayne and Neil de Hoyos, “plebian mind-nummers,” are mentioned and the conversation continues, “The old maximum e–drug. Surfing, vids, films, holo–porn.”
“Digital environmental chambers?”
“DECs? Yup, there’s a lotta people hooked on them too.”
Examining the grand role and the everyday place of human technological power calls for more than efficiency. In truth, the more efficient our tools and techniques are, the more harmful they may be. The spirit of utilitarianism trumps careful consideration. Questions of “should we do this” are superseded by “can we do this.” Regardless of the functional role of various technologies, all tools have an ideological bias and O’Brien’s novel demonstrates through the lives of the characters that sound reasoning is imperative for tools to be used wisely.
While this writing will likely be classified as science fiction, it bends toward the dystopian. In the currently popular genre of dystopian fiction (one does wonder why so many are writing and reading works that explore a world gone wrong), the novelist calls into question ideas and assumptions that are pervasive. As a deeply spiritual writer, O’Brien recognizes the increasing intolerance against a robust expression of that faith that engages all of life and every area of culture and society. However, like Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, totalitarian government is not all or even first to blame. Speaking of a key character, “He was a dedicated man, since in those days the churches were closed, due to the indifference of a once religious nation and, sporadically, government crackdowns on organized religion.” Part of the real genius of this novel is the realization that government, by its very nature, tends to become all-encompassing. “We confuse imposed governance for legitimate authority. What, then, is legitimate authority? Is it not a mutual contract between free beings who agree to apportion their fields of responsibility and levels of decision-making, according to their gifts, while maintaining accountability, and placing above all other social considerations the necessity of mutual respect? If this is so, we must conclude that rare indeed has been its exercise in the history of mankind.” Taking a cue from Christopher Dawson, there is the recognition that humans need properly sanctioned order or government. Notice here again, a sharp observation about proper and improper authority.
Voyage to Alpha Centauri also keeps the human being and human condition in clear focus throughout. The novel conveys a clearly articulated religious anthropology. Insightful reflection and commentary given on the distinction between communicating truth though various humane means, propaganda, and the key distinction between uniformity and unity and how that occurs within human civilizations. What is most edifying within this novel is the ongoing reflection and appropriate criticism of a dehumanizing, reductionistic, mechanistic, naturalistic worldview where,”they think everything about humanity is biology.” A most ennobling anthropology is proposed in this work in contrast to an animalistic dehumanizing view that has become all too common in our age. “Every person who enters our lives is present as unique phenomena, radiational, gravitational, altering the symphony.”
Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, O’Brien boldly rethinks the idea of social engineering. It is the notion that since humans can control some of nature and physical matter, the assertion and practice is that humans can also easily control human beings since they are merely an extension or variant expression of matter. “We can harness the atom, but we cannot attempt to absolutely control men’s wills, nor their capacity for rational thought, nor their hunger for freedom, without grave risk to man himself.” In a Delphic moment, the question is asked, “One wonders constantly how it happened, he said. How did man cease to know himself?”
Another religiously keen insight regarding human nature is, “behind every anthropology there is the lure of ideology. By the same token, behind every ideology you will find a determining anthropology—and this latter is the more dangerous.” Voyage to Alpha Centauri does consider humans as religious beings, longing for transcendence and desirous of community. O’Brien writes with prophetic tone and within the Judeo-Christian tradition when he has one character declare, “Man without God becomes a slave of the old gods, those demons, or else he becomes his own god and falls into another kind of darkness.”
An observation within the novel that is so true is that, “The power of culture is immense, especially when it is sensually rewarding.” O’Brien provides a novel rife with the good, the true, and the beautiful. There are works of great literature, great art, and great music, referenced throughout as markers or signposts and are used in a variety of ways to reinforce a particular truth embodied or uttered.
Michael O’Brien gives us a work of science fiction in the tone and texture of the great novelist of the modern world. If C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy conversed with Dostoevsky while Christopher Dawson also joined the conversation, this is what it would look like. For all of us who enjoy a thick read that gives us much more than mere entertainment, but delights us and profits us, this should be added to your “must read” list.