O’Brien’s fiction uniquely relevant to our current issues
In Voyage To Alpha Centauri (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-832-1), Michael O’Brien, Canadian writer and painter, gives us a grand tale of a space voyage to Alpha Centauri, the star closest to our own solar system. Voyage puts us on board the Kosmos, an enormous space vessel carrying more than 600 people: scientists, technicians, pilots, workers in the ship’s restaurants, janitors.
The round trip to this next solar system takes 19 years, with one of those years given over to exploration of one of the planets. The physicist whose ideas helped make the journey possible is Neil de Hoyos, who is the narrator and central character of the story. Both De Hoyos and the other passengers aboard the ship are leaving behind an earth governed by a strong central government which spies continually on its citizens through a variety of electronic devices, including insect-sized drones.
While on the flight to Alpha Centauri, de Hoyos and a few others, including a heroic young hacker from maintenance, discover that the security officers of the ship are also monitoring all members of the crew. This spying — think National Security Agency, 2013 — angers de Hoyos to the extent that, when invited to give a speech at one of the ship’s cultural forums, he instead reveals the spying. Punished by being forced to take medication for his supposed “mental breakdown” — the doctor instead gives him a placebo — de Hoyos eventually becomes a hero to the rebels aboard the ship.
Like all of O’Brien’s novels, Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a hefty tome capable of serving as a doorstop or weapon, and like those other books, Voyage also carries with it a cargo of ideas. Topics ranging from God to marriage and the family, from genetics to physics, fill the book and will entertain and instruct the reader who enjoys philosophy in the guise of fiction. Because the other travelers are from all parts of the earth, O’Brien is free to look at other ideas and religions as well: the concept of freedom versus security, for example, or the contrasts between Eastern and Western thought. History and literature are also given heavy play in these conversations, so that the novel makes in many respects for mediation on the meaning of human personhood.
The esoteric parts of the story, however, never impede the story itself or diminish the many details regarding the Kosmos and its journey. O’Brien describes the ship so well, from its lounges and cabins to the working of its engines, that readers quickly come to see how much time and effort he put into his futuristic creation. Some of the gadgetry — the computers, the doors that open at the sound of a voice, the medical treatments — are not the stuff of Start Trek, but instead seem very real extensions of the electronics available today.
Like many other works of science fiction, Voyage to Alpha Centauri also contains a meditation and a warning on science itself. The explorers who come to the new planet, a veritable Eden, find there the vestiges of an old civilization, a cruel and barbarous society of conquerors and conquered, of masters and slaves. The slave-masters who came eons ago from another planet left behind a device which the new visiting scientists cannot resist tinkering with, and in their eagerness to explore this old technology they unleash upon themselves and on part of the planet a horror of blood, fire, and death. (To say anything more specific here would damage the plot of the book).
This overarching theme of Voyage To Alpha Centauri — the clash of world views — has long played a part in O’Brien’s novels and should be of vital concern to any reader interested in today’s issues of individual privacy, religious freedom, and the threat of Big Brother. For those looking for a lengthy book filled with big ideas for a winter’s read, Michael O’Brien’s Voyage To Alpha Centauri entertains and casts a light on the idea of truth.
Writing the above sketch of O’Brien’s novel brought to mind an older novel with some similar themes, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowtiz. First published in 1959, and on a first reading seemingly concerned with the nuclear age and the possibility of nuclear holocaust, A Canticle For Leibowitz also presents a profound meditation on the dark side of the union of science and politics, on repetitions of history, and on mankind’s arrogance in terms of technology. This dark and densely written narrative, centered on a monastery founded after a nuclear war, warns readers against the shortcomings — Miller would have used the word sin — of pride in technological development, particularly when moral development lags behind.
Stuffed full of erudite commentary — Miller employs everything from Church Latin to ancient Hebrew — and peopled with great characters (Brother Francis and the Poet alone make the book worth reading), A Canticle For Leibowtiz is regarded by some as a modern classic and has rightly remained in print since its publication. Given our own increasingly dangerous world of nuclear weapons, this novel too is worthy of your attention.
Voyage To Alpha Centauri by Michael O’Brien. Ignatius Press, 2013. 700 pages