REVIEW: Voyage to Alpha Centauri: A Novel by Michael O’Brien

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I recently finished reading Voyage to Alpha Centauri by Michael D. O’Brien. (UK LINK HERE)

I hope he writes in this genre again!

This novel deals with an expedition in the future aboard a massive, city-like ship the Kosmos to a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. The main protagonist is a Noble prize winning physicist from the SW USA Neil de Hoyos. As one of the main contributors to the technology that makes the ship possible, he is a passenger with hundreds of other scientists and crew. The future setting is that of extreme totalitarianism, anti-Christian, post-Christian statist control. I don’t doubt that this is where O’Brien fears we are headed.  He has worked with this context before.  In any event, De Hoyos and his colleagues buck the system about Kosmos and have problems during their voyage.

The voyage itself slowly reveals itself to be another manifestation of our perennial struggle against the age old Enemy of mankind, the father of lies, the serpent.

I don’t want to offer any spoilers, and therefore I will make this a bit sketchy.

It is interesting that O’Brien has moved into science fiction. He has written about quite a few different contexts, contemporary and historical, but this is new for him and he did a fine job of it. The technology plays a role in the thrust of the narrative, as if it were a character: an important character. Moreover, the work is deeply Catholic and theological, even though there is very little that is overtly Catholic in the first part. It is Catholic in its worldview rather than in its surface trappings.

You might call this book “theological sci-fi”.

O’Brien is deeply concerned about human freedom and our dignity as images of God. Thus, in his books he often explores the problems caused by the expanding and encroaching State and about the evil, truly diabolical evil, that lurks behind attacks on human dignity. He is also convinced that we need to have clear archetypes and symbols, that evil should be recognizable as evil and good as good. This is something he has written about in reference to children’s literature in his A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle For Your Child’s Mind, which I recommend warmly for parents of young children and educators.

You will encounter in Voyage some leitmotifs which – if you are paying attention – will enrich your reading. O’Brien often works with symbols as motifs. Once you figure out his style, you’ll start picking them up pretty quickly.

From my reading of O’Brien over the years, I believe he has a strong mystical streak. Therefore, even as you might sometimes wish that he had a more aggressive editor, his books reward patience.

I wholeheartedly recommend Voyage.

I am tempted to have a discussion thread here, but I don’t want to offer spoilers.  There are some twists and turns which I don’t want to ruin.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Andrew says:

    I am presently reading this: about half way through: too early for me to discuss, but there’s one thing I might be able to say: this books takes some patience. The plot builds and develops at its own pace. Which is a good thing – in my opinion.

  2. majuscule says:

    Michael o’Brien is interviewed here by Fr. Joseph Fessio about a previous book. I didn’t rewatching the video (it’s 35 minutes long) but if it’s the one I am thinking of, it discusses how O’Brien’s spiritual life inspires his writing and art. Well, even if it isn’t the one I’m thinking of I’m sure it does!

  3. Mike says:

    Quoth Andrew:

    The plot builds and develops at its own pace. Which is a good thing – in my opinion.

    In mine as well. Owing to that pace, as well as to native sloth (mea maxima culpa) and accumulated late-December brain fry, it took me a while to get traction on this book. Once I did, I polished it off in a well-spent weekend, and cannot but echo Fr. Z’s review.

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    “You might call this book ‘theological sci-fi’.”

    This is a small sub-genre in sci-fi. O’Brien’s work is similar in scope to the sci-fi master, James Blish’s, Cities in Flight series. Blish wrote a trilogy of theological sci-fi known, collectively, as the After Such Knowledge Trilogy (from the T. S. Eliot quote from, The Wasteland: “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”):

    A Case of Conscience
    Doctor Mirabilis
    Black Easter/The Day After Judgment

    Every sci-fi reader should know about these. A Case of Conscience won the Hugo Award in 1959 and is considered the best example of theological themes in sci-fi of its kind.

    As this is a post about O’Brien’s book, I will spare anyone a lecture on theological themes in sci-fi, although there are some really good books.

    The Chicken

  5. Frank Gibbons says:

    I bought and read “Voyage” as soon as it came out. Of the eight O’Brien novels that I’ve read, it’s not my favorite. For me, “Island in the World” is his best work. I also preferred Michael Flynn’s “Eifelheim” to “Voyage” as a work of “theological sci-fi”.

    It was nice that while I was reading “Voyage” I was also reading Thomas Howard’s “Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets“. I heartily encourage everyone to read the very challenging but breathtaking “Four Quartets”. Michael O’Brien obviously has.

  6. PDJennings says:

    My wife got me this book as a Christmas present and I read it over a few days. I’ve been a science fiction fan since boyhood when I inherited my uncle’s collection of 1950s Astoundings. Unfortunately, it is increasingly hard to find science fiction I am actually willing to read. More and more of it seems to take on anti-religious themes. Maybe I am just getting older and less willing to put up with that, but I would say that SF from before about 1965 did not dwell on anti-religious themes as much, and it’s become particularly noticeable since about 1990. Why do writers who style themselves as “non-religious” have such an axe to grind when it comes to the Church? Why should the Church, or any church, matter to them in the slightest as a theme for their writing? If they believe there is nothing to it, then why write about it? I suspect guilty conscience has something to do with it.

    O’Brien could have made Voyage 200 pages shorter and still told the same story. The plot was interesting and had some twists I didn’t see coming. I’d like to elaborate more, but I’ll respect Father’s desire not to write spoilers. The story did not end the way I had expected it would — although the front matter did telegraph some information about the ending, it was nonspecific enough to keep one guessing.

    O’Brien’s book Father Elijah was subtitled An Apocalpse, and many of the themes of that book show up again in Voyage. The evolution of the surveillance state and total suppression of the Church are all too believable in O’Brien’s books. I was left with a sense of unease for days after finishing each book. Neither book has what you would call a downer ending, but I think they leave a mark on you, as was certainly the author’s intent. Voyage had a few plot elements that puzzled me because they seemed disconnected from the main story. I don’t know if that means the work was originally even longer and got pared down.

    It does get one thinking about the “new heavens” and the “new Earth” that appear in several places in scripture. Clearly this old Earth will be pretty badly used by the end of the events described in Revelations.

    Anyone who liked Voyage to Alpha Centauri might also enjoy reading an older work called A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, another Catholic SF writer, though evidently one who didn’t stay Catholic. Unusually for SF, it’s a book that starts from the assumption that Catholic teaching is true, and develops a story from there. Voyage to Alpha Centauri does the same. I have not run across many others.

  7. Joseph-Mary says:

    Michael O’Brien is also a gifted artist.

    Father Elijah is my favorite of his works.

  8. David Zampino says:

    Father Z, thank you for this review. I have really enjoyed a couple of O’Brien’s books; liked a couple more, and disliked one. I also really liked “A Landscape with Dragons” — but found myself in disagreement on a couple of points.

    I’ll give this one a try.

    For the record, I second the recommendation of “A Case of Conscience” and “Eifelheim”. (And would add “A Canticle for Leibowitz” and “The Last Western”)

    I’m not sure that I completely agree with the “anti-religious” themes in Sci-Fi/Fantasy fiction. (Possibly, because I pick and choose my authors!) Michael Flynn and Gene Wolfe are both practicing Catholics who are masters at their craft. Orson Scott Card is a practicing Mormon — and many persons of faith (different faiths, I might add) people his novels. Jack McDevitt — one of my favorites — who I don’t believe is a particularly religious individual has very believable and sympathetic characters in many of his novels (at least two involving Norbertines!).

    Anyhow, thanks again for the review. It’s going on my list.

  9. amdg123 says:

    I just finished this and I would not change one word! This is by far my favorite sci-fi book and a genre that definitely needs to be catholicised. I couldn’t put it down.

  10. wmeyer says:

    Looking at some comments on Amazon, and those given here, I would suggest that if a reader is new to Michael O’Brien, perhaps The Father’s Tale or Father Elijah would prepare them a bit for the way O’Brien tells his tales.

    Or it may be only that the complainers are looking for instant gratification and nothing to ponder. For those, O’Brien is simply the wrong man.

  11. LadyMarchmain says:

    Could we not have a virtual book club here? My Christmas gift cards have been burning a hole in my pocket and I for one would like to read this and then discuss. Could we set a date and time, and run the thread with a spoiler alert for those who haven’t read yet?

    PD Jennings, I’m glad you mentioned A Canticle for Liebowitz, a classic and a standard for much of the science fiction that was written later. Time to re-read!

  12. If your interests span science fiction and theology, astronomy and archeology, interstellar space travel and extraterrestrial life, technology and architecture, natural science and political science and behavioral science, linguistics and anthropology, scripture and myth, futuristic speculation and ancient history, then Voyage to AC would really be hard to beat. Indeed, I know of no rival in contemporary fiction.

    On the other hand, if you want a page-turner with little to reflect on and think about, maybe pause 0ccasionally to ponder how it all fits together, then this is definitely not the book for you, and Michael O’Brien is not your author.

  13. acardnal says:

    Following on David Zampino’s comments above, I recently purchased Eifelheim by Michael Flynn. ( I think I saw this title at one time on Fr. Z’s Wish List.) I bought it because several Catholic authors recommended it. It is a sci-fi book set in medieval Europe where an alien spacecraft lands in the 14th century. A Catholic priest is a central figure and the book is full of Catholic experiences.

  14. Ben Kenobi says:

    Father Z, if you haven’t read ‘Canticle for Leibowitz’ you should. [I have! It was intriguing.]

  15. Ben Kenobi says:

    Edit, I see PD Jennings has made the exact same comment. :)

  16. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Gene Wolfe’s wife recently passed away (in December), so please pray for them both.

  17. jaykay says:

    Finished it a couple of weeks ago – Kindle version. I thought it was excellent, well up there with Father Elijah and his “Children of the Last Days “novels. I don’t actually think it could have been shortened, in the way that I thought that e.g. Island of the World should have been, as the format in which it is written genuinely contributes to the build-up of the storyline – which, as others have commented, takes an unexpected twist. Thoroughly recommended.

    B.t.w., there is an interview on his website where he says that he is working on a sequel to Father Elijah. Now that’ll be interesting!

  18. Imrahil says:

    The dear @wmeyer said,

    Or it may be only that the complainers are looking for instant gratification and nothing to ponder.

    Well, I am instantly gratified upon reading or re-reading Father Elijah. So that does at least not completely explain it.

Comments are closed.