There is something indelibly graceful about reading the old masterworks of literature. Whereas many modern authors craft engaging stories that also serve as microcosms of their own existential angst and moral dysfunction, the old masters were often able to spin us a great yarn capable of ennobling our spirits while also providing potent lessons in history, philosophy and theology.
In our own times, Michael O’Brien has joined the small group of writers who have eschewed popular modernism in favor of writing rich, meaningful works concerned with the nature of things as they truly are.
Despite being rejected by major publishers early in his career for committing the seemingly cardinal offense of expressing an incarnational worldview in his writings, Michael O’Brien has found a home with Ignatius Press, a publisher whose small fiction catalog represents some of the most original new writing available today, building a worldwide following in the process.
With his most recent effort, “Voyage to Alpha Centauri,” O’Brien jumps genres into the realm of science fiction, continuing the long tradition of writing theologically meaningful sci-fi that was begun by authors such as C.S. Lewis. The comparison to Lewis is no exaggeration. In this recent volume, Michael O’Brien has penned an engaging and anthropocentric science fiction novel, one that moves beyond imaginary technology and implausible scenarios into a refreshingly human story.
Marvin Olasky, editor of World magazine, had this to say about O'Brien in a piece titled, "Stings like a bee":
Now I’ve read three of his older works—Father Elijah (1997), Sophia House (2005), and Plague Journal (2009)—along with a just-published new one, Voyage to Alpha Centauri, all put out by Ignatius Press. Reading these three allows me to say that O’Brien is up there with Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor in the pantheon of fiction writers from Roman Catholic backgrounds, but his style is in some ways the opposite of the sly and humorous Percy, who floats like a butterfly; O’Brien stings like a bee, or maybe a sledgehammer. ... O’Brien’s new novel is a venture into science fiction centered on a 19-year trip aboard a sleek, huge spaceship, with the narrator learning of oppression in the heavens as on Earth. O’Brien skillfully portrays a clash of worldviews without end, amen, with big brothers watching and demanding lying conformity.
Jeff Minick of the Smoky Mountain News writes:
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.
Fr. Z. wrote, "I hope [O'Brien] writes in this genre again!":
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.
Eric Thomason, writing for Catholic World Report, says:
O’Brien’s novels, then, are profoundly rooted in Scripture, which from its first pages warns man to turn from Satan’s folly—“you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen.3:5)—and to embrace the way of Christ, who “humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross” (Phil.2:7). O’Brien’s heroes and heroines are icons of Mary’s Magnificat: “He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble” (Luke 1:51-52). Like Mary, by remaining small, by remaining faithful, they are able to counter the “the spirits of wickedness in the high places” (Eph.6:12).
In a world awash in empty ambition, self-indulgent spirituality, and politically correct visions of renewal, O’Brien’s earthy, broken, and wonderfully human characters are a balm. His stories, too, are a wake-up call, reminding us to return to those things which comprise the truly good life: God, family, solidarity with the lowly, attentiveness to nature, and authentic art.
Like O’Brien’s other works, Alpha Centauri is lengthy, and therefore includes a variety of themes other than those mentioned here. Some of these which may resonate with various readers are reverence for creation, humility in the intellectual life, the holiness of the ordinary, the nature of art, and ecumenism.
The Catholicism Anew blog interviewed O'Brien about the novel:
Here you are a Catholic writer, a Catholic novelist, and this, I understand, is your first novel in Science Fiction. How do you bring Catholicism and Science Fiction together?
My approach is different than that of most writers of science fiction. Most contemporary science fiction focuses on technological wonders and tends to move more and more in the direction of pseudo mysticism combined with technology. There are a lot of preternatural and supernatural elements in modern sci-fi, which I think is because there is such a void in modern man, who has not received authentic spirituality and real thought. So he is very limited, very fragmented.
In my book, I tell the story of a 19-year round trip journey to the star closest to our solar system, Alpha Centauri. A lot happens on this huge space ship that comes from Earth. With more than six hundred people onboard there are many dramas that take place during the outward bound voyage. Some of the people are clandestine Christians, mostly Catholic. Most of the crew are not. The story is set 100 years in the future, at a time when the world has become very secularized, a kind of neo-totalitarian world where the state rules everything.
I express our Faith through the fictional characters, their moral characters and their personalities, their struggles—both believers and non believers. I would say that the defining part of the story is about faith, about the destiny of the universe itself, and redemption. As Christ redeemed the universe he is restoring it to the Father through the long process of salvation history, which is not yet completed.