Michael O’Brien’s Literary Icons | Eric Thomason | CWR
Voyage to Alpha Centauri explores familiar and timely themes, but in a very different setting.
Michael O’Brien is a superior storyteller and an increasingly bright light in the Catholic literary firmament. The Canadian native's fiction is reminiscent of Tolkien’s: epic in scope, universal in theme, and filled with ordinary characters facing extraordinary obstacles. An iconographer by trade, O'Brien's novels are literary icons, attracting readers with vibrant imagery in order to invite them into a deeper contemplation of eternal truths. O’Brien’s latest work, Voyage to Alpha Centauri, fits this mold.
Alpha Centauri takes place approximately 100 years in the future, at which time a unified world government is preparing to send several hundred elite scientists, scholars, and government officials to explore a potentially habitable planet in the next solar system. The central character is lapsed Catholic Neil de Hoyos, an aging Nobel laureate whose theoretical work made the journey of exploration possible and whose journal entries make up nearly the entirety of the book. The journey to the planet takes nine years, during which time de Hoyos makes unsettling discoveries about governmental intrusion into the private lives of the voyagers. De Hoyos’ journal entries in this phase of the book explore the nature of government, the basis for authentic human community, and the hubris of utopian efforts to perfect man without reference to the transcendent good of the human person. Recounting a mid-journey subversive speech he delivered on governmental social engineering, de Hoyos writes:
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. To condition him, to determine him according to arbitrary theories of his nature—his perpetually elusive and mysterious nature—is to deform him. (p. 135)
The government officials on board are swift to respond to such rhetoric. As in several of O’Brien’s other novels, these officials are the immediate face of evil in Alpha Centauri. They are omnipresent, politically correct, unfailingly polite, and utterly ruthless; one colorful character, a hard-drinking Scottish astronomer, delightfully refers to them as “protocol zombies” (p. 50). Presiding over these bland but powerful bureaucrats and leading the response to de Hoyos’ speech is a particularly loathsome character, Dr. Elif Larsson. In a dramatic but private debate with de Hoyos, he offers his defense of increasing governmental control: