This is yet another book that Dom received as a review copy. I thought it was a perfect read for Lent.
This is Michael O’Brien’s first science fiction novel. Not surprisingly it is theological science fiction: angels and demons, sinners and saints, science and faith.
I like Michael O’Brien’s fiction. I’ve read all of his Children of the Last Days series, but this is the first book of his I’ve read that isn’t part of the series. I’ve been a bit wary, having seen mixed reviews. Then again, most of the books I enjoyed got mixed reviews. The most common criticisms seem to be that he could use an editor and that he tends to be a bit heavy handed. Well I don’t mind long rambling novels. Bring on the Dickens and the Dostoevsky and the other 19th century meganovels! I don’t notice when novels ramble and when they really “needed an editor.” So many reviews I saw on Amazon hated VtAC for being too long and too slow in the initial buildup. If I put on my critical thinking cap, I might see their point; but when I read fiction I read for the journey, not to be a literary critic. So I guess what I’m saying is, take this with a grain of salt. If you like O’Brien already, these tendencies probably won’t annoy you too much. If you don’t know his work, give him a try.
The narrator, Neil Ruiz de Hoyos, is an elderly (That makes him sounds decrepit, which he isn’t. But he is over sixty.) Nobel Prize-winning physicist whose work was the breakthrough that has made the voyage feasible. The setting is classic O’Brien, a dystopian society with a world government run by atheist social engineers in which religion is outlawed, a one-child policy is universal, and environmentalism has become a sort of state religion. Hoyos has turned his back on the Catholic faith he was raised in, but also has profound distrust and hatred for the government. He’s along as an honorary guest for the nine year journey to Alpha Centauri because of his scientific accomplishments.
Anyway, Voyage to Alpha Centauri picks up on the same themes as the others of O’Brien’s books I’ve read. It seems to be set in the same world as the Children of the Last Days series, but further into the future. The whole thing is done in diaries like Plague Journal. The first half of the book covers the outward voyage and the narrator’s life up to that point in a series of flahsbacks– he’s on a nine year journey so he has a lot of time on his hands to think about the past. I really liked this section of the story and the Ship of Fools theme O’Brien develops, but I suppose it probably could have been edited a bit. It reminds me of the criticism of Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear, in which the plot goes on and on with the characters being stuck in the past. I thought it was effective story telling. The frustrations and the repetitions in the narrative create that tension, that sense of hopelessness. But people want their stories to move forward at a nice clip. If you like fast-paced action-adventure, you’ll probably find the first section of Voyage drags.
What happens once they get to the new world is where you really get into the supernatural drama and where the charge of heavy-handedness come in. Yeah, it’s kind of heavy-handed, but I liked it anyway. It’s beautiful. There are passages and images that are going to stick with me for a very long time. As Erik Thomason at Catholic World Report argues, the novel is like an icon.
It’s kind of hard to discuss the book without spoilers. I’d love to have someone who has read it come and chat with me about it. I haven’t picked up another work of fiction because I’m not quite ready to move on. Maybe I should go re-read parts of it. But I’m not really hungry for re-reading. I want conversation, another perspective or just someone else to say, yes, I loved that bit too.
I’ve been trying to write this post for weeks now and it won’t seem to gel. I’m too lazy to want to write a plot summary. You can find that elsewhere. I want to chat about the book but don’t want to do the work or writing if no one is going to respond. So maybe I should just post it and hope someone comes along. (Though with my luck, when I do that someone always comes along who wants to chat just as we’re dealing with a crisis like sick kids or teething babies and I let the conversation drop for lack of attention.) And maybe I’ll come back and write all the spoilery stuff in the comments.