Michael O’Brien’s Literary Icons

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:

 De Hoyos: You mistake uniformity for unity.

Larsson: A play on words.  They are the same thing.

De Hoyos: They are very much not the same thing.  Uniformity is brought about through manipulation.  Unity comes about through a conscious effort made by free and responsible people.

Larrson: You call yourself responsible, I suppose?

De Hoyos: Yes, I do.  Your Department would lift certain responsibilities off our shoulders, wouldn’t it?  You would do it for the highest motives, wouldn’t you? But have you considered what is lost in the process?

Larsson: …I would say that strife is lost, as well as division, inefficiency, confusion, the irrational tendencies in human nature.  And you wish to preserve these?

De Hoyos:  I wish to maintain our right to make our mistakes and learn from them. (p. 148)

In an era of HHS mandates and increased surveillance in the West and coercive population controls and environmental degradation in the East, O’Brien is here encouraging his readers to be alert to the lessons of Genesis: sin is crouching at our doors (Gen. 4:7), the devil too lies in wait (Gen. 3:1; I Pet. 5:8), and any effort by men to forge a better world without accounting for the world, the flesh, and the devil will only end in disaster (Gen. 11:1-9; Catechism #57).  That is, if we attempt to build a society without reference to man’s transcendent but fallen nature, we will fail, ceding control to those who believe they can eradicate sin through social engineering, or those who believe man’s highest purpose is to build a better world through state action, or both.  The end result of such programs will be the loss of human dignity.  As Karol Wojtyla once reflected:

The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person. (As cited in George Weigel, “John Paul II and the Crisis of Humanism,” First Things, December 1999). 

After the explorers arrive at the planet they make some surprising and disturbing discoveries, the horror of which O’Brien describes with haunting effectiveness.  These discoveries ultimately lead de Hoyos to consider the spiritual origins of evil, man’s proper response to evil, and whether or not the Church that he rejected is indeed what she claims to be: an Ark of salvation floating on the waters of destruction.  In a dialogue with a Christian character, de Hoyos’ questions why God does not intervene to warn mankind of grave evils.  His interlocutor replies:

[God] does speak.  In a multitude of forms, he speaks.  Yet our human nature does not want to hear what he says.  We choose our own paths; we prefer to rise on our own terms.  For us to accept that someone higher is speaking with authority—an ultimate authority over our lives—would cost too much we think.  Thus we make ourselves more deaf.  We turn our eyes and ears in other directions. (p. 484-85)

In this portion of the book, as the reader continues to ponder the “icon” O’Brien has written, he looks beyond the immediate face of evil and find himself confronting a subtler evil: the Father of Lies and his minions.  This enemy of mankind is “alive and…thirsty” for human destruction (p. 411), eager to draw man into his rebellion against God.  Whereas O’Brien first directed his reader into considerations of themes in Scripture’s first book, he now invites the reader to contemplate Scripture’s last book, the Apocalypse.  O’Brien’s depictions of evil and spiritual warfare in this portion of the book are chilling, illuminating, and ultimately, like the scriptural themes on which they are based, an encouragement to the reader to trust in the mercy of the One who definitively conquered evil through the blood of his Cross (Apoc. 5:1-14; Col. 1:12-20).

This then, is the central theme of Alpha Centauri: as we face the overwhelming evils unleashed on the world in the modern era, the only proper solution is to look above and to look within.  That is, only in a humble return to authentic human culture rooted in transcendence, the family, and personal holiness can man achieve the unity and happiness we too often seek through other means.  Indeed this is the only way in which man preserve his very self.  O’Brien writes: “Man without God becomes a slave of the old gods, those demons, or else he becomes his own god and falls into another kind of darkness” (p. 485).

Here the link to writers such as Tolkein is clear: against the forces of a monolithic, environmentally destructive, and sinister Mordor, Tolkien gave us Sam Gamgee, a beer-quaffing villager of humble attributes who defends the importance of small things and ultimately defeats evil through the virtues of courage, perseverance, and reliance on Providence.  In one of the better aspects of Alpha Centauri, whether de Hoyos learns such lessons is left to the final pages.

This theme is not unique to Alpha Centauri; it is a common thread running through all of O’Brien’s novels.  In A Cry of Stone, for instance, the heroine is a physically deformed and wretchedly destitute artist.  She is “very, very small, and that was good because no one could see her” (p. 1).  In A Father’s Tale, the protagonist is a painfully insular widower, who, by abandoning his perfectly controlled environment in a heroic search for a missing son, becomes a means of deliverance for many of the world’s down-trodden.  Father Elijah features a priest bearing the weighty vocation of facing down the anti-Christ and inviting him to repentance: but it is only after he has been stripped of all pride and self-importance through the crucible of suffering that he is able to effectively confront the purveyor of definitive evil.  O’Brien’s other novels (10 published to date) depict similar characters and themes.

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. 

Those who are critical of O’Brien’s previous works will likely find similar shortcomings in Alpha Centauri: a tendency to sermonize through his characters, occasionally stilted dialogue, and undue length.  Such criticisms are not unwarranted, but neither should they dissuade readers from venturing into O’Brien’s world.  In that world they will encounter a profoundly Christian consideration of culture, politics, family, art, and a host of other topics woven into a compelling story that will leave them eager to read his other works and inspired to pursue and defend all that is authentically good, beautiful, and true. 

Voyage to Alpha Centauri
By Michael D. O’Brien (Ignatius, 2013)
587 pages, $29.95

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Eric Thomason 0 Articles
Eric Thomason is a husband and father who practices law in South Bend, Indiana. He holds degrees from Gonzaga University, the University of Dallas, and Notre Dame. Before becoming a lawyer, he spent a decade working for the Church in the Pacific Northwest. He can be reached at ericrthomason@gmail.com.