Written by Michael O’Brien
(Ignatius Press, 2014)
Reviewed by Hannah Corkery
* This excellent, thoughtful review appeared in our very first issue last winter. – ed.
I must confess that I am a reluctant and unexperienced reader of literature that falls under the label of science fiction. In fact, my only prior experience would probably be Orwell’s 1984, C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra (Voyage to Venus), and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.
What struck me as I began reading Voyage to Alpha Centauri was the common formula by which these novels abide — which does perhaps say more about the limitations of our human nature and imagination than about the stories themselves. Any attempt to present a narrative set in the future of our universe presents the uncomfortable contradiction of writing outside reality-as-we-know-it, while having nothing but our own experience of reality to draw on. Moreover, all the aforementioned books present mankind collectively at his worst: driven by a search for complete knowledge, eager for discovery, in an environment that has become globally tyrannical, and entirely restrictive of the individual’s freedom. Yes, man is fallen, and our fallen nature makes us prone to evil, but I am skeptical about the pessimistic future of globalisation and control that these overblown science fiction plots present.
So begins O’Brien’s Voyage to Alpha Centauri. The World Federation rules earth’s society with an increasingly evident iron fist. Science has developed to the point of creating the Kosmos, a giant space shuttle capable of transporting 677 individuals on an expedition to the newly discovered planet Alpha Centauri. One such individual, our protagonist, is Dr. Neil Ruiz de Hoyos, a Nobel Prize winning scientist whose theoretical work as a physicist enabled the building of the spaceship. The majority of the story is told through his journal entries, which foregrounds the narrative of his personal development against the background of the science fiction plot.
Although the prose sometimes drags and the message wavers on the brink of didacticism, Journey to Alpha Centauri is a gripping story with moments of truth, illuminated through the characters’ dialogue and scenes expertly painted. It is in re-reading parts which particularly stood out to me that I am able to appreciate this novel more fully. Some excerpts near the beginning bear new fruit in light of the whole; those that most appealed to me were Neil’s encounters with beauty and reflections on love early on in the novel. The entire novel documents the character on his progressive struggle to understand love and beauty, yet it was these earliest scenes of Neil’s confusion which I found to be the most evocative.
Early in his journey Neil refers to love — which he never fostered — as a “pandora’s box of illusory images and misinterpretations.” (p.13) While unable to acknowledge love at first, Neil perceives beauty, which eventually leads him to this realization. On first beholding the Kosmos, he reflects on her beauty as “radiant wholeness, balance, harmony,” and the contradiction between her beauty, a mimeses of creation, and her power. Neil’s reflections offer the reader a powerful exploration of beauty as the reflection of love. This is not something that Neil has discovered yet, but his momentary reflections present this truth with clarity to the reader.
That Neil’s opposition to love begins to crumble is evident through a number of moving tableaus that present the friendships he establishes aboard the giant spaceship. He writes in his journal of this change of heart, noting that love must be a sort of fruitfulness — recognizing the need to bear fruit and create something out of oneself. (p.61) Neil relates these thoughts to the subject of the space exploration: “We seek to spark our own global imagination, to experience vicariously the thrill of discovering the unknown other, be it an empty planet or an inhabited one.” (p. 63)
Neil’s encounters with the “other” through the friends he makes on the journey to Alphas Centauri are central to the corresponding personal journey occurring. The reader does not complete Neil’s personal journey with him, leaving him at the climax of his struggles. Although resolution is reached through the story’s conclusion, I was not completely satisfied leaving Neil as we do. Perhaps the closure I sought in the end of the story was more present in the center of the story:
O my elusive lamp of knowledge
Your flame by a throats soft flute
Reveals my soul’s plight;
Darkness is around me now,
And I within it sealed
Yet may I bring forth my light
As seed locked within soil
Will break the surface of the field
And bear its golden fruit. (p. 83)
This is the text of a poem Neil receives from an old friend with whom he becomes re-acquainted. Encapsulated within the poem are the critical questions that Voyage to Alpha Centauri explores: What is knowledge? What makes life sacred? How does one effect change and bear fruit? It is the exploration of these questions that unifies the plot, and the hope embodied here which suggests the final stages of the protagonist’s journey.