Michael D. O’Brien is hardly a household name, but search around among literate conservative Catholics and Evangelicals alike, and his name will surface sooner or later. World magazine’s Marvin Olasky frequently commends his writing. Novelist Corban Addison has likewise praised O’Brien’s work. Major Christian literary critics David Lyle Jeffrey and Gregory Maillet devote a couple pages to his work in their book Christianity and Literature. But I learned about O’Brien not through endorsements but from friends and family who recommended his work.
O’Brien is a Canadian Catholic writer who is also a painter and iconographer. Over the past two decades, he has penned several novels, including the loosely-linked sextet Children of the Last Days, which includes Father Elijah (1996), the book that represented my own introduction to O’Brien’s oeuvre. As a Christian cultural critic, he has frequently attacked trends in modern children’s literature, particularly in his books A Landscape with Dragons (1998) and Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture (2011). His works are almost always released by the Catholic publisher Ignatius Press, usually including cover art that he himself has painted.
Much of O’Brien’s work has been realistic or historical fiction with some thriller elements, while Father Elijah represented a Catholic approach to apocalypticism, possibly a response to the then-popular Left Behind series. But his latest release, Voyage to Alpha Centauri, marks his first entry into the science fiction genre. The bulk of the novel is comprised of journal entries written by Neil Ruiz de Hoyos, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a stubborn individualistic streak who gets an honorary berth aboard the Kosmos, a starship made possible by his discoveries. The vessel is scheduled for a two-decade round-trip visit to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our own. The novel’s first third details the outbound voyage, as de Hoyos and his friends find themselves increasingly in conflict with the repressive secular bureaucrats from the Department of Social Engineering sent by Earth’s world government to run shipboard life. The action then shifts to the habitable world that the Kosmos encounters, where the explorers make some striking discoveries. The book’s final segment details the vessel’s return toward Earth, and its long-range consequences.
Given the adulation O’Brien often receives from people I respect, my natural inclination would be to appreciate his novels. And Voyage to Alpha Centauri is a work of science fiction, which I love to read. When I first saw the book’s seemingly generic title, my instincts as a literature professor kicked in, and I began to hunt for possible allusions to other great pieces of religious science fiction. Perhaps it was a nod to David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus, the wacky Manichaean philosophical allegory that C. S. Lewis considered the inspiration for his own Space Trilogy. Or it might be a tip of the hat to Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s Catholic classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, which ends with a church starship leaving an Earth consumed by nuclear war on a… voyage to Alpha Centauri.
Alas, Michael D. O’Brien is no Lindsay or Lewis or Miller, whatever his admirers may wish for him to be. I am not saying there are no allusions to these or other great science fiction works in Voyage to Alpha Centauri. If they are present, however, the references are subtler than I could catch on a first reading. But overall, subtlety is hardly O’Brien’s strong point. Indeed, what separates him most from the great writers to which his fans seem to compare him — Lewis, Tolkien, O’Connor, Greene, Waugh — is his preachiness. Of course, most great writers (Christian or otherwise) allow for some telling with their showing; it is a tedious modern conceit to deny an author the right to have characters or narrators make philosophically significant commentary. But the best works balance out such commentary with equally vivid and dramatic imagery, plotting, and characterization.
This is where Voyage to Alpha Centauri stumbles; there is not nearly enough showing to counterbalance the telling. O’Brien’s primary target (European-style secularism) is skewered left, right, and sideways by de Hoyos’s wry, vitriolic observations. In a sense, de Hoyos is almost too good a fit as a narrator; one can actually believe his caustic journal entries are the authentic writings of a cranky Hispanic scientist from the American Southwest. But they do not make for vibrant literature. Indeed, given O’Brien’s background as an artist, I am surprised at how bland his prose descriptions are. The opportunity to create a lush new ecosystem to juxtapose against the sterile environment of the Kosmos would seem to be fertile imaginative ground, yet there is little visual poetry evident in his paragraphs. Take this passage, describing one character’s first sight of the Alpha Centauri planet:
During the first hours of the journey, I felt an increasing sense of awe and love for this work of art that God had made and given to us: an entire world, a world so beautiful, so inexhaustibly rich in wonders. I had until then only imagined what it must look like as a whole. Though the newly rediscovered science of photography has given us marvels of image-making, it cannot convey the colors of reality and has never obtained images of the planet seen from above — seen as a whole. My first sight of it reduced me to tears, and I think my companions felt very much as I did, for we all grew motionless and silent as we gazed out the windows, and there was no speaking among us until later, when we boarded the great ship. (546)
What is striking in this passage is how abstract it remains; the narrator expresses his wonder at the sight, but there are no attempts to convey that wonder through verbal dexterity or concrete imagery. When O’Brien does delve into depicting settings, his language is unremarkable, almost clinical at times, and his few attempts of metaphor are similarly uninspired. He does weave an array of symbols into the novel, but even in that regard, he can’t resist hammering the reader with his narrator’s repeated overt deciphering of the symbols, which ironically erodes much of their effectiveness.
These symbols, however transparent, are woven fairly well into the plot. In some ways, O’Brien acquits himself well in his first foray into science fiction. He gives enough mathematical details to lend an aura of authenticity to the proceedings; they likely fall short of pleasing aficionados of “hard” science fiction, but the scientific lay reader ought to be satisfied. Yet the book’s key plot twist, revealed midway through the action, will almost certainly cost him any credibility he may have gained from a non-religious audience; I find it intriguing in a way, but hardly plausible. Moreover, the novel’s odd semi-symmetrical structure makes for very uneven pacing. There are sporadic bursts of action throughout, but the effective climax comes over 100 pages before the end. The final fifty pages, while thematically significant, are tedious and represent a jarring shift of perspective.
O’Brien’s real strength lies in his characters. De Hoyos and the sympathetic passengers on the Kosmos develop an engaging rapport, and at times O’Brien is able to cull back on his didactic tendencies long enough to allow his people to develop three-dimensionally. De Hoyos’s flashbacks to his childhood are among the book’s best scenes. Unfortunately, he fails to extend this level of character insight to his villains. In Father Elijah, the Antichrist-figure is undeniably evil yet also shrewd and charismatic, while the dissolute Smokrev scores some deep jabs at Elijah’s expense before his final repentance. The DSI leaders in Voyage to Alpha Centauri remain antiseptic drones to the end; ironically, the only glimmers the reader receives about their characters come after they have exited the scene. This reticence may be strategic, demonstrating the soul-crushing effects of radical secularism; O’Brien can be almost mystic in his appreciation for the spiritual conflicts that undergird the physical world. Still, the deck is stacked a little too heavily in encouraging sympathy for the protagonists.
What ultimately frustrates me about O’Brien’s work is not that he is a bad writer but that, in reading him, I feel that he could be a much better writer than he is. Most of his books exceed the 500-page mark, but they would often be more effective at half that length. If O’Brien used his visual instincts to lavish greater imagery upon his subject matter, let his symbols stand without pontificating on them, and gave nuanced villains to counterpoint his engaging characters, his writing could live up to the praise it has received in conservative circles — it might, indeed, stretch beyond conservative circles. As his work currently stands, readers already sympathetic to his writing will doubtless appreciate Voyage to Alpha Centauri, but I suspect few others will.