(Voyage to Alpha Centauri, by Michael D O'Brien)
The idea of "Christian" science fiction is nice, but the writing of it is hard. This longish effort of O'Brien shows the tension between this niceness of intention, and the hardship of realization.
The promise of "Christian science fiction" is something indeed that O'Brien offers. He brings to this project an established profile of a careful conservative Catholic writer. One thing that he actually delivers in this book is good-quality writing in a consistent, carefully crafted style. He does not descend into preaching rhetoric (always a danger with religious writers), nor do his symbols ever step out into the living room and shed their Halloween costumes. They remain decently veiled. So props for that.
Nevertheless, what happens to O'Brien occurs as a general malady for this troubled genre. And it is a malady that affects Christians in particular.
The premise of the science fiction genre is that it involves the construction of an alternative, but possible, world. Indeed, that is true of all novels -- in fact, the construction of a believable, conceivable "world" is the most important difference that distinguishes a novel from a short story (and anything else, for that matter). This is the business of a "sub-creator," as Tolkien would say -- the implication here is that "sub-creation" becomes, more than any other literary craft, most prominent in a novel.
In science fiction, the construction of the possible world is usually built upon a "scientific" foundation. "Science" here is operationally defined as "materialistic" or "naturalistic" philosophy (not "science" in its best and real sense -- i.e., "actual knowledge"). I say "usually" here: if only to emphasize the fact that the science fiction genre is populated by a historic membership that accepts the metaphysical bias of materialistic philosophy.
I do not think it can be refuted that most science fiction -- headed up by the luminaries H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C Clarke -- is rather jazzed up about the possibility of finding, and proving, that the traditional monotheistic God (especially the Trinity) does not exist, and therefore, need never trouble the poor human mind again with Its troublesome rules, expectations, and maddening interference in the management of the universe. This is the ironically and patently eschatological hope of science fiction -- and it is a very religious hope at that.
So in general, this is the generic promise of science fiction world building. Occasionally, exceptions to this rule creep in. C S Lewis' Space Trilogy is, in my mind, a fine, successful example of such an exception. In the hands of a master writer, such exceptionalism can work well (and, once in a while, the general readership agrees). The exception lies mainly in the importation of other genres into the often superficial "shopping mall" province of science fiction -- but it takes adept writing to manage such importation. Lewis does this in his first volume by melding motifs from the sea voyage (think Odyssey here), with the strangeness of alien lands, characters, flora and fauna. In the second, Lewis very perilously attempts (and I don't think with complete success) the importation of high fantasy and the rhetoric of the Paradiso. And finally, in the third novel, he brings into the contemporary moment the hard themes of dystopia and post-apocalypse (despite the comic fact that he closes his last tale with a fairy-tale deus ex machina).
It is strangely interesting how important the themes of dystopia and the post-apocalypse have become in the science fiction genre. It is almost as though the anti-theological world of the materialist philosophy is collapsing in on itself, as if cursed by its own black hole lodged in its soul.
Yes, I know. O'Brien "baptizes" (i.e., "Christianizes") his science fiction tale precisely in his oft-repeated theme of dystopia. Heck, there's even a nod to a possible apocalypse toward the end. The dystopic theme reveals itself in the cynical tone of the central character's narration (first person, for the most part -- a voice disrupted in the epilogue, of course). Even the description of the big space ship and the ubiquitous computer (ever an important character in dystopia) carries the heavy note of impending disaster.
And it is at this very appearance of dystopia where I lodge my biggest complaint about O'Brien's Christian tale of science fiction. When one engages the dystopia theme, one must create a malevolent culture. Perhaps a despot can be at the center of it, or even its source. Perhaps the malevolence can be communicated through the media, or through a virus (e.g., zombies), or through the Big Computer (i.e., virtual reality as in Neuromancer). This is not hard to do if one has accepted the premise of the genre: the notion of evolution proceeding beyond humanity and disposing of it -- like one does with an opposing pawn in chess en passé) -- is simply a logical extension of evolution in its anti-theological form (a form which, drearily, is a majority opinion). But if one does not accept this premise, then the dystopian work becomes more difficult.
Much more difficult, that is. Actually, if one is a Christian (as O'Brien is), then the work enters a realm that should be a genre in its own right: "Christian dystopia," that is, vis-à-vis "science fiction dystopia." The latter is easy, with easy lines of consistency and easy expectations of plot and character development. In a genre where most things are superficial -- as is expected with the bodiless realm is either dismissed completely or relegated to Halloween status) -- and so it is easy to deliver on one's promises. It is, as the nameless rider of spaghetti westerns should have observed, quite easy to paint the town red when the town is composed of facades and rote characters.
But Christian dystopic literature must be apocalyptic in a believable, literary manner -- that is, in a manner where characters become human; where symbols become flesh, or real flora and fauna; where the tone prefers the feeling of "haunting" over "being bludgeoned by the doctrinaire axe': and, fundamentally, where the world is not only internally consistent, but is quite conceivable. And, most important of all, Christian dystopia must be cognizant of its inescapable genealogical link to the Gospel.
Ah yes. The one and only real story that all humans must find themselves nested within. There really ought to be a "eu-catastrophe" that is eminently (but not explicitly) "Christological."
Just about anyone can write about dystopia -- all they have to do is engage in psychic projection, which is not so hard to pull off. But artistic eu-catastrophe? Ah, there's the rub: it happens so rarely, like a golden coin shows up not so often on the early morning sands. And good eu-catastrophe on a spaceship? Now that is the question.
It is the more difficult task of the good Christian writer to build such a dystopic world that is believable, beautiful (i.e., literary), and most of all linked without disruption to the Gospel. It should go without saying that one cannot do this with a preaching rhetoric, because then it would not be beautiful literature. I think Flannery O'Connor did this, but she wrote short stories that only had to intimate, incompletely, a whole world. Fyodor Dostoevsky did this, but that novel -- Brothers Karamazov -- is sui generis. Tolkien did not, simply because he simply wasn't dystopic -- he was writing an alternative to Genesis (a frightening possibility), and he did it well (he was, after all, patently "eu-catastrophic," something that never happens effectively in any dystopic literature). G K Chesterton dabbled almost exclusively, in his novel experiments, with Christian dystopia -- but the novels he wrote do not qualify as good art so much as they stand as just holographic projections of his essays: one really does not find much reality in his rollicking tales (which I very much enjoy).
I think that O'Brien does what GK did -- i.e., that holographic business. He projects his favorite mashup of conservative Catholicism and rightwing libertarianism onto a spaceship. His conservative Catholicism works well for a literary dystopia. The rightwing libertarian note does not. In my mind, it falls with a cardboard thud.
I have lesser beefs with O'Brien. A number of things just did not hit the mark of believability. The Big Spaceship -- always an important character -- seemed as though it were designed by the plot: and I really don't know what to make of swimming pools and fireplaces in a lightspeed vessel. The origin story of the aliens is not only inconceivable, but is really theologically unforgivable. The climactic moment of salvation failed at "eu-catastrophe" because it is wildly arbitrary: one would hope that a science that could make for a lightspeed ship would 1) have safety mechanisms that would rule out the failure to begin with, and 2) not have navigation engineered with such vulnerabilities that would make the last-moment "patch" possible.
I will set aside my larger complaint of the conservative Catholic penchant for conflating itself with rightwing libertarianism -- a dull practice that is getting too much airplay these days. Perhaps this failure of imagination should be looked into.
These lesser beefs are problems that are depressingly over-represented in science fiction at large. Maybe O'Brien shouldn't be faulted for falling prey to the sirens of this genre.
I applaud O'Brien in his courageous choice of an unattractive character. He attempted a good backstory for this character, and it works for the most part. The post-climax narrative was clever and engaging. The resolution and redemption epilogue acted as a short-story in its own right (probably better than the entire novel). There were the more-than-faint notes of "Canticle for Leibowitz" running here and there -- and these notes were, for the most part, welcome.
At the end, then, O'Brien should leave off GK in the writing of novels, and follow Tolkien and Lewis more. He should remember that the catholic conservatism of the latter two is more artistic and imaginative than the unfortunate superficial complaints of other voices -- complaints that end up corroding art.
Still, it remains to be seen if a beautiful Christian space opera is possible at all.