It was almost inevitable that Alpha Centauri, one of the brightest visible objects in the night sky and home to the nearest stars to our own world outside of the Sun, has featured in numerous works of fiction. Of the three stars of Alpha Centauri, two are reasonably like our own Sun, while for the past month one of these has been definitively known to host a planet. Alpha Centauri has been commonly imagined not only as a destination for explorers but as a potential second home for humanity, a planetary system that--if we're lucky--could support a new Earth to supplement, or replace, the old.
It's the hope of finding a potential second home for humanity that starts off Alpha Centauri. Forty years ago, at the beginning of the 23rd century, the sublight starship Mother Night was launched to explore Alpha Centauri, its crew of ten charged with scouting the trinary system of the title to determine its suitability for colonization. The Solar System, densely colonized by immortals, is now home to three hundred billion people and nearing potentially catastrophic resource shortages, leaving the oligarchy that runs the lot with no option to ensure their survival but to look for homes outside the solar system. As soon as the Mother Night arrives, however, its crew discovers that for hundreds of millions of years, the Alpha Centauri system was populated by a technologically advanced civilization. What happened to them? Is it too late for humanity to learn lessons? Unbeknownst to the investigating crew, however, one of their number belongs to a secret organization devoted to preventing the human cancer from spreading to the stars. Complications ensue.
I really wanted to like the book. Alpha Centauri is full of interesting ideas, from the resource scarcity that a fast-growing society of immortals could soon risk, to the mechanics of the Mother Night's interstellar flight, to the planetography of the aged worlds of the Alpha Centauri system (here given an age of eight billion years, versus the five to six billion commonly cited and the roughly 4.5 billion of our own) to the complex social mechanics of the three-species civilization that lives for such a long time in the Alpha Centauri system. The novel did creatively take on the trope of Alpha Centauri as a place where new beginnings could be found, making it a place where visitors would not start blithely anew but rather a place where visitors would examine themselves and their society in the light of the local suns.
Why couldn't I commit to the book? Questions of character plausibility and likeability, frankly. This is lampshaded at one point in the narrative, when the captain of the Mother Night thinks to herself that the screening procedures applied to the first people to explore another planetary system were terribly flawed. The captain, for instance, is a survivor of years of sexual abuse by her parents and others in an isolated Antarctic commune who doesn't seem to have received any psychiatric treatment at all; the chief planetary scientist is a stitched-together aggregate of multiple personalities possessed by a repellent internal misogyny; the ship's doctor turns out to be a double agent; yet another of the scientists is a borderline abuser of his partner. (Happily, the coupled gay computer technicians are a bedrock of stability.) I'd think that there'd be enough pressures associated with a crew of ten people isolated light-years from any other humans in a planetary system filled with ancient alien ruins without assuming the incompetence of the planners of humanity's interstellar mission. Christian Sauvé's review highlights the prominence of explicit sex scenes of all kinds in the narrative as something that distracts the reader from Alpha Centauri's interesting ideas. Me, I was more disturbed by the fact that the first explicit sex scene was a detailed first-person description of the rape of the captain at the tender age of 12 by her parents.
Alpha Centauri could have been a great book had its authors not tried to explore everything and not done so in ways that made me indifferent to the survival of the characters and their civilization. It speaks to the strength of these ideas that I'll rate it "good", with the note that readers should be prepared.