Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review of "The Centauri Device" by M. John Harrison

M. John Harrison’s 1975 The Centauri Device is a rare beast in science fiction.  Short (200 pages), prosaic (the language is at most times brilliant), and with literary aims, it is sure to draw the disapproval of genre fans expecting the easy-to-digest hero’s story typical of space opera.  Harrison’s offering to the sci-fi world is instead one for connoisseurs who appreciate well-written stories with a driving—though it at times seeming fantastical and obtuse—purpose.  

The Centauri Device is on the surface a rather simplistic story.  John Truck, belying his name, is an average Joe living the life of a loser space trucker, hauling freight, legitimate and otherwise, planet to planet whenever contracts arise.  Living on Earth, the universe around him is at war.  On one side are the IWG, a Jewish pro-capitalist faction who are at odds with the other side, the USAR, a group of Arab socialists.  Despite doing his best to avoid everything having to do with the conflict, it proves impossible for Truck.  That his mother was Centauri means that he is the last surviving member of the race, an earlier war having wiped out the race.  A sentient bomb having been discovered in the war’s ruins by an odd religious group called the Openists (for bizarre reasons that are a delight and disgust to read), both the IWG and USAR seek a Centauran, as only one of their race can detonate it.   Let the chase for Truck’s services begin!

Ripe with symbolism and allusion, the simplistic story outlined above is imbued with all manner of literary devices.  Religious and political interests at the forefront, numerous odd characters populate the under- and overworlds Truck finds himself fleeing through.  Representative rather than affective, these characters, as bizarre as they appear, are not meant to draw sympathy from the reader, but present, in wholly original fashion, Harrison’s political agenda.  Readers hoping to enjoy the book should approach it as such.

Not a dry ideological exposition, the main draw of The Centauri Device is its delicious use of language.  It spices the political and religious dish in a more-than-palatable, fantastically imaginative fashion.  Sure to put off the average sci-fi fan, readers who enjoy English used in a playful, highly visual, and allusive manner with much written between the lines will find something to enjoy.  It seems almost certain that William Gibson, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and Ian McDonald have drawn some influence—perhaps not from the novel itself, but from Harrison’s style in general, each in turn a noted prose artist in the genre.

Almost certainly one of the founding elements of cyberpunk (acknowledged or not), The Centauri Device (though released as part of Gollancz’s “Space Opera Collection”), contains anything but a Star Wars vision of the future.  Weird drugs, slagged planetary landscapes, characters on neon edge, and scenes that border on the surreal fill the novel.  The Anarchist, the King, and Tiny are anything but typical characters in a science fiction story.  Truck himself an anti-hero who spends the book trying not to be enlisted in other people’s battles, the book thus has much in common with Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination­—another early look at the subgenre.

In the end, The Centauri Device is a book that fits the mold of science fiction only for its setting and some of the plot devices.  Interplanetary travel and space ships may be the norm, but all else is literary usage of the tropes toward presenting Harrison’s thoughts on politics and religion.  Sentences crammed with visuals, the book’s cerebral qualities can be unpacked one word at a time, symbols and literary devices underpinning the themes available by the handful.  Thus, if literary styled books written in non-standard format are not to your liking, avoid the book; you will be only confused and think it bad as a result.  However, if you are a part of the genre which enjoys atypical but quality writing telling an unpredictable tale of space adventure full of wit, action, and content to back it up, by all means have a go.  (It goes without saying that fans of the aforementioned authors will likewise be interested.)


  1. This is a fantastic review. I've been following your blog for quite a while! I especially appreciate all the reviews of older (and seldom read) science fiction....

    I have this on my shelf waiting to be read. Harrison himself was described it as "the crappiest thing I ever wrote." hahaha...

    Have you read The Committed Men? Another work of his I'm desperate to get my hands on...

  2. And I would have more of the classics were I able to find them cheaply here in Poland. Unfortunately, I must wait for those rare times I visit the States to pick up vintage material. Otherwise, I'm largely left to whatever I can find, which is more often than not newer works.

    I have not read anything else by Harrison, though the Fantasy Masterworks omnibus of Viriconium is sitting on my shelf, begging to be read. Just guessing, I would say Harrison's disapproval of his own work is based on the book's relatively simplistic take on politics. Couched in brilliant language, however, it works. The semi-satirical presentation means less seriousness, making the simplistic presentation of capitalism, socialism, and anarchy easily bearable. Perhaps after I read Viriconium a better reason will appear why The Centauri Device is the "crappiest thing [he] ever wrote"...

    1. Ah, that must be frustrating. 2theD on Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature lives in Thailand and brings huge boxes of books with him when he visits the US once a year....

      I have The Pastel City -- the first in the series -- on my shelf as well....

      I didn't mean to be rude to you on 2thD's blog -- I'm sorry. I just think that pulp has always been produced and for some reason we often think that the 60s were less variegated than they really are ;)

    2. It's frustrating, yes. But then again, it probably saves me money.

      I think there's no need to apologize. Both of us obviously have strong opinions regarding the genre and are not afraid to express ourselves. In fact, I should also take a step back and tone down my argument. :)

      In the future, feel free to point me in the direction of any esoteric sci-fi with integrity you know of. Regardless of era, I'll gladly give it a try, if I can get a copy, that is...