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The Centauri Device
M. John Harrison
Orion Millennium, 205 pages

The Centauri Device
M. John Harrison
M. John Harrison is a lifelong writer and author of many novels, among them: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, The Centauri Device, and The Course of the Heart. Under the pseudonym Gabriel King, he and Jane Johnson have written The Wild Road and The Golden Cat.

ISFDB Bibliography: Gabriel King
ISFDB Bibliography: M. John Harrison
SF Site Review: Travel Arrangements
SF Site Review: The Wild Road and The Golden Cat
SF Site Review: The Wild Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

John Truck is a freewheelin' spaceship captain bumming around the galaxy. This existence is interrupted by the appearance of the titular Device, a mysterious alien weapon. Although Truck does not know it, he has a unique connection to the weapon if indeed that is what the Device is. This brings him to the attention of the Earth's two superpowers, the Israeli World Government and the United Arab Socialist Republics. It also attracts the interest of various other factions such as the Interstellar Anarchists and the Openers, a religious cult.

Truck then spends the rest of the novel fleeing from one group straight into the hands of another, out of the frying pan into the fire, until he is eventually united with the Device.

The Centauri Device forms part of a group of novels including Samuel Delany's Nova and Barrington Bayley's The Zen Gun that prefigure the 'intelligent' space opera boom that started in the 80s and has continued unabated. It has been contended that The Centauri Device is too much of a parody to fit into this group but the book doesn't read like that. It fully embraces the tropes of space opera -- space battle, exotic locales -- whilst retaining New Wave sensibilities. Perhaps the impression of parody is given by the chatty, ironic tone of some of the narrative which is at times reminiscent of other British authors like Douglas Adam and Iain M. Banks.

Despite this tone however, the book is unremittingly bleak in outlook. The galaxy is seedy and depressing. Violence is casual and brutal. People are either users or are themselves used. Truck himself is not exempt from these facts.

The only moments of overt parody are some lampooning of True Believers. Beyond this, there is a weary contempt for ideology that underlies the whole book. Near the end of the novel we are told of John Truck:

"He loathed killing and conscious hurt, hypocrisy and cant, and the glib lip-service solution of human misery provided by ideology -- but could find no means to articulate that loathing."
Both the capitalism of the Israeli World Government and the socialism of the United Arab Socialist Republics comes equally under attack. A few lines later the question is rhetorically posed:
"Was he simply disgusted by the irrelevance to reality of the politics of his time?"
It seems that this can be asked of not just Truck but M. John Harrison himself. This antipathy for ideology underpins the existential angst that defines The Centauri Device. It is also the book's undoing.

Harrison's prose is impressive, his imagination is fertile and his subversion of genre clichés is admirable. However, there is little meat on the bones of the novel. There is no real plot just a descent into despair. There is no real insight, only anger and bitterness. The redemptive conclusion is as equivocal as the rest of the novel.

Coupled with this John Truck does not make a very endearing protagonist; he is entirely passive and is at one point accurately described as having the morals of "a cretin or a small animal." Of course, this is Harrison's intention but knowing this does not make it a more satisfying read.

It is quite possible this is a book that had to be written; as a slap in the face to the genre, as an act of protest. In this, The Centauri Device arguably raised the bar for future SF but it raised our expectations with it. This means that the modern reader is left with an empty polemic, artfully crafted but still hollow.

Copyright © 2002 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.

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