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The Centauri Device
M. John Harrison
Gollancz paperback £7.99

review by Duncan Lawie

First published in 1975, The Centauri Device has long been credited as a progenitor of the 'new space opera'. It has now been reprinted as part of the Gollancz space opera collection, an approach which ensures that at least some of its reputation goes before it. Thirty-five years after it first came out, a new reader is as distant from this book as it was from its pulp ancestors. As a response to such writers as E.E. 'Doc' Smith, it is a startling text whilst its literary concerns provide an interesting contrast with much more recent writing.

The Centauri Device is a story of losers. It is the year 2367 and Captain John Truck, a former drug dealer and petty insurrectionist, is making some kind of living running the space equivalent of a tramp steamer. Space, here, is barely a barrier between places. The dyne-field brings Earth and her child worlds close together, so that the derelict breaker's yards of Carter's Snort on the island of Albion, Earth, merge with the hopeless lethargy of Junk City, a slum on the edge of Egerton's Port, Avernus. Harrison refers to these throughout as the 'hinterlands', the natural home of 'port ladies' and addicts, the shore-time drinking holes for crews of military vessels, the flop houses for captains in need of a cargo. Captain Truck is at home here - and dives back into these dives to hide when he comes to the attention of General Alice Gaw, of the Israeli World Government, and of Colonel Gadaffi ben Barka of the United Arab Socialist Republics.

These opponents are as unfunny a joke as Harrison can make it; the Israeli World Government only rules half the world, but also half the colony worlds; the UASR has replaced the USSR; the Middle East proxy wars of the 1970s have eaten their sponsors and the Cold War superpowers have been subsumed; the ethnic and religious conflict has been, in turn, eaten by fossilised superpower ideologies. Beyond the two main governments, but as important in keeping the system stable - static, frozen, petrified - are organised crime (drug pushers keep the masses opiated) and religion. Harrison sets the Opener religion up for mockery, with its "honesty of bodily function [as] the sole valid praise of God" while its adherents have windows "surgically inserted to show off their internal processes" (page 20) and their home world is called Stomach. Yet, these powers, too become sinister figures in the dark, dirty fight to control John Truck.

All them have learned of the Centauri Device but no-one can control it without Truck. General Gaw describes it as a 'sentient bomb' and Truck is the closest anyone can find to a descendent of the Centauri race, destroyed by Earth two centuries earlier. Having learned his destiny, Truck spends the rest of the book running. He tries to hide from the powers of humankind but fails, he tries to fight them but they kill those around him. Confronted by his inadequacy and all the bad choices behind him and before him, he takes the only step he can.

Then, abruptly, there is an epilogue. This describes the forgoing as "a dramatised account ... sources are few and scattered: a handful of secret files" (page 197) and spends three pages offering scholarly theories on what is known or can be guessed. This undercuts the visceral elements of the novel, declaring them to be made up and leaving only the dull facts of a loser scuttling across the known worlds and guesses as to his end. It distances the reader even further from Truck, a protagonist we are never invited to identify with, by telling us that the book has constructed even the material which even allows us to sympathise with him.

The result is a thinned world of rusty browns and dull greys, of dirt and pain and bloody bandages rather than clean kills. Two centuries after its bombardment, Centauri VII has become "a planetary fen, drained by vast slow rivers; shallow stagnant meres, inconceivable acreages of mudflat and salting - and every cubic foot of water filled with corrupt organic matter caught at some point between decay and dissolution, cloudy, brackish with old death" (page 151). Elsewhere, "the ancient cycle of daylight fouling and midnight disinfectant has imparted a glaze, an intermediate patina, on [the] walls" (page 43). Against this background, the bright alien ships run by the anarchists are all the more astonishing. The flagship is a vision - "turquoise arabesques glimmered mysteriously down her side; the smell of hot metal drifted about her like the musk of a sleeping, barbaric priestess" (page 74), whilst the fleet's bizarre names - 'Driftwood of Decadence', 'Imaginary Portraits', 'Strange Great Sins' - reinforce their otherness. (In the process, providing an avatar for the new space opera habit of ironic naming - one which directly influenced Alastair Reynolds). This injection of colour continues into the excitement of a space battle of sharp manoeuvres and reckless bravery like bi-plane fighter aces. Grim reality strikes back quickly enough, but for a few pages the novel lights up.

Those few vibrant pages provide the strongest through-line from the old pulps to the new space opera, whilst the attitude of the rest of the novel reminds more recent writers that they have the freedom to tell any story they want alongside the eyeball kicks. The Centauri Device was first published during a period of new maturity in the field, alongside other reflections on the old space operas such as Brian Stableford's Swan Songs, and Bob Shaw's Orbitsville. Both these books also begin with 'working stiffs' who could be ancestors of Alan Steele's protagonists, but in Stableford's six short novels, the main characters develop an agency, a control over events, whilst Shaw's book refocuses on the 'big dumb object' plot. Harrison is left to the harshest criticism of first space opera. There is a conscious reflection that the ray-gun wielding cover stars of the old pulps, even should they exist, would be surrounded by vast numbers of lesser people, of losers. More than this, that those impossible heroes are actually the pillars of a system of repression which belittles the efforts of the ordinary people until they reckon themselves as losers.

The Centauri Device clocks in at less than 200 pages. It is a slim book but, so densely written and so deeply coiled with influence, it is not a short read.
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison

Centauri Device cover by Chris Moore



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