At an austere 200 pages, The Centauri Device has destabilized my preconceptions of Space Opera. I heretofore assumed that all Space Opera was self-defined as such by merit of its Homeric length as much as by any adherence to established themes or argument (admittedly I’ve been reading a lot of Alastair Reynolds). But like some kind of literary Tardis, The Centauri Device is abundantly more vast than its meagre pagecount would suggest, a feat entirely due to M. John Harrison’s mastery of the imagist mode. In hand, this may be a lightweight flit of a novel, but the depth of its ideas belies the economy of its prose. The Centauri Device rivals, if not supersedes, any 800 page genre brother you could care to name. Harrison has a penchant for abstract, metaphor heavy, dream-state writing that is unfortunately absent in much current sci-fi, but the influence this book did have is undeniable; apparently it was the progenitor of those long poetic spaceship names that’re now so ubiquitous (notably in Iain M. Banks, Peter F. Hamilton and the aforementioned Alastair Reynolds). The fact that Harrison developed, perfected and then abandoned this trope over the course of a single novel is testament to his talents (incidentally, among my favourite of his spaceship names are: Let Us Go Hence and the comically grandiloquent The Melencolia That Transcends All Wit). So, I’ll try my humble best to do The Centauri Device justice in the paltry compass of this article – but no promises…
Here’s the blurb: Several decades ago, humans bombed the living shit out of the planet Centauri, all but eradicating the native population. Now an archaeological expedition has unearthed the so-called Centauri device, and the four major human factions go to war over its ownership. There’re two problems however: 1) only the last remaining carrier of Centauri DNA (an anarchistic, drug-involved semi-criminal freight captain called John Truck (our protagonist)) can activate it, and 2) nobody knows what it does. The Arabs (note: this is a loose, hand-down moniker with no geographical or religious relation to the present day) are a powerful movement of space socialists (stick with me…) who believe the Centauri device is the ultimate propaganda machine; the Israelis (again, no relation) think it’s a bomb; the Aesthete Anarchists don’t have a clue what it is, and the body-modifying religious nutjobs of the time, the Openers, believe the device is God Himself. In effect, The Centauri Device is a strange incarnation of the alien artefact novel that was popularised by Arthur C. Clarke; here however, it’s tempered by a contemporary mid-period Cold War context reflected in the arms race agenda of the novel’s rival sects.
In this regard, The Centauri Device definitely shows its age; constant hyperbolic references to a Leninist takeover and hysterical fear of ‘Trotskyites’ are thinly veiled renditions of contemporary societal concerns. Plus there’s a space-hippy Stratocaster playing rock star who functions as a bizarre incarnation of Hendrix (Harrison was a big fan, apparently); likewise the drug du jour is a kind of future-Heroin imbibed at a never-ending psychedelic party; the Centauri device itself is clearly analogy for Nuclear weaponry – safe, but only in the right hands (whosever they may be). But is it a failing of far-future sci-fi to be such an obvious product of its time? Well, no, because a fundamental aspect of the genre is an implicit, albeit removed, questioning of contemporary mores, without which the whole oeuvre would be meaningless escapism (not necessarily a bad thing), and arguably poorer as a result.
But where The Centauri Device suffers from a traditionality of plot and a contemporariness of reference which may alienate many readers (though which I found enjoyable), its most striking achievements are of style, theme and character. Let’s forget the a-to-b-to-c mechanisations of scene, and focus on tone. The Centauri Device is beautifully written; it has a kind of supernal, vertiginous otherness to it that augments the already bizarre goings-on with an impetus on metaphor, dreamscape and grammatically non-standard expression. While this frequently results in baffling sentences and tangential musings that necessitate re-reading, the overall effect is to elevate the book’s more mundane aspects into the realm of aesthetics: the disconnect between the conventionality of the plot and the beauty of the writing is forgivable (hey, Harrison was a ridiculous 25 when he wrote it), purely because the style makes so much more of the story than would elseways be apparent. A recurring motif, for example, is the description of the character Ben Barka as a desert, which is so stunning and well-realised that it adds both emotional depth and history to a character otherwise only cursorily featured – the empty but violent desertscapes suggested in his glance betrays an inner anger convergent with pain:
As he moved, he shed brittle echoes of past deserts and intimations of the Desert to Come. And, far off in his liquid brown eyes – broken white columns, like reflections in a failing cistern.
It’s rare for a sci-fi writer to employ such imagist language but, surprisingly, it really, really works. Where else in sci-fi could you find such an eloquent description of post-battle unconsciousness as this:
All of them, the asphyxiated and the dying, had worn coloured glass masks, or swum in senselessness, fish of the Impossible Medium; all solid forms had vanished in amazing twists and contortions, and he had felt his interface with space diminish, felt it crawl through him in slow, luminous ecstacies.
I’m showing impressive restraint (honest) by not just quoting the entire thing verbatim here. Harrison’s prose is like some inter-dimensional tentacle that slips and slides between genre spaces, appropriating imagist language here, literary realism there, grasping at Shakespearean gravitas and Nabokovian satire and consolidating them into a unique style that transcends the conventional vagaries of sci-fi. The Centauri Device functions in a surreal hinterland between the frivolous (guitar genius space rock-stars) and the literary (metaphor-heavy, imagist prose), and it’s the instability of this relationship that makes it so darn fun!
But don’t get me wrong, it’s not just a fundamental exercise in style; many of the book’s themes betray Harrison’s anarchist leanings: “Politics, Religion and dope: they keep us happy in Hell”, and the downward spiral from audacity to despair via mass murder and responsibility of the protagonist John Truck is brilliantly realised, displaying a moral depth more in keeping with so-called Literary Fiction than sci-fi. If you were feeling particularly grandiose, you could claim that The Centauri Device evinces the literary legitimacy of Science Fiction: its ability to engage with real-world concerns while concurrently displaying a mastery of style, syntax and such higher-yield techniques as metaphor and allusion is no mean feat. Some heavy handed plotting is problematic, particularly when John Truck is being passed around from faction to faction like some kind of Pass the Parcel Chosen One, but this book’s events are merely launch pads for its more ideological concerns of power, responsibility and the unknowability of technology. The stark anti-war agenda may operate as an obstacle to readers disinclined to didacticism, but this is a minor thread and in no way detracts from the book as experience or idea. The Centauri Device is beautiful sci-fi; flawed, but by no means broken – Space Opera in minor mode, a worthwhile way-in for newcomers and simultaneous stylistic pinnacle for genre purists.