(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1980 edition)
I can only imagine the shock that readers received and still receive (according to amazon reviews) after diving into M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device (1974) expecting a standard space opera. This is a subgenre where the anti-hero still has not found a firm place to roost… You know the rubric: Empathizing with the hero. Positivism. Saving the world. The good guys win.
I suspect the shock to the system that Stephen R. Donaldson’s leprous and bitter (and reluctant) savior Thomas Covenant in Lord Foul’s Bane (1977) and subsequent novels had on high fantasy was something akin to impact The Centauri Device‘s drug-addled, inarticulate, and passive spacer John Tuck had on space opera. To give you a taste: as Harrison’s plot spiral with vast strokes of almost grotesque satire towards the utterly nihilistic ending, Tuck doped-up on amphetamines becomes “quickly depressed—at first disturbed, then obsessed by the puzzling, fibrous consistency of the mud” (162).
While M. John Harrison himself might proclaim that “I find it deeply ironic—but absolutely predictable—that my best books are out of print while the crappiest thing I ever wrote—The Centauri Device––tootles along under the rubric ‘masterwork,'” I found the novel a heady subversion of a lot of the tropes that we associate with space opera. It is even more ironic that The Centauri Device, “that reads like hate mail directed at space opera clichés” (Ken Macleod quoting Patrick Hudson) despite its satirical purposes was influential in revitalizing and inspiring new authors of the subgenre. The anti-space opera pastiche that eventually became passé?
Brief Plot Summary
First, the powers at play…
In M. John Harrison’s far future world the Israeli World Government (IWG), with is engaged in an endless struggle with the Union of Arab Socialist Republics (UASR) who control large swathes of the settled Galaxy. And both powers have sniffed out the discovery of a mysterious weapon, a relic from an extinct people, a relic from a past war that has the power to destroy the universe: the Centauri Device.
Earth has been irrevocably transformed by the “infamous ‘Rat Bomb’ wars of 2003-215” (25). The remaining inhabitants UK, or rather “that 60,000 square mile complex of bunker-docks, keelyards, freight terminals, and warehouses that had once been called “Great Britain,” eek out an existence melting and selling the remains of the megaport, bathed in the type of “cultural decay peculiar to ports” (28). The power is centered around Chalice Veronica, the “intellectual pusher-king.” He lives in a massive warehouse plying his nefarious trade (drugs, prostitution, etc) in a series of giant abandoned fuel cisterns where “the longest-running part in the history of the universe was still in progress. People were born, people died there; some were said to have lived entire lives there” (33).
Various other powers operate across the settles regions of space including the mysterious Openers who inhabit the planet Stomach where the androgynous natives “distill a perfume from the wings of insects” (100). The Openers, in their central city of Intestinal Revelation, practice Openerism: an “eclectic” faith involving perverse rituals, and choirboys and organs, where transparent windows are inserted into the bodies of the faithful. Their Grand Master desires above all else to achieve “total transparency” (107)! A priest of the Openers named Dr. Grishkin, with his plastic windows that peer into the operations of his internal organs, has also heard news of the weapon.
And then there is the interstellar anarchist named Pater who resides with his son Himation out in the “interminable void” inside of a “spherical asteroid perhaps two miles in diameter at its equator” (69) filled with the massive hulks the most decadent spaceships that harken back to distant eras: New English Art Club, Driftwood of Decadence, Melancholia that Transcends All Wit, Atalanta in Calydon, etc. Even their hulls evoke the artifice of orientalist productions: “turquoise arabesques glimmered mysteriously down her [the Driftwood of Decadence] side; the smell of hot metal drifted about her like the musk of a sleeping, barbaric priestess; the light of plasma torches exploded soundlessly off her hull to fill the silo with a ceremonial aurora” (81). Pater spouts French and drifts from room to room of the vast complex musing on art and artifice and politics: “we live in a sick charade of political polarities; of death, bad art, and wasted time” (77). Pater too wants the Centauri Device, or at least, he does not want the others to have it.
And at the center of it all…
…is John Tuck, a spacer, who hauls freight, runs after Denebian whores, fights with his wife, drifts from port to port, almost perplexed or unaware of the world around him. But, he is the last descendent of the Centaurians, Tuck’s mother was a Centaurian drug addict port woman. Tuck is the only one who can activate the weapon. And everyone wants to get their hands on him! And as the battles rage, as the anarchist ships are blasted to pieces and the forces of the IWG and UASR hunt for him across space, he remains inactive, he cannot or refuses to acknowledge the implications of his position. SF’s most frustrating anti-hero.
The Centauri Device exudes a pungent charm. Gorgeous prose drifts languidly across the page and Harrison’s characters move “to the invisible rhythms of their ennui” (59), pieces in on the vast galactic tapestry where all the moves are preordained.
The character of John Truck is subversive to the extreme and bound to frustrate the average reader. He operates across a world familiar to many readers of space opera—the lushly realized sects, and decadent locals, space-battles, and pseudo-historical ramblings—but continues to act according to his immediate whims and desires.
The Centauri Device reminds me of Norman Spinrad’s superior The Iron Dream (1972). Both seek to subvert SF. Both critique SF’s treatment of ideology, and character…. Both infuriate the unsuspecting. Both are worth reading for fans of the more experimental SF (inspired by the New Wave Movement). The Centauri Device is literary, satirical, and incredibly seductive.
And for the curious, the complete list of spaceship names: Driftwood of Decadence. New English Art Club. Liverpool Medici. Gold Scab. Whistler. Seventeenth Susan. Solomon. Nasser. Strange Great Sins. Maupin. Trilby. Green Carnation. Les Fleurs du Mal. Madame Bovary. Imagination Portraits. Syringa. White Jonquil. Forsaken Garden. Let Us Go Hence. Melancholia that Transcends All Wit. My Ella Speed. Fastidious. La Vie de Bohème. Atalanta in Calydon.
For more book reviews consult the INDEX
(Peter Jones’ cover for the 1975 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1981 German edition)
(Fred Gambino’s cover for the 1986 edition)
(Chris Moore’s cover for the 2000 edition)
(Stephane Martinière’s cover for the 2006 German edition)
68 thoughts on “Book Review: The Centauri Device, M. John Harrison (1974)”
I have read this book,but found it virtually unreadable.It was truly a boring,negative journey into a dull void.If it was an experiment,it was one gone wrong.
I preferred Bob Silverberg’s “A Time of Changes” that I read recently.At least it was coherent and tangible,if long and languid.
This is the only book of his I’ve read,and if the’re all like this,I don’t want to read any more.
How was it unreadable? Also, what is wrong with a “negative journey”? I actually like that description, a quest that becomes anything but a quest, by a person who is exactly the opposite of a savior.
The exact mechanics of the plot might be rather repetitive, but, that’s not what the novel is about nor desires to be. The general movements of the plot and battle scenes etc. are purposefully empty artifice. What is there is a highly stylized, and gorgeously told, vision and critique.
From reading this review Joachim, I’m both tempted to read The Centauri Device, and think I should avoid this book completely. It sounds godawful, but you seem to enjoy it so much.
I am confused. These questions come to mind: Why does it sound awful? Why must all SF be incredibly positive about the future? Or perhaps, why can’t SF be a vehicle for some self-reflexive discussion of the genre? Why must it have the the standard characters/tropes/goals/motivations? We read tons of mainstream fiction with antiheroes and don’t bat an eye.
Oh, I’m not bothered by negative views of the future at all. I delight in the negative so often my friends think I’m morbid. No, the idea of spreading the Israel-Arab conflict to the galaxy sounds like a tremendous bore. Plus I hate satire. Not always, but mostly. Satire seldom delivers on its promised conceptualization. Most writers don’t have the wit of Oscar Wilde, and come across as dumb-ass silly when mocking the world.
Ah, “No, the idea of spreading the Israel-Arab conflict to the galaxy sounds like a tremendous bore” — they are mere names. The ideologies they embody in the present (or Harrison’s present) except as keywords is utterly absent from the novel….
I find that plenty of SF authors are perfectly witty to mock the world: Kornbluth, Malzberg, Sheckley, etc etc.
I do love Sheckley, and maybe Kornbluth. Haven’t read enough Malzberg to remember him. Sheckley wasn’t Oscar Wilde, but he was creative enough to be really funny. I’ve been meaning to order an anthology of his old short stories to read.
Just using the names that remind me of the Israel-Arab conflict makes me wince.
I’m pretty sure that that’s the point — these two groups have been fighting for so long in the novel that they don’t even really have ideologies any more, they are only players in a perpetual struggle… And, one of the themes of the novel is how the past is referenced to continuously but the historical reality (well, if it exists) of the past has long been forgotten.
I love negative futures,antiheroes,iconoclastic stuff.I realise that this novel was supposed to be a parody of space operas,but as I remember,it didn’t fizz.Sorry…..I’ll have to have a go at it again sometime.
No worries! I was just curious! But, I really like the description of a “negative journey.” That perfectly encapsulates the novel.
I meant a literary journey.If cold comfort will do any good,I wasn’t keen on the other one you was keen on,”Dune”.which I found long,tedious and consequently a plot difficult to follow.We can’t all like the same books it seems.
By the way,I wanted to know,have you read Angela Carter’s “Heroes and Villians”?
I have not read Carter’s novel yet. I do have her short fiction collection The Bloody Chamber (or rather, it’s my fiancé’s copy) on the shelf.
Yes read that one too,but to my mind,it’s not as great and visually marvellous as HAV.I think it’s fortunet for her she never published in the sf genre……for her reputation I think.
So much of mainstream literature like hers seems to imatate that within the sf confines,and viserversa.
Satire seems to be second nature to many sf writers,not least Philip K.Dick of course,who wasn’t actually a satirist anymore than he was a surrealist,but his stuff is very surrealistic.
If you want real satire in a fantastical novel,I think you’d have to go to Orwell’s “Animal Farm”.
Or 1984 or Brave New World or We…. The list goes on and on.
“1984” is great,but haven’t read other two.
I dislike “1984” for a strange reason — it copies almost verbatim the major plot elements (and even some visual elements) of Zamyatin’s We. And Orwell complained about how Huxley supposedly copied We in Brave New World (they are quite different) and then Orwell turned around and wrote “1984”… We is the first chronologically of the bunch and published in England — Zamyatin fled Russia in the early 1920s.
“We” is definitely more allegorical while “1984” transposes a lot of the elements of “We” into a more “realist” format.
You said, ““We” is definitely more allegorical while “1984″ transposes a lot of the elements of “We” into a more “realist” format.”
See that’s why I love 1984 – it’s beautifully realistic, even naturalistic. I also liked We, but like you said it had allegorical qualities. Allegory, like fable and satire, use conventions that ruin fiction for me. When I read a story or novel I want to forget the author, forget that I’m reading, and enter another world. Anything that reminds me of the artificiality of fictions ruins it for me. Does that make sense?
I’m not saying writers shouldn’t use these devices, I’m just saying I personally don’t like them.
I don’t think 1984 was satire at all, although Animal Farm might be, but it’s been too long since I read it. Satire is hard to define, but I like this definition from Wikipedia well enough:
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.
I think the key words a ridicule and shame. 1984 was reasonably naturalistic and realistic. It was a vicious attack on politics and humanity, but it wasn’t trying to be humorous, and the story itself was dramatic and real. Satire is usually absurd, and usually humorous, or at least attempts to be.
William H. Patterson, Heinlein’s biographer wrote a whole book on Stranger in a Strange Land being a satire. Even Heinlein considered it a satire. And parts of it was, but for the most part it presented too realistically to be satirical.
Satire is usually obvious because the story doesn’t feel realistic. It doesn’t attempt to mimic reality. Also, because satire attacks something, the attack often ruins any sense realism or true characterization.
I haven’t read Brave New World recently either, so I don’t know if it’s satire or not. But 1984 is very realistic. Winston feels like a true character, and we feel for him. He doesn’t feel like a caricature.
I think Heinlein wanted to use Valentine Michael Smith as a tool of satire, but readers feel too much for him to see him as a pawn of Heinlein’s philosophy.
The reason why I don’t like satire is it insults its characters, and abuses the convention of fiction that fiction is a believable artificial reality. That’s why I ultimately don’t like Kurt Vonnegut stories – he ruins them with his snide breaks with reality.
In some ways I fear our society has become so cynical that it sees everything as satire.
Fiction is a “believable artificial reality?” That is not its only purpose…
“The reason why I don’t like satire is it insults its characters, and abuses the convention of fiction that fiction is a believable artificial reality.” — LOVE ALL OF THAT! One of the reasons it has almost always been such a popular genre. Greek/Roman/Medieval etc. And, satire has always been a component of convention….
Joachim, we’re very different readers then. I can appreciate Greek and Roman literature, I don’t find it rewarding like I do with modern fiction. I believe fiction is constantly evolving and becoming better as an art form. Modern writers, especially those who have a MFA background, have learned to streamline narrative structure so that anything that makes the reader notice the writing will be removed.
Boy, did you expect this post to get so many comments?
Yeah, I don’t understand. Fiction is not becoming “better”, it is always reflective of the society which produces it. And if you like modern fiction is it is a result of you liking current trends/conventions not any general trend towards progress (whatever that means).
Fiction is obviously becoming better. Just compare the science fiction written in the 1930s to that written in the 1950s to that written in the 1990s to that written this decade. How fiction is written is constantly evolving and improving. You might not like the content, but writing ability really is improving. The writing in Ready Player One, Little Brother, The Windup Girl, etc. is light years beyond the ability of E. E. Doc Smith, or even Heinlein in the 1950s. Writing ability varies greatly, but overall, books from the last 25 years are so smoothly written that I find it hard to believe that fiction will evolve much more, but it will.
Because SF as a genre was utterly a different field at the time! It has to do with the literary environment of the day!
SF is not the continuum to base all writing.
But SF is a good test case for studying the evolution of fiction writing techniques. The same would be true for any writing for their times. Most books from the 1920s are unreadable today because the commonly accepted standards of fiction writing of the day are horrible sounding to modern readers. Hemingway stands out because he was inventing new ways to write clearly and precisely, but most writers from the time wrote this awful purple prose that was popular back then, having their characters speak in silly said-isms and ejaculations.
You dislike allegory?
No, it doesn’t make sense. Part of interpreting the world is via signs/stories/symbols. Why is that artificial?
Allegory makes fiction feel simple minded. Allegory makes a story feel like a child’s tale. I’m not saying writers shouldn’t write allegory. I just don’t like reading it. On rare occasions I’ll find a story that is so charmingly told in allegorical fashion that I’ll like it, but it’s artificiality still hurts it, at least with me. I guess this is a fictional prejudice with me.
I often find allegory lazy. I see the writer as not wanting to take the time to invent realistic details and names. I’m more willing to accept allegory if it’s from an ancient source and assume the people were more primitive.
Yeah, I don’t really follow your comments about “artificiality” (I mean I get it but simultaneously don’t understand why it would ever be a problem or demean the message or debase the meaning). It takes just as much skill/time/thought to successfully write an allegory as a non-allegorical tale — making up names isn’t exactly what is time consuming about writing well.
Great writing is the accumulation of significant details. Allegory goes for timeless quality, but unfortunately disconnects it from reality. When we read Pride and Prejudice we are given an abundance of details about when Jane Austen wrote. We’re able to zero in on the early 19th century. Allegory often leaves us with no sense of time or place. This is fine if that’s your writing objective, but classics of fiction tend to both timeless and give us great details about the time and place where they were written.
The reason why most science fiction will be forgotten is because it becomes dated without retaining a sense of time and place. Heinlein was once the most popular science fiction writer in the world, but he’s quickly fading in popularity because his science fiction is like most science fiction, too tightly connected to its time without being timeless.
Science fiction unfortunately lacks a lot of realism, so it often comes across as faintly allegorical. It’s reactionary to the time it was written, but because it’s often set in an imaginary future it doesn’t retain a historical value of time and place. 1950s science fiction is VERY 1950ish, but with few details of the 1950s. People who grew up reading it will remember it, but not future people because they have nothing to tie them to the 1950s. But it’s not allegorical enough to be timeless either. Maybe something like Fahrenheit 451 will, but most won’t.
I think that’s why most genre writers have turned to writing fantasy. Fantasy is inherently timeless without readers expecting to learn anything about the times in which it was written. A 1950s SF story about 1990s space travel to Mars becomes meaningless for the most part when the 1990s have passed. A mystical story like A Wrinkle in Time still works.
I guess I’m getting carried away, and even supporting your side for allegory. I just prefer realism. Unfortunately writing realistic science fiction works for current readers, but seldom for future readers. There’s actually tons of 19th SF, but it’s mostly forgotten. It said nothing worth remembering about the times it was written, and not enough to speak to our times.
I understand what you prefer. I don’t get why you believe what you believe. And that’s fine.
Why, for example, is it AT ALL unfortunate that it is disconnected from reality? i.e. as you said “unfortunately disconnects it from reality.” Why does fiction have to operate at some sort of realist plain to be valuable?
And again, “Science fiction unfortunately lacks a lot of realism, so it often comes across as faintly allegorical.” — why is that unfortunate? That’s an element about part of writing about the future! The social scientists cannot predict the future and neither can the SF author. But, it’s a future medium where there’s something useful to be said or a story worth telling or an art form with more hidden meanings worth constructing.
And, what?!?!? “but not future people because they have nothing to tie them to the 1950s.” I LOVE 50s SF and certainly did not grow up in the period. I feel a certain pontifical pronouncement about the past and past worth/value on your part.
And no, a 50s story about going to Mars does not become meaningless at all for a reader who has some knowledge of the past and can appreciate a writer who can still generate wonder….
It’s unfortunately because science fiction will never achieve the popularity and respect that books like The Goldfinch and The Fault in Our Stars do today. I’m not being critical of SF, just saying it’s has limited appeal.
The reason why you like 1950s SF is because you’re a special exception. So am I. I love reading really old SF. But most people do not. We’re atypical readers. We can read and love all kinds of stuff that the average modern reader would never try, or probably wouldn’t like.
We love science fiction because its speculative and inventive. Many people do. But most readers consider it just far out ideas with no connection to reality. Science fiction movies might have lots of fans, but science fiction books do not. Mystery and romance fandoms dwarf us. If they didn’t file fantasy and horror with SF, SF wouldn’t be much of a genre at all. Charlene Harris, Stephen King and George R. R. Martin might get piles of their books on the new book tables at the front of bookstores, but most SF writers don’t.
By the way, I think The Song of Ice and Fire series sells huge because Martin writes with a huge amount of significant details. Just because it’s fantasy and made up, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t create lots of realistic details to flesh out his stories. The reason Dune was such a huge success was not because of the SF, but because of an accumulation of significant details.
Fortunetly,much of sf that’s published within the confines of the genre is speculative fiction rather than what would be called plain science fiction.This you know of course.
To take prehaps the best example,it’s not unusal to find books such as Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” standing next to the classics of literature on the respective shelfs of bookshops,and others of his don’t carry the sf label and I assume will be found not in the sf section.
His and others,such as J.G.Ballard,who long ago leapt out of sf confinement to find mainstream acceptance,will have different editions,some published in the sf classics series,and we know where they will end-up!
Dick has now been accepted by the American Library of Congress.Who’s big enough to stand against that?
Wells and Stapledon both published without carrying the sf label and found general acceptance.
We haven’t got as many readers as other fiction sorts,but sf is not really a genre.We’re a palbable force though,and it’s too bad for them,and were powerful enough at last I think to push them off.
That’s why I buy within the genre,for the genuine gems within.
The Man in the High Castle is a good example. I think many of my friends should give it a try, but it’s just too different for them. I think if they did try it, they might find something tremendously creative that they’ve never encountered before. I have gotten a few of my friends who don’t read science fiction to try Replay by Ken Grimwood, and that has worked on them. One lady I know says it’s one of the best books she’s ever read.
And it’s strange the number of women, who aren’t science fiction fans, who I know that have read and loved Ender’s Game.
Some science fiction books have a quality to them that appeal to the average reader, but not many. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart is another SF novel I’ve gotten my friends to read an like. But most of the SF books I love, my wife, and friends, just think are weird.
James, I was reading through the comments — still vehemently and even a tad bit angrily disagree with you… haha.
But this riled me up all over again! Your LOVE of The Man in the High Castle! That is an allegorical novel… the scenes at the end when he is holding “American” pottery. They symbolize the possibility of rebirth of American culture. I cannot help but suspect that you use your dismissal of allegory as an easy crutch to dismiss what you dislike…. rather than a deeper hatred of allegory on your part.
It’s funny how I also thought, as I was reading through your review, that while I appreciated all the effort you put into it, it definitely made me NOT want to read this book. Then I get to the comments here and I find that many others amongst your readers felt the same way. There is something about the way you presented it…. And I know you’re going to ask what, and I can’t put my finger on it. Many of your reviews have resulted in my buying (and reading) books, but not this one. Thank you very much :).
It should be noted that a grand total of two readers felt the same way. This is on the Gollancz Masterwork list and an acknowledge classic (although, I don’t necessarily buy the “classic” label).
But, I also know that it is incredibly polarizing. And I narrowed in on why people hate the book right away to scare people off… In part because I find negative reviews on amazon downright misinformed (people don’t know it’s satire for example).
People who read SF dislike antiheroes to put it bluntly.
…perhaps because I dismissive of a lot of space opera in the first paragraph. I generally can’t tolerate it. Thus, my initial snark in the review. I buy most of Harrison’s critiques of the subgenre.
People who read SF dislike antiheroes to put it bluntly
I think you are wrong here. A lot of today’s SF revolves around the antihero, be it space opera or other SF. Or at least the grey hero. From Ian Banks to Alastair Reynolds, you read mostly about antiheroes.
I only read Harrison’s Fantasy and frankly couldn’t understand the overwhelming praise he received from his contemporaries (friends?) like Moorcock. In terms of inventiveness or colour it left a lot to be desired, as far as my tastes are concerned. It didn’t encourage me to try his SF.
Yes, “today’s SF”… Exactly. Hence why this shocked so much at the time — and, as it is a newish trend it still continues to shock.
The Ian Banks to Alastair Reynolds makes sense because BOTH claimed they were influenced by The Centauri Device. But, I’m not convinced that it’s widespread.
I said we don’t all like the same books.I suppose there is something in what you say though,despite the fact I think it’s great.
Yes,but Orwell’s realism is what makes him great though.
Haven’t read Huxley,but have H.G.Wells “World of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine”,but didn’t like them because of the bland style.The one I do like who also never published within sf,is Olaf Stapleton,who obviously owed a debt to Wells,but was far greater I think.
Haven’t read Stapleton yet — I know, shocker. I will I will!
You better!You better!I’ve read “Star Maker” and “First and Last Men”,but think the first one is best.
Haha, yeah I know. Profoundly influential for any future history type of SF and SF in general.
The point I wanted to make about Stapleton was,if you can understand without having read the books,is that he wrote at a time during the rise of the sf magazines,which were virtually unknown to him,and of no interest!So why was he writing such similar stuff to which his books were unrelated at the same time?
I’ve said this before,but what was happening was what could only be called parallel development I think.Both sources were adapting to the currents of the times surely concerned with modern life and the changes and consequences that would benefit and endanger Mankind,and evolved a similair if superficial apperance.
Such stuff has been integral to science/speculative fiction of course,and is largely what makes it great.
When he visited America,he was amazed to be feted by the crowd who read the sf magazines!
The book sounds interesting. Harrison is one of the authors I have not gotten around to reading (though I have a vague idea that is not quite true and that I’ve read a short in a collection at some point).
The protagonist’s name sounds terribly familiar. Hmmm….
Love the Paul Lehr cover. That would have grabbed my attention right away. I strongly suspect the Martiniere image on the German cover is used without permission, but perhaps not. It seems like the sort of cover design that screams copyright violation.
My two cents, and apologies in advance for being somewhat grumpy.
A lot of what is wrong both with Science Fiction and it’s readers is that they’re still stuck in an esthetic of the 19th century when realism was the measure of all things. Most SF sticks to a formal model that has been outdated for over one hundred years now, and is thus the exact opposite of inventive but extremely conservative, and that often shows in the ideology it transports, too. It’s the same old wine in the same old wineskins over and over and over again, and whenever a Harrison, a Delany, a Malzberg or some, far too few others actually do try something new and inventive most oh-so-progressive Science Fiction fans won’t touch it with a bargepole because it might actually challenge their fondly cherished prejudices in some way.
As for the utterly ridiculous (I’m sorry, but there really is no other word for it) claim that “modern writers, especially those who have a MFA background, have learned to streamline narrative structure so that anything that makes the reader notice the writing will be removed,” I’m just going to quote Delany who skewered that attitude very nicely like this: “The concept of a writer writing a vivid and accurate scene in a language transparent and devoid of decoration so that we see through to the object without writerly distraction suffers the same contradiction as the concept of a painter painting a vivid and accurate scene with pigments transparent and devoid of color, including white and black—so that the paint will not get between us and the picture.”
Heloise, the quote you used from me about MFA writers has a typing mistake I made. I should have said “so that anything that makes the reader notice the writer will be removed.” Not writing. Experiments in writing comes and goes, but seldom lasts. I loved Delany back in the 1960s and 1970s, and he’s one of the authors from my past that I regularly reread. However, I never considered him that experimental. Delany was just a better writer than the other writers of the time. He brought very vivid details to his prose that was lacking in 1950s SF. Back in the mid-1960s he stood out like a rose on a lunar landscape.
I’m not saying that writers who want to write different shouldn’t, but saying I just don’t like writing that draws attention to itself. It’s a big world of fiction out there. Writers can do anything they want, and readers can choose any kind of writing they like. I prefer stories that don’t draw attention to the writer or writing. But that’s me, and I don’t expect everyone to be like me.
Besides explaining my person tastes, I’m also making the observation, that books that last, the ones that become classics, tend to have qualities that most science fiction novels don’t. Or that science fiction is hobbled by the fact that the specific features that makes it good when it comes out, also makes it date quickly.
Few people read Harrison, Delany or Malzberg anymore. We need to explore why. We should also consider that the duller SF writers from the 1960s and 1970s have also been forgotten. That makes me believe that style of writing isn’t the issue, but that SF fades quickly. But all books fade quickly. Why do a very few books keep finding new readers?
I don’t you or any of the others who comment on this review are typical readers though. Joachim reviews books that are mostly forgotten by the general reader.
By the way, pay attention to the best selling authors of today, and the last decade or two. Many came out of MFA programs. Their writing styles are not the same, but they were all taught not to make certain kinds of mistakes, and I think they paid attention to that advice. And they’ve moved away from overt literary styles of the 1960s and 1970s.
Quote: ” I prefer stories that don’t draw attention to the writer or writing. But that’s me,” – Right. So when you wrote before immediately before the bit I quoted “I believe fiction is constantly evolving and becoming better as an art form” that was obviously just a statement of personal preference, and not all meant to be objectively deragoratory towards forms of writing you don’t favour.
Forms of writing that might be suitable for manuals, and maybe, but only maybe, journals, but certainly not literature which – and this might come as a shock to you – is actually made of language and it really should be blatantly obvious that writing from which you take the writing away simply can’t be any good. And another potential shock – what’s currently in the bestseller lists is only very rarely the peak of literary achievement.
That kind of streamlined, frictionless writing and reading that you’re advertising here, a reading that does not make any demands on the reader, that keeps them securely asleep and does not challenge them in any way is the literary equivalent to snoring in front of the tube while the most recent episode of the currently fashionable soap opera is running. As such, it’s profoundly unexciting and unspeakably boring, and it doesn’t help that the realist novel form it’s relying on dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. And that’s not what Science Fiction claims to be, and certainly not what it has to be, as witnessed by the works (to add some more names to the list) of the likes of Roger Zelazny, Michael Bishop, John Brunner, Christopher Priestley. I for one hate to see what could be an exciting genre turned into a literary snoozefest – but yeah, I guess tastes do differ.
Heloise, I still stand by my belief that the quality of fiction writing is evolving over time. Trying to objectively prove that would be hard. Actually, I could qualify and say we always have bad writers, but the best writers are evolving over time in all genres. The four new writers you add, Zelazny, Bishop, Brunner and Priestly did improve the SF genre.
However, from my perspective and taste, I don’t think the best SF writers in general are as good as the best literary writers at writing. So instead of pointing out what I don’t like, let me tell you which writers I currently read and admire for their writing ability. This list won’t be in any order, and only for fiction
A. S. Byatt
Karen Thompson Walker
Mary Doria Russell
And many more. These just pop into mind at the moment. Some of these writers have written science fiction and they proved that the SF genre could be greatly improved by better writing.
Also, I’m limited by my level of literary education. There are far more sophisticated readers than me who would consider all these writers literary lite.
As proof I recommend taking the current annual best of anthology edited by Gardner Dozois and the current Best American Short Stories and compare the writing.
As I’ve said,I don’t care about generic fiction;speculative fiction or literature,and it’s sister groups,dystopian and post apocalyptic fiction, carries the elements of science fiction and all genres,and then so much else,sharing the same concerns for characterization,prose and syntax with mainstream literature,but then again so much more besides.It’s in the ascendant of old fashioned gothic fiction,as Brian Aldiss has pointed out,being careful not to just repeat what he said.
To take an obvious example for the sake of clarity,I have already mentioned “Animal Farm” as a modern satirical fable,which we know as a literary classic.It couldn’t be classed as science/speculative fiction,as there’s no palbable premise there to rest a case for the existance of animals that can talk and think,but because of it’s deep thought and compassion,it’s recognised for the literature it truly is.Otherwise it wouldn’t even stand as firm as any plain sf story!
The book had to be an inspiration for John Crowley’s “Beasts” though,in a world where genetically evolved animals that equal human thought and actions,can be seen to have a pseudo scientific basis for their existance,if not entirely credible.Once again though,the novel published within the sf genre,has all the credentials to be recognised as speculative fiction/literature,and those who have read it will know what I mean.
The same holds true of others,such as Gene Wolfe,whose antiquarian sense of the modern fantastic in sf,as it has been said by Aldiss and others before,to be cast in the gothic mode I mentioned above,and of course for Dick,Leguin,Silverberg,Ballard and Holdstock,not to mention many more.They will all stand alone in the final count on their individual merits.
I loved Crowley’s Beasts (have a review up)… Still need to read Engine Summer.
Yes right….review?Good.”Engine Summer” though……..well,it’s a much more stylised,self conscious book,with disturbing revealations that now I come to think of it,have shades of Philip K. Dick,but without the quirky humour and metaphysical insight…..it all makes for a lesser book I think than the other one.
Don’t take no notice of me though,I just like to give my thoughts,it’s not that bad.I know you’ll give it a go.
Excellent. The Centauri Device was the first Harrison I ever read (even before I read Viriconium!), and while I agree that this “light” trilogy (or whatever it’s called) is vastly better, I think Harrison is wrong in his own evaluation of this early novel as crappy. (I think he was 25 when he wrote it! – so young to be writing something so deliberately anti-genre).
Also: love the spaceship names. Was this the progenitor of that now common-place Science Fiction aesthetic of weird, quirky ship names? (notably characteristic of Iain Banks’ Culture novels).
p.s. Engine Summer is AMAZING. But.. it’s very difficult to say why it’s so good without spoiling the ending… which makes it infuriatingly tricky to describe. 🙂
Haha, generally this is considered the progenitor of a lot of newer space opera — Banks etc. So, wouldn’t doubt that those authors (including some who have said have publicly that they were inspired by The Centauri Device) decided to invent amazing spaceship names as well. I have to admit, contemporary space opera is probably the last SF I’m interested in reading (I have dabbled in a few novels of that ilk a few years ago) so I don’t know to what extent they were influenced by Harrison’s choices.
I desperately want a copy of Harrison’s earlier novel The Committed Men — but, copies go for a pretty pen (for paperbacks) online and I’ve never found a copy in used book stores.
I haven’t read that one,but I think that was the one I always wanted to read of his.
Me too. So expensive! And his short story collection The Machine in Shaft Ten (which is referenced in The Centauri Device strangely).
I suppose you’re right about ES,it is something else,but the ending seemed a bit sickly in a way,and the whole book had a dreamy,almost creepy atmosphere.I think I would have prefered it without the neo- technological mythology,if that had been possible.It wasn’t what I expected.
Don’t care about what I say though,and that includes those who haven’t read it.
I love Harrison’s Viriconium sequence (not realist), but still haven’t read this. I shall though and if anything I’m more inclined to by your review.
1984 is a satire/critique of Stalinist Russia, hence the transposition of 1948 (the year it was written) to 1984. I thought pretty much everyone knew that. It’s not about future Britain, it’s an allegorical novel about then-contemporary Russia.
Definitely agree on We.
Yes, I have The Pastel City on the shelf. Will read it soon — although my copy appears to have multiple bb holes in it. I guess someone got frustrated with the non-realist contents.
Yes Like “Animal Farm”.It does contain a love of anything of old England though that gives it a humanistic quality it would otherwise of lacked.Still completely agree with what you said though.
This is literary iron candy full of mega-port transformations into SciFi’s space opera clichés (w/out the obvious avenues & veins), splattered on the writer’s canvas as it craves metaphysics & carves out new hearts, new zombies, strange spaceports, odd dimensions w/ twisted physics, mad tropes & fantastically named spaceships! There are rats in this universe. The organs nebulous & red raw while space truckin’ evolution is fragmented by sparks & stars, turning faster than light-speed while framed in it’s satirical nefarious irony deeply wrought-welded w/ splendid, metaphysical humour. Harrison invokes speculative experimentation into his inventions (akin to Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew”, in the jazz genre, if you will).
& there’s John Tuck, the anti-hero protagonist, pumped-up on fuel-addled-adrenaline, or speed: the whirl, whoosh, buzz, swoop, flash, blast, high-tail, headlong rush, buzz & zoom! John Tuck, the captain, doped-up on amphetamines, amphs & all that is mysteriously interstellar (for a price, & vast strokes)… Never-mind my off-poetic rumble-ramblings: read “The Centauri Device” (which is actually more fully realized & enjoyed, as w/ “The Committed Men”, after reading Harrison’s latest works). I praise the works of M. John Harrison (especially “Climbers” & “Anima”).
This is the guy who some 30odd yrs, after the spaceship Strange Great Sins, reinvented Space Opera w/ a touch of cinema-noir, mad physic mysticism, surreal mathematics, empty space… & some anomalous cats in what is called The Kefahuchi Tract Trilogy – Harrison’s long awaited return to SciFi. The trilogy is an astonishing, conceptual fabric of literary virtuosity. It is art w/ exceptional prose. Mind-bending & simply pure genius. (& now I patiently wait for a hopeful return to the pastel worlds of Viriconium)… for now, a shot of Black Heart rum: “A rocket from the noncorporate port cut the sky like scissors.”
I am currently listening to Marillion’s incredible composition “Gaza” off their wonderfully new, & brilliant “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” album.
[A better way of life.] Cheers.
I enjoy your comment — for some reason I missed when you originally posted it. I agree completely — it is Jazz like, deranged Jazz…
Pingback: The Pastel City – M. John Harrison | Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased