(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)