M. John Harrison’s 1975 The Centauri Device is a rare beast in science fiction. Short (200 pages), prosaic (the language is at most times brilliant), and with literary aims, it is sure to draw the disapproval of any genre fans expecting the easy-to-digest hero’s story typical of space opera. Harrison’s offering to the sci-fi world is instead one for connoisseurs who appreciate well-written stories with a driving — though it at times seeming fantastical and obtuse — purpose.
The Centauri Device is on the surface a rather simplistic story. John Truck, belying his name, is an average Joe living the life of a loser space trucker, hauling freight, legitimate and otherwise, planet to planet whenever contracts arise. He lives on Earth while the universe around him is at war. On one side are the IWG, a Jewish pro-capitalist faction who are at odds with the other side, the USAR, a group of Arab socialists. Despite doing his best to avoid everything having to do with the conflict, it proves impossible for Truck. That his mother was Centauri means that he is the last surviving member of the race, an earlier war having wiped out the race. A sentient bomb has been discovered in the war’s ruins by an odd religious group called the Openists (for bizarre reasons that are a delight and disgust to read), so both the IWG and USAR seek a Centauran, as only one of their race can detonate it. Let the chase for Truck’s services begin!
Ripe with symbolism and allusion, the simplistic story outlined above is imbued with all manner of literary devices. Religious and political interests at the forefront, numerous odd characters populate the under- and overworlds Truck finds himself fleeing through. Representative rather than affective, these characters, as bizarre as they appear, are not meant to draw sympathy from the reader, but present, in wholly original fashion, Harrison’s political agenda. Readers hoping to enjoy the book should approach it as such.
The Centauri Device is not a dry ideological exposition — its main draw is its delicious use of language. It spices the political and religious dish in a more-than-palatable, fantastically imaginative fashion. Readers who enjoy English used in a playful, highly visual, and allusive manner with much written between the lines will find something to enjoy. It seems almost certain that William Gibson, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and Ian McDonald have drawn some influence — perhaps not from the novel itself, but from Harrison’s style in general; each is a noted prose artist in the genre.
Almost certainly one of the founding elements of cyberpunk (acknowledged or not), The Centauri Device (though released as part of Gollancz’s “Space Opera Collection”), contains anything but a Star Wars vision of the future. Weird drugs, slagged planetary landscapes, characters on neon edge, and scenes that border on the surreal fill the novel. The Anarchist, the King, and Tiny are anything but typical characters in a science fiction story. Truck himself an anti-hero who spends the book trying not to be enlisted in other people’s battles, the book thus has much in common with Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination — another early look at the subgenre.
In the end, The Centauri Device is a book that fits the mold of science fiction only for its setting and some of the plot devices. Interplanetary travel and space ships may be the norm, but all else is literary usage of the tropes toward presenting Harrison’s thoughts on politics and religion. Sentences are crammed with visuals, and the book’s cerebral qualities can be unpacked one word at a time as symbols and literary devices underpin the themes. The Centauri Device is for readers who enjoy atypical but quality writing telling an unpredictable tale of space adventure full of wit and action. (It goes without saying that fans of the aforementioned authors will likewise be interested.)