The Centauri Device is one of those books that had a huge impact on the development of science fiction as a genre, but it is relatively obscure and unread. Even the author, M. John Harrison, let it be known that he despised his own novel, so that’s quite the endorsement (no worries, I will tell you now that it is worth reading).
What it did, however, was pave the way for a revitalization of space opera. According to Harrison, he wanted to write an “anti-space opera”, breaking with the conventions of the day. What he came up with was a very bleak universe in which humanity isn’t the center of existence and a lowlife protagonist who had no real influence on the course of the story. At the time when Stephen R. Donaldson had a cantankerous leper starring in the epic fantasy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977), Harrison did the same in science fiction.
What he came up with, was a seed that would germinate into new subgenres. Harrison’s novel forms a bridge between the frantic, proto-cyberpunk of Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1957), and the later emergence of actual cyberpunk, and finally the space opera revival; especially Iain M. Banks, who took some inspiration from it and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series which, in a similar way, combines cyberpunk elements with a bleak, nihilistic universe that doesn’t care about human destiny.
But know what you get yourself into: this book is so grim and gritty that it turns into satire. It is almost like a big joke on the genre. The protagonist John Truck is convinced to see himself as a loser, and everything in the novel is about how sad and rundown the future is. Truck is irredeemable too, exerts no agency and the whole plot disintegrates into a nihilistic climax. I am actually convinced that this is a big joke by Harrison. He went out of his way to make this future aggravating and disappointing, slipping into exaggeration while doing so. The two powers of the future, for example, are the Israeli World Government and the United Arab Socialist Republics, and so religion and politics never moved on and are tired, wretched affairs in this future. I don’t think he meant all this to be taken at face value but as exaggeration.
But Harrison made the mistake of writing it too well and at the right moment, and now it is considered a classic, so the final joke is on him.
He populates his universe with quite interesting characters. There’s the creepy Dr. Grishkin with his implants, and the stoned, devious king of the party, Veronica, and many others. There is a charm to the grimy underworld and seedy port cities John Truck moves through; a charm that has been utilized since forever in hardboiled noir fiction.
And over all this lies Harrison’s unique prose. Harrison is the guy that other famous SF authors look up to. He can be very sharp, witty and cryptic at the same time. Harrison is more interested in describing how things are experienced instead of what is factually happening. He would describe a fight between space ships as insects unfolding their wings and hanging in space like spiders.
“[the ship] burst out of the dyne-fields like a morbid comet, rolling belly-up and launching volleys of torpedoes at nothing they could see, her stern consuming itself in pale feverish radiance. Great rents had opened up along her length, her bow was an agonized mouth; her golden fins were bent and charred, her turrets melted stubs. She plummeted down on them in a fog of blind murder […]”
He is very precise in describing how something feels, but he uses analogies to get there, and so he creates a tension of multiple interpretations where it sometimes isn’t clear what happened and leaves it up to the reader to interpret it. Harrison is too clever a writer to do this by mistake; he just chooses the language of impressions.
There is a crude commentary on ideologies in the novel that is very much a part of the 1970s. What I thought was exaggeration was actually part of an argument that Harrison was making. John Truck is a loser, not even having the drive to be an anarchist, and Harrison makes very clear what he was thinking of ideologies at the time through Truck’s apathy. The novel may have inspired many future authors, but this commentary wasn’t copied along with the noir punkish atmosphere. It makes The Centauri Device feel like a product of its time, together with the numerous appearances of drugs.
It sure takes a lot of context to understand why this book is the way it is. But I still found it very easy to like, despite all that. I laughed, felt the atmosphere and was impressed with Harrison’s writing. It has memorable characters, wry humor and is written in sparkling prose. Still, if Harrison’s prose doesn’t do anything for you and the counter-culture of the 70s alienates you, and you don’t like metaphor in your fictional accounts, then I understand that this would be the worst.