Millennium, 2000, 205pp, £6.99
reviewed in Vector 214, November-December 2000
Time can change a book. In 1975, when The Centauri Device came out, it was a daring experiment, a radical take-over of the traditions of space opera by a darling of the New Wave. It felt very different from either of the fields that had spawned it. Today, what is most noticeable is how familiar so much of the book feels.
Harrison’s future was not the usual space-operatic realm of body suits and chrome, but a depressed and depressing landscape of leather coats and run-down industrial estates (I can’t help feeling that Harrison’s future looks very much like the world of Blade Runner, even the weather is depressing). In fact it is clear that, despite moving between a half-dozen worlds, the scene Harrison is describing is essentially unchanged from that in ‘Running Down’ or ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’ or The Course of the Heart. One part of the book is explicitly set in Northern England, but whatever the names of the planets the whole book is really set there – and set in the 1960s too. Just listen to the music, just note the fashions, just recognise that the whole of galactic politics is no more than the Arab-Israeli conflicts of the late-60s and early-70s writ large.
Harrison’s favourite characters have always been losers, the emotions he has fixed upon with the most exquisite detail are failure, disappointment, disillusion, regret. These are not the character traits or the emotions that one associates with space opera, for the wide open vistas are more normally the home of heroes, of rugged individualists, of eternal optimists. What we find in The Centauri Device has all the trappings that one might expect, a lone pilot ploughing through the spaceways, a space battle described in vivid detail, one hugely mysterious alien object; but somehow it remains resolutely not what it sets out to be.
Our pilot, for instance, one John Truck, is a failure, a one-time drug dealer, when he’s in a fight he loses, he has no wish to take on the moral responsibility of the role that is thrust upon him, and for the vast majority of the novel he not a rugged individualist but an unwilling pawn of powers greater than him. Our space battle consists, essentially, of the good guys being suckered into a trap by the bad guys, and getting blasted for it: Harrison writes good fight scenes, but they are invariably painful and ignominious, no room for heroes here. And our big dumb object, the device of the title? Well, in the end it turns out to be pretty much what you expect it to be, and it does pretty much what you expect it to do, and everyone who has pursued it for the very worst of motives ends up getting exactly what they deserve.
To call this novel a new wave space opera is misleading, though it is closer to new wave than it is to space opera. What it is, is archetypal M. John Harrison, the poet of grim, despoiled characters in grim, despoiled landscapes. It is not the best thing he has written, but that still leaves it head and shoulders above so much else in the genre.