AMREADING: M. John Harrison, The Centauri Device

I’ve just finished M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device, which I picked up for a very well-spent $12.50 from Sarasota’s pretty awesome Parker’s Books last week. It’s a great piece of work on its own, but particularly interesting to me because it was Harrison’s third novel, published in 1974 – and there’s no contemporary writer whose artistic evolution is more fascinating, challenging, and inspiring to me than Harrison’s.

If you’re not familiar with Harrison, don’t beat yourself up. He’s a very unfairly lesser-known member of the so-called New Wave of science fiction writers of the 1960s and 1970s, centered mainly in Britain, and also including Samuel R. Delaney, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock. Like Delaney, he started his career working pretty firmly in the mold of adventurous sci-fi, then went with great determination in sometimes extremely strange directions. He’s most frequently compared to Moorcock, but at his most weirdly adventurous – A Storm of Wings and In Viriconium – Harrison creates more hallucinatory worlds and more convincingly acidic characters than Moorcock, using language that simultaneously pushes the boundaries of sensibility and penetrates the truth.

What’s even more interesting about Harrison – to a writer, at least – is that after pushing things so far into the formally and substantively bizarre in the Viriconium books, he took a rather drastic turn into more subdued psychological realism, then returned to sci-fi with slightly more conventional novels like Light – which is, incidentally, a fair preview of Anne Leckie’s recently highly praised Ancillary series.

In short, he’s a master at multiple styles, and reading his mature work is a sure way for a writer to get discouraged. But what about the earlier books?

The Centauri Device is, on one level, quite encouragingly straightforward. The essence of the plot is not just spare, but clichéd – the last living member of an alien race is also the only key to operating an ancient superweapon, and several factions vie to capture or control him. The central character is also a fairly standard-issue Space Rogue, and the factions rotating around him are Space Empires, Space Rebellions, and Space Religions. It’s fun, quick, and, structurally, not particularly ambitious.

But in the details of Centauri, there are clear signs of what Harrison would deliver in A Storm of Wings six years later – strange poetry, bizarre imagery, and most of all, characters that by design don’t live up to their roles as heroes. In Centauri, that’s John Truck, the secretly-last-of-his-race who, though he shows a few flashes of concern and initiative, is for most of the novel a passive layabout, putting his greatest effort into avoiding responsibility.

But the factions battling to control Truck are even less appealing than he is, a collection of bullies and manipulative zealots. The sole (maybe) exception is a crew of anarchist pirates, who seem to have laudable motives, but aren’t able to make much of them. In short, it sounds like a space opera in outline, but it undercuts the easy good-vs-evil polarity that dumb fiction of all sorts continues to hinge on to this day. There really aren’t any good guys.

It’s just as nihilistic as it sounds – and readers who want ‘fun’ are going to be bummed right out. But it’s not joyless – what saves it, and more than saves it, is the same wealth of non-descriptive descriptions and turgid-yet-profound turns of phrase that define the Viriconium books. Here, in a particularly great example, are the dying words of one of the book’s more admirable characters:

“You were there when she bled into the dyne fields, you saw the substance of her flaring out like ritual evidence of the future. I believe she was near to her proper place, then.”

It’s not clear what this means, even in context. But there is a weight and precision here that makes it at least seem that Harrison had some sense of its meaning, was trying to point towards that meaning, worked on these words. There are tensions between them, allowing possible interpretations.

Or this description of a spaceship in action:

Precarious and hungry, hovering on the edge of the time when its prey might come into season, like a huge fragile insect against the gloomy bulk of the earth, it spun and darted – extruding its armament and making playful threatening passes . . .

What’s really glorious about this is that you don’t have much visual image of what the thing looks like – but you have what’s better, a rich feeling of the experience of seeing it. It’s the same trick that Harrison would later pull with the superficially mundane villains of A Storm of Wings. They’re just giant insects – dying giant insects, at that – but because every description is inflected with this kind of emotional resonance, they’re deeply unnerving.

Plenty of readers are frustrated with Harrison’s combination of nihilism and verbosity, and the Amazon reviews of this are a fun read. The ending in particular is a giant Fuck You to conventional heroism. But that sense of challenge is exactly why the book is still so much more worthwhile than most of its contemporaries.

As far as what that means for a writer, trying to measure himself against the arcs of the people he admires? On the one hand, Centauri is, again, encouragingly straightforward in structure. A lot happens, but it’s all linear. My own current project is on shaky ground in that regard, with several entwining threads and an inevitable measure of jumping around through time. Which is another way of saying that discovering that linear simplicity is in itself a skill.

And, though there are those flashes of intense subtlety, a lot of The Centauri Device is written fairly straightforwardly. Overall, it’s a reminder that you have to walk before you run, and this is one of the great writers walking, with occasional sprints, trying out his legs.

The real x-factor here, of course, is Harrison’s timing. He both loved the SF of his time, and was frustrated by it. The Centauri Device isn’t just a book – it’s a strategy of a moment, which is the main reason it may still hold interest for those of you who aren’t total word nerds. Most evocatively, it’s worth considering that John Truck – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler – appeared three years before Han Solo – the lackadaisical anarchist smuggler. I’m not suggesting there’s any direct influence, but the two are a product of the same moment, of a related subversion of space opera.

The big difference is that Solo redeems the archetype for tradition, ultimately choosing to serve the ‘good’ guys. John Truck has no such comforting delusions.

Though it doesn’t exactly seem to be currently in print, you can get The Centauri Device in several formats on Amazon (isn’t the future grand?). I recommend the 1974 hardcover, available for 20 or 25 dollars with shipping.