This week’s SF Masterwork of the Week is M. John Harrison’s The Centauri Device – the book credited with kick-starting the New Space Opera movement. To introduce you to this extraordinary work, we’re delighted that our good friends at SFX, the UK’s premier SF entertainment magazine, have kindly allowed us to republish this article from their excellent SFX Book Club feature. Our guide through the twists and turns of this masterpiece of modern SF is a writer who has made his own not-inconsiderable contribution to the New Space Opera, the multi-talented Ken MacLeod. . .
The Centauri Device reads like hate mail directed at space opera clichés
– Patrick Hudson
The back of the 1975 UK Panther edition of The Centauri Device placed the book in the grand tradition of AE Van Vogt and EE “Doc” Smith. It’s true, a bare summary could have given that impression.
The date is 2367. Humanity has swarmed across the galaxy, destroying or assimilating similar species – starting with the Centaurans, native to a planet of our sun’s nearest star. There are a hundred billion people out there. But Earth’s two superpowers, the Israeli World Government and the Union Of Arab Socialist Republics, keep the galaxy in the icy grip of their cold war between capitalism and communism. Space Captain John Truck, loser and user, has just become the unlikely object of their contention. His mother was the last surviving Centauran, and Truck’s half-Centauran genes make him the only person capable of using the eponymous Device, an apparent last-ditch super-weapon recently dug up from the radioactive ruins of the murdered planet.
Throw in a cabal of anarchist artists darting about in alien starships, a drug-cartel kingpin with a party habit, sinister votaries of the viscerally unpleasant religion Openerism – all of whom want a piece of John Truck. You can imagine what a tale the old masters of the genre would have spun. It’s already half-written in your head before you’ve taken the book to the till.
If that’s what you were expecting, hope you kept the receipt.
Readers who’d already encountered M John Harrison’s scathing and often hilarious SF criticism (collected in Parietal Games, and recommended), or his earlier novels The Pastel City and The Committed Men, had a better idea of what to expect. Harrison had argued that much SF and fantasy was devoted to giving the reader a safe, familiar thrill before returning them to the real world with their hair mussed but their brains unchallenged and their hearts unmoved. In his own fiction he refused to give an inch to this – as he saw it – ethical and political corruption. He systematically turned cosy expectations upside down, in one genre after another: fantasy, post-catastrophe, and now space opera.
So Truck, far from being a hero or even an antihero, is (it seems at first) infuriatingly passive. After being shanghaied by a glamorous spy and harangued by a female general, he flees to Earth – to Glasgow, in fact – and visits his wife. Her damage and need are only superficially more apparent than his. From then on Truck gets successively kidnapped or rescued by each of the contenders for access to the Device – it’s like the old sick joke about the fastest game in the world: pass-the-parcel in a Belfast pub, with Truck as the parcel.
Until he explodes.
The Centauri Device deploys every trick of space opera verisimilitude: the geo-political infodump in the tone of capsule history; the imaginary technical details (the Chambers reaction pistol, the dyne fields of hyperspace); the careful mix of genuine astronomical terms (Cor Caroli, Cannes Venatici) with evocative, obscure coinages like Gloam and Parrot; the hints at massive cultural shift: Glasgow is named only as Carter’s Snort, but the “old rocket-mail pits of Renfield Street” get a name-check; the 20th century is carefully misremembered, with Brezhnev and Nixon as feudal lords and Hermann Goering as an artist. But it uses these tricks to throw the reader’s mind constantly back to the real world, and force reflection on wounded relationships and walking-dead ideologies.
The book still divides readers – mainly, still between those who expect a trad space opera and are disappointed, and those who have an idea of what Harrison was up to. There must also be those – like me, in 1975 – who read it naively as a space opera adventure written in gritty prose, and go on to look for, or even try to write, more of the same. Most of New Space Opera, I sometimes suspect, arose out of that misunderstanding. It’s reassuring to know that Harrison approves of this unforeseen outcome of his own least favourite book.
This piece was written by Ken MacLeod and appears courtesy of SFX magazine, where it was originally published as part of their regular SFX Book Club feature. You can subscribe to SFX magazine here and find more Book Club articles here.
Ken MacLeod’s latest novel is the acclaimed SF conspiracy thriller, Descent, which is available in hardback and as an eBook. Ken MacLeod blogs at The Early Days of a Better Nation, tweets as @amendlocke, and you can read more about him in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.