16 July 2010

M. John Harrison - The Centauri Device

  • Author: M. John Harrison
  • Title: The Centauri Device
  • Publisher: Gollancz 2009 (1975)
  • ISBN: 978 05750852571
The Centauri Device is one of those incredibly famous sf novels that no-one actually seems to have read. Unless they are super sf geeks like me. It is described variously as the novel that killed space opera, to the novel that turned the conventions of space opera on it's head, to the novel that revitalised space opera.

It is essentially a story following the essential 'space opera plot line' with almost everything mixed up. The hero is actually a drug fucked loser who never seems to get a grip on what the hell is happening to him. His crew is worthless. His best friend is worse than useless. His enemies are insane. His allies are just as bad.

This guy has stumbled through life, and now finds himself in a situation where he is incredibly important, and he just wants it all to go away. He's unlikable, lazy, selfish and stupid. Yet he holds the key to a mysterious device that may in fact be the ultimate weapon.

I can understand that so many sf critics of an older generation than mine will see this novel as seminal, after only knowing the sf space opera of the 50's and 60's. But I just don't get the same thing as these other writers. All I got from this was a fairly disjointed story about a guy that I didn't give a fuck about, bumbling through a universe that I didn't give a fuck about. It is an incredibly dystopian universe that Harrison builds, and I failed to see any appeal in it. It was really hard to care, to be honest.

I don't see that it was this story that changed space opera forever. I think it more likely that the space opera that came after was the product of a more discerning market, a better grasp of the real universe, a change in the way people relate on a global level, and the rise of so called sf-like technology through the 1990's. This novel strikes me far more as a relic of the disappointment that the 1970's held for so many after the promise of the 1960's social and technological changes than a call to arms to reinvent the genre.

I would recommend this novel to students of the history of science fiction, and to some extent to students of social and political attitudes in the previous century. Certainly there is an obvious reflection of an attitude of disdain toward the politics and predictions of earlier sf works, ie. the libertarian frontier of Heinlein's early novels, or the techno-futurism of E E 'Doc' Smith. In the debate that will undoubtedly continue for eternity around just what constitutes Space Opera, this novel will always be an important talking point, and on that basis I suggest that you read it.

However, as a novel for entertainment? Erm, 1 out of 5. It's a piece of crap.