Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: The Centauri Device, by M. John Harrison

New York: Doubleday Press, 1974, pp. 185.

In M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device, a chaotic twenty-first century saw the Arab-Israeli conflict draw in virtually the whole planet, with an "United Arab Socialist Republic" (UASR) absorbing the Soviet and Chinese blocs, and virtually all of Africa and Asia with them, while an "Israeli World Government" (IWG) assumed control of the Western hemisphere, Western Europe and the Mediterranean littoral, each of these complete with its associated Cold War ideology. These blocs (which by this point are so cosmopolitan that they have ceased to be meaningfully "Arab" or "Israeli" in any sense) promptly extend their conflict into space, all but dividing the galaxy between them.

During that expansion, humanity exterminated the inhabitants of the planet Centauri VII. Following this event a human archaeologist came upon a device the Centauris had been developing before they were wiped out. Its essential function is unknown – some are convinced it is a weapon, others the voice of God, still others a machine capable of forcing people to see reality as it is – but no one doubts its power and significance, which makes it an object of struggle between several parties, including Earth's two governments.

However, it is not enough for them to possess the device itself, as the one thing that is really known about it is that it can only be operated by an actual Centauri. As it happens, space captain John Truck may be that last Centauri (his mother, unbeknownst to him, having been a Centauri survivor of the genocide). This makes Truck also an object of pursuit for all the interested parties, setting the central chase in motion.

As might be expected from this description, Device packs all the essential tropes of the conventional space opera – a planet-hopping journey, starship battles, humanoid alien races, mysterious extraterrestrial artifacts, and galaxy-in-the balance struggles – in what is quite a fast-paced, action-packed story. (Indeed, reading Device I was reminded just how much zip novels often had back when it was possible to publish a "mere" two hundred pager.)

Yet, the book is also remembered as having "ended" the space opera, and even as it uses just about all the genre's conventions, it also upsets all its traditional expectations. Here humanity is not united inside a scientific world-state, venturing out to the stars in a grand enterprise of exploration (or for that matter, the pageantry of a far-future galactic feudalism). Rather, it is divided against itself in armed-to-the-teeth political factions devoted to ethnic labels and political ideologies that have long since lost all meaning, and far from transcending them in the flight out to space, drags the rest of the galaxy into that stupid, pointless conflict. After all, the species is not the hero, or the victim, in its encounter with extraterrestrials, but the aggressor, the alien invader preying on the rest of the galaxy; far from being the solution to humanity's problems, ideology, cold war and space colonization have done nothing to improve the lot of ordinary people; instead of a shiny, high-tech future, a sense of decrepitude, gritty in the best sense of that horribly overused and abused term, is prevalent throughout the novel; and our cast consists not of scientific geniuses and brave explorers and soldiers, but scheming functionaries and hapless losers knocked around by life. (Indeed, the word "spacer" is virtually a synonym for "loser" in this book.)

John Truck is no exception, neither a square-jawed hero, nor a colorful rogue who can play the hero in a pinch, but just another lowlife who implausibly came into possession of a starship. In the course of the novel he does little more than run away from people he dislikes, "his morals those of a cretin or a small animal" and such courage as he displays "only the courage of desperation" (184), all the way down to the ambiguous, but calamitous finale. Indeed, by the end Truck emerges as an Everyman, the face of a degraded, apathetic, inarticulate, suffering – yet still, very human – humanity.

The Legion of Space, this definitely isn't, but this cannot appear as radical now as it did at the time of its first publication over thirty-five years ago, and there are all sorts of ways large and small in which the book shows its age as a nearly four decade old New Wave work (its rootedness in the politics of the time, its embrace of the ridiculous in making its not-at-all-ridiculous point, its touches of '70s decadence). Still, Harrison's zany conception of twenty-fourth century Earth and its domain, which is full of memorable touches like starship-flying Pre-Raphaelite anarchists; his knack for depicting bleak landscapes and conveying a vivid sense of what the galaxy (and indeed, history) feels like from the bottom up, which I can compare only with Howard Fast's portrayal of the Roman Empire in his classic Spartacus; and his achievement in the creation of the anti-heroic Truck; make this book not just a major Moment in science fiction history, but a memorable read in itself, fully deserving of its status as a genre classic.

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