Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Centauri Device

M. John Harrison The Centauri Device (1974)
I sought this entirely because I loved the cover of the SF Masterworks edition. It took me a while to find a copy because I greatly prefer the traditional paperback size and the aforementioned SF Masterworks edition was of those slightly larger vital statistics by which more or less everything is now published, a size I dislike because it seems to be saying ooh ooh look at me reading a proper book like something by that Vikram Seth or one of those guys. Unfortunately the price for my dimensional loyalty is that the copy I eventually find has this cover. Never mind.

I gather Harrison emerged from that whole new wave thing surrounding Moorcock's New Worlds, and it certainly reads that way. The Centauri Device is gonzo space opera - I suppose you might call it - dense prose rich with bizarre images like a slightly more grizzled and hard boiled version of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books, and I suppose it must be admitted that it wears its vintage on its sleeve, at times reminding me of Alan Moore's The Stars My Degredation or something drawn by Bryan Talbot; and there were quite a few Hawkwind numbers spontaneously popping into my head as I was reading, particularly Spirit of the Age. Unfortunately though, the prose is so dense that it becomes a little tough in places - not that the story is so horribly complicated as to demand one's full attention, but reading gets to feel a bit thankless towards the end what with all the baroque descriptions of vaguely disgusting things piling up one after the other to a degree which you can almost smell. It's a little like some of Iain M. Banks' less successful novels in terms of texture, and I strongly suspect Harrison was an influence. The appearance of spacecraft with names such as the Melancholia that Transcends All Wit and the Let Us Go Hence seem a bit of a smoking gun on that score.

That said, The Centauri Device isn't a bad book in any sense so much as simply one which should have been better. It's short and snappy, never quite boring, brimming with wild and wacky ideas - most notably the Opener religious sect who believe God to be in the detail and who have transparent windows inset into their flesh so as to reveal the workings of their innards - and the raw, squelchy poetry of the text is frequently astonishing.

'Here we begin to guess at the nature of space,' said Pater softly to Truck. 'Our palette is prepared. The galaxy has given us our canvas, a dead dragonfly had bequeathed us the brushes we have to hand. We make space. We define it. Look out there. IWG and UASR see at best a conduit for Earth's rubbish of politics. We infer reality. None of this belongs to Earth or to ideology. It is inviolate.'

What any of it's actually about is another thing entirely, although the above passage seems pertinent. The Centauri Device appears to be about liberty, ideas, and two fingers up to authority in the same way that certain Surrealist paintings tend to be about these things - so the message is inherent in the form rather than in anything which is spelled out. It's a book which asks its reader to put in a certain degree of effort, but mostly rewards what work you might undertake, possibly providing you're in the right mood - which maybe I wasn't.

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