Monday 26 January 2015

The Centauri Device

(January 2015)

Good lord but this but this guy can write. Maybe it’s just because I’m coming off a couple of novels whose prose could be charitably described as ‘utilitarian’, but this was an absolute pleasure. Such a relief to read someone who views language as a thing to bring pleasure instead of a bluntly functional tool with which to bludgeon concepts into the head of the reader.

That said, I could, and probably should, get a little conceptual about the book itself. What with the Culture reread drawing to a close (soon, children, soon), I’ve recently been thinking a fair bit about Space Opera and despite, or it would seem because of, this being billed as ‘anti-space opera’, The Centauri Device would appear to be one of the founding texts of the subgenre. If you’ve got even a passing familiarity with Banks or Baxter or Reynolds it’s impossible not to read this and see the seeds of what was to come: arcane, high-falutin’ ship names; a decidedly non-anthropocentric universe; a protagonist who actually gets up to very little in the way of protagonising; and above all the sense that what should be a utopia decidedly isn’t.

Apparently this is the author’s least well liked of his own books, and there are certainly aspects which haven’t aged all that well, most noticeably the extended Arab-Israeli conflict which frames the story. It’s no less topical now than it was forty years ago, sadly, but the treatment of it here still seems fairly cumbersome (Basically these two factions have carved up earth between the two of them and have carried that division into humankind’s colonization of the galaxy.) Maybe ‘cumbersome’ is the wrong word. ‘Unimaginative’ is probably better, and may also be why it sticks out so much, because the linguistic imagination on display here is, still, glorious. I’ve kind of vowed off quoting examples of writing I like, because it never looks as good here as it does on the page, but let’s give it one last go, shall we?

There is a kind of cold particular to the dawn. All nightside losers know and revere it for its healing stimulant properties. Shivering and Grinning at one another, Truck and Tiny hunched off towards the port and Truck’s boat. The compass wind blew: it lay in wait for them at intersections, came whistling round the corners of warehouses to meet them. When that happened, Tiny would run on ahead, swinging his Fender case and kicking out at bits of rubbish in the gutter.

Nah. Still not the same. You’re just going to have to experience this one for yourself.


  1. This is one I want to read, but can't get from either of the vast library systems to which I belong. (I could just buy it I guess...) If not this, I should at least read the next Kefahuchi Tract novel.

    1. I think you'd get a real kick out of it, not just because he's got an amazing way with words, but it'd also appeal to your whole 'historian of genre' thing as well.

  2. I bagged this on Kindle (£3.99) after reading your blog post about it. It is a great read, really good use of language.

    I have been aware of M John Harrison since I was a youngster and have never read any of his stuff, so thank you for turning me on to it.

    1. You're most welcome. So pleased I could spread the good word. I really need to read more of his stuff. I've also got a Simon Ings book on the pile, and he's a writer who often gets compared to MJH. I shall report back as and when.