The Centauri Device

M. John Harrison
The Centauri Device Cover

The Centauri Device

Sable Aradia

Read for the Hard-Core Sci-Fi Challenge, the Space Opera Challenge, the SF Masterworks Challenge, and the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club here on Goodreads.

This crazy book reads like a combination of Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester, and Douglas Adams. Part madcap comedy of the absurd, part noir, and part epic space opera, this book has you laughing at the protagonist in one scene, crying for him the next.

John Truck is a space trucker who's always been down on his luck. He has a checkered past that led him into some political entanglements in the past between two groups he cares nothing about who are warring for control of Earth and the galaxy (and neither of them, thank you gods, are American clones; one is a group of Capitalist Israelis and the other is a group of Socialist Muslims.) A mysterious device is discovered by a very odd, and almost certainly crazy, monk's order on the planet Centauri, whose people were destroyed in a great genocide by us humans, and only someone with sufficient Centauri DNA can operate the thing. Truck just happens to be the last half-Centauri in the universe.

A chase and a bloody competition begins to capture John Truck and force him to use the device for their side. The two warring factions want him to use it to defeat the other, while the religious sect wants to meet God in person (which is what they think the device is going to do). I can't even begin to wrap my head around all the twists and turns. It's somewhere between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Dr. Strangelove; weird, trippy in places, disturbing, and often hilarious.

The ending is perhaps not unexpected, but oddly satisfying. And there's a very clear political statement that Harrison was making that I think is still relevant today.

The more I read 1970s science fiction, the more I like it. Aside from the blatant and pervasive sexism that is consistent (this one less than most; two of the main antagonists are women and they're scary, but they're a bit of a stereotype; then again, everyone in this book is a caricature, designed to illustrate a type of person as a whole rather than a specific character) 70s sci-fi is highly imaginative, and almost always seems to deliver the most creative worlds that most modern sci-fi writers wouldn't dare to attempt; and if they did, knowing the industry, they would be sneered at. I wish we could rediscover that creative worldbuilding without rediscovering the problematic elements.

This looks so much like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxyto me in some places that I find myself wondering if it was an influence of Adams' (it was written four years earlier.)

Anyway, great book, lots to love, and I'm glad it was on this list! Maybe not for everybody; I think you have to have a particular sense of humour, and a particular appreciation of the subtle work of the writer, to enjoy it; but I sure did!