By 1974, when M. John Harrison dropped The Centauri Device
on an unsuspecting literary world, nothing in sci-fi smelled worse
than the astronaut adventure. More stale than an old, forgotten box
of Space Food Sticks, these stories seemed trapped in a perpetual
time warp, repeating the tired recipes of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi.
After reading a few pages, I usually feel driven to put down these
formula-driven books and proclaim, to whomever happens to be
close enough to hear: "Houston, we
definitely have a problem!"

Meanwhile reality had gone in a different
direction by 1974—if aimlessness counts
as a direction. The Apollo program had
ended two years earlier, successfully
transporting some cool photographs back
to planet Earth, along with 842 pounds of
rocks. Dreams of human exploration of the
rest  of the solar system and beyond, which
had fueled thousands of visionary stories
over the years, now seemed just that:
dreams, empty and without substance.
Shortly after Harrison published his novel,
George Lucas would spend millions
reinvigorating the space opera, but any
shrewd observer could see that the sub-
genre had turned into sheer escapism
akin to a thrill park ride in a high tech
amusement park.  

Harrison himself had made his name as a
critic of banal, formulaic science fiction, unsparing in his vitriol but
bold enough to try his hand at reinventing the tired space opera.  
"No genre is beyond redemption," British sci-fi author Colin
Greenland has noted, not even the astronaut adventure. In this
regard, Greenland held up Harrison's
The Centauri Device for
particular praise as the "book I held in highest esteem….It's weird,
it's fun, it's literate, it's humane, it's even political, and it's space
opera." But he adds: "I once made the mistake of telling Mr.
Harrison how much I was inspired by
The Centauri Device.  
He looked decidedly affronted. ‘Well you shouldn’t be,’ he
said truculently. ‘It’s a very bad book.’”

As I said above, Harrison can be unsparing.

The Centauri Device cannot be dismissed so glibly, even by
its author. He may not have succeeded in revitalizing the space
opera—as the mindless and endless stream of
Star Wars books
would soon prove—but he made a valiant effort to blaze a new trail.  
Few would imitate Harrison's initiative, but this for the simplest
of reasons: who could?  

Related Reading
Light by M. John Harrison (reviewed by Ted Gioia)

To start, Harrison creates a protagonist, John Truck, who is neither
hero nor antihero, but the greatest anomaly of them all, a sci-fi
catalyst whose most salient traits are apathy, listlessness and
passive acceptance of the status quo. Yet Truck somehow
manages to parlay these qualities into galaxy-changing virtues.  
No, Harrison hardly invented the notion of the passive hero (see
Hamlet, for the most famous example), but readers of genre
fiction in general and outer space stories in particular, would
rightly wonder whether the Prince of Denmark, or anyone
imitating his indecision, might survive long on an intergalactic

Truck makes his living running a low-level interstellar freight
operation, but suddenly finds himself in the midst of a power
struggle between warring factions. Each wants his cooperation
in securing and activating a weapon invented by the Centaurans,
a now extinct species killed in a genocidal war by human
adversaries. The Centauri device, a mysterious sentient bomb with
unfathomable properties, can only be controlled by someone
with Centauran DNA.  Truck is apparently the last person in the
universe with some Centauran blood in his veins. He is, unwittingly,
the indispensable man, and is forced to play a hand in this high
stakes games despite his indifference to politics and military

He is, as noted above, an unsuitable hero by the traditional
standards of sci-fi. But Harrison rejects other key aspects of
the space opera tradition he inherited.  A pacifist streak
The Centauri Device, and every ideology proffered
as 'worth fighting for' in these pages is questioned and found
wanting. The reader hoping to root for the 'good guys' against
the 'bad guys' will struggle to find a cause worth supporting in
this intergalactic struggle. Harrison provides us with a panoply
of interests—socialist, free market, Israeli, Arab, human, non-
human, religious, opportunist—and finds them all equally
spurious in their claims and untrustworthy in their agendas.  
Harrison briefly wavers in his non-aligned status, and allows
his readers to cheer on a group of aesthete anarchists, who
intermittently emerge as combatants, and come as close to
positive role models as you will find in this work. But this
proves an illusory hope.  Anarchists once again show that the
only thing they can predictably deliver is….well, anarchy. Few
of them emerge from this novel in one piece, or prove
capable of winning peace.  

Harrison seems on the brink of embracing nihilism as the central
value of
The Centauri Device. But gradually the reader
comprehends a different agenda at work here, and it is neither
left nor right, anarchic or nihilistic. Harrison actually takes on
the most radical value of them all, namely anointing losers as
winners. As the reader comes to learn, the Centaurans represent
more than a historical lesson or technological McGuffin-makers
in this book. They are patron saints of all the outcasts, drifters
and victims in the universe. If Donald Fagen were around, he
would call them
Deacon Blues. But though they may have lost
the war, and their very lives, perhaps they left something behind
that will tip the balance of power.

Harrison has bit off more than a mouthful in undertaking such a
self-cancelling adventure story. He struggles again and again to
find ways of energizing the plot, and can hardly rely on his
protagonist, who is a captive pawn and spectator throughout most
of the novel.  As a storyteller, Harrison will never put Heinlein,
Asimov or Clarke out of business. But he compensates through
the power of his prose and the zany qualities of his characters.
Judged on a sentence by sentence basis,
The Centauri Device
ranks among the best written sci-fi books of its era. And a handful
of secondary personages here—Dr. Grishkin the Opener and
Himation, the conjurer-astronaut-anarchist—are as intriguing
and provocative as anything you will find in genre fiction.  

Despite these virtues,
The Centauri Device often feels like a
novella stretched out beyond its author's ability to support it.  
Harrison continually places his non-hero as a captive in the hands
of incompetent  wardens, who allow him to escape, only to be
seized by another party.  After the fifth or sixth time this happens,
readers justifiably grow impatient with their passive protagonist,
and even the juiciest metaphors and modifying clauses can't
prevent a sense of ennui settling in over the story.  

But the author—and perhaps the Centauri bomb itself—does
hold some explosive power in reserve for the ending.  Yes, our
indifferent astronaut does finally make a bold move…and perhaps
not the one we expected. Readers can decide for themselves
whether this conclusion reinforces the themes of passivity
and pacification that permeate the book, or simply shows them
up as one more failed ideology.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history
of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication date August 10, 2014
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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