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The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison

01/05/2009. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Centauri Device in the USA - or Buy The Centauri Device in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 199 page enlarged paperback. Price: 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-575-08257-1.

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Considering how much Science Fiction I've read, this is the first time I've actually read anything by M. John Harrison. 'The Centauri Device' was first published in 1975 and some allowances have to made for age and present day mentality. Not sure if that should be mine by the way.

The first thing that struck me was Harrison's rich use of language but it soon started to dawn on me that it wasn't always made with bringing the characters to life. True, there were traces of it from time to time but it wasn't brought to fruition so you cared enough about them nor the events that took place. Likewise, the same could be said of the Centauri Device itself.

Although pivotal, its importance was never exactly stressed. It's the kind of book where you need to concentrate on what is being said to absorb what is going on. A moment's lost concentration and you can easily think something has been glossed over.

It is a future where the state of Israel runs the Earth and Arabs are still a thorn in their side. There is no indication of what happened to the other nations inhabitants. John Truck, surly and occasionally drunk captain of the space freighter Ella Speed, is a half-breed with Centauri blood and most probably the last of his kind that is known. A device found on his home planet needs that of a Centauri hand to activate it.

I suppose if this book was written today, this would be explained by DNA recognition but that wasn't even contemplated back in the 70s. After a long haul, he's on Earth for some rest and relaxation and being stone drunk for a fortnight. This is cut short when he finds himself coerced and bribed and anything else to go and activate the device to see what it can do. The book then follows his adventures.

It's a shame that more wasn't made of Israel running Earth. The distinction between them and the Arabs isn't that well emphasised but then back in the 70s, it was only something you read about in the media without the kind of connection we would make of it today.

As I commented above, decent prose alone does not a story make. I often felt that Harrison was disassociating himself from the events here and letting his prose hide any development weaknesses. It could also mean that the book needs a repeat reading or two to pick up all the implications so it might just be me. Whether I would consider it a classic, I'm not sure. I suspect the book will appeal to a particular type of audience than another. With the diversity of Science Fiction, there are readers for all types so that shouldn't deter you. If anything, it's probably what is not said that is important than the overall contents. Read with caution.

GF Willmetts

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