Well, this book is a first: StarWarsian space opera written before Star Wars, in Dickensian sensibility, and perfectly summed up by the Anarchist characters in this story, who fought their space wars as dandies, in alien ships with names likes Les Fleurs du Mal and Atalanta in Calydon. For the first half of this book, this tact doesn’t work well. The flourished language and poetic descriptions get tangled in the feet of the action, coming off as somewhat psychedelic and unfortunately annoying, but by the middle of the book, they match strides and start to learn to run together. By the end, some of the analogies and metaphors grow a little too cloying – perhaps trying too hard to be Ballardesque – however, there were other moments that deserve little monuments of their own in the Hall of Writing Greatness.
As I started reading this, I though to myself: this guy would be better as a fantasy writer. When I went onto the internet, I saw that this was one of his first books, and as his career stretched out, yes, he did indeed go on to write fantasy. One review said that if he had died young, The Centauri Device would have shown him to be a writer with a great future, instead of this just being one book in his talented canon. I’ll have to add him to my fantasy list, I think.
I knew I was going to be in for a ride when I saw the quote that opened this book. Mr. Harrison quoted from John Milton, but not from Paradise Lost. It was from another work – Comus. This told me “I’m a real writer, damn it, and I know what real literature is. Watch out.”
Harrison makes good on the promise of his opening quote. With beautiful language, The Centauri Device delivers that stunning literature: “Uncouth, clannish, lumbering about the confines of Space and Time with a puzzled expression on his face and a handful of things scavenged on the way from gutters, interglacial literals, sacked settlements and broken relationships, the Earth-human has no use for thinking except in the service of acquisition. He stands at every gate with one hand held out and the other behind his back, inventing reasons why he should be let in. From that first bunch of bananas, his every sluggish fit or dull fleabite of mental activity has prompted more, more: and his time has been spent for thousands of years in the construction and sophistication of systems of ideas that will enable him to excuse, rationalize and moralize the grasping hand.”
“His dreams, those prices comic visions he has of himself as a being with concerns beyond the material, are no more than furtive cannibals stumbling around in an uncomfortable murk of emotion, trying to eat each other. Politics, religion, ideology – desperate, edgy attempts to shift the onus of responsiblity for his own actions: abdications. His hands have the largest neural representation in the somesthetic cortex, his head the smallest: but he’s always trying to hide the one behind the other.”
Is this point of view from the arcane Comus? As an aside on the arcane, there are a zillion book reviews and lists of good books on Amazon, which I have used to guide and inform writing my list. One reviewer has driven me into fits of Insane Jealousy because he gave his credentials to review fantasy only as “Cellar Door,” an Extremely Arcane Reference to J.R.R. Tolkein’s comment that “Cellar Door is one of English’s most beautiful sounds” and in fact saying, in two words, that this reviewer knows and believes in the beauty of language. I am so jealous, I can’t stand it – both of Cellar Door and the quote from Comus.
And as beautiful and poetic as the metaphors of this book are, the real lessons of this book are in the heightening risks the protagonist takes until the end of the story. Each chapter grows more and more perilous for him, and the stakes grow higher and higher. Oh, also arcane literature references are a must. Don’t ask me why. But they are so cool, I just can’t stand it.