The Centauri Device
by M. John Harrison
First published in 1974, this book is in some ways curiously sedate. Harrison’s strongly associated with the New Wave of science fiction in England, but there’s little of the formal play that’s so often identified with the New Wave. It’s a fairly direct story, set in a human-populated galaxy hundreds of years in the future, about an alien super-weapon and the variety of rogues, scoundrels, and thugs who try to take control of it. In a lot of ways, it’s not that distant from classic golden-age sf.
Except, and it’s a crucial exception, in terms of sensibility. There’s a greater cynicism, a greater distrust of governments and militarism. A greater willingness to play with anti-heroes. The very end of the book seems to call in question much of what came before, especially the ending, explicitly declaring itself “a dramatized account” of history (it’s an imaginary story; aren’t they all?). So it’s bleaker; but there’s still a considerable romanticism at play here, and the anti-heroes are still notably effective, still sympathetic.
In a lot of ways, the book’s reminiscent of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. There’s a similar density of imagination, a similar use of sf adventure tropes along with a subtle questioning of those tropes, a similar downbeat ending that misses being apocalyptic only due its scale. Even a similar whimsy in its starship names: Intestinal Revelation, Les Fleurs du Mal, Atalanta in Calydon. It’s shorter than the Culture novels I’ve read, though, and I think the length does it a favour. I think Banks, although consistently imaginative, tends to fall into a rhythm in his inventions and conceits. That’s something Harrison adroitly avoids. This is a solid, tautly-written story. Maybe it’s no more than that; it’s certainly no less.