Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Centauri Device by M John Harrison

I don’t usually read much science-fiction but I’d been recommended Harrison’s novel Light, which typically wasn’t in the library, so ended up taking this out instead. Bleak and disturbing, it’s nonetheless a truly inventive novel, credited with revitalising the ‘space-opera’ genre.

Lowlife space-ship captain John Truck is loafing his way around a seedy, dystopian future, when the discovery of his connection to the titular device puts him in the middle of a war between the last two Earth based power-blocks who have carved up the galaxy between them, interplanetary drug pushers, a religious cult devoted the human digestion and a gang of aesthetes called the Interstellar Anarchists.

Rescued from the dealer Chalice Veronica by the dandy Himation, Truck and his crew are brought to a hollowed out asteroid floating between our sun and Alpha Centauri, the base of Sinclair-Pater, the Anarchists leader. His domain is an Aladdin’s Cave of art treasures, both authentic and recreated. The white-suited Pater is an artist as well as the pilot of a fantastical space-ship named The Green Carnation. Truck is brought to his apartment and drinks are served:

By contrast, the suite of rooms adjoining the studio was frugal and austere, with little chintz curtains, stained floorboards bordering Turkey carpets and an atmosphere of cherished isolation. In the sitting room, which was achieved by way of a low passage and a Gothic doorway, there were a few short shelves of old books, a scrubbed deal table and some stiff but charming high-backed chairs. For ornament, a bowl of dried rose petals stood in the precise centre of the table. On the walls of this prim apartment were hung two pictures: one of a head of some wine-god, unfathomable and sensually cruel; the other a rough sketch of a morose, stooping young man – thin, heavy jawed, with deep, close-set eyes, dressed in the garments of a defunct High Church order. Here, they sat down, Himation disappeared into the depths of the suite, returning shortly to flourish his cloak over the table-top (rose petals stirred like leaves of another year, and a remote scent filled the room) and manifest a bottle of wine. He held up his hand – prolonged the moment – four glasses appeared, their stems between his fingers. A faint musical tone. Pater smiled on indulgently.

Pater explains that he wants the Centauri Device simply because everyone else does, and goes on to execute a daring and suicidal raid on the convoy he thinks is carrying it. When the dust settles Truck finds himself on the run from his enemies who are prepared to kill anyone in their way. He must now face the device itself alone...

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