The jacket copy on the back of this book begins “Bastard son of a port whore …,” and gives an impression of this book’s contents that is unusually accurate among 1970s SF paperbacks. Its setting is a twenty-fourth century in which an interstellar cold war is heating up, and the rival superpowers are both terrestrially-based: the Israeli World Government and the Union of Arabic Socialist Republics. Protagonist John Truck is an alienated loser, who the reader soon finds out is also descended from an alien survivor of human-perpetrated genocide. The “device” of the title is an enigmatic find from the ruined Centauran homeworld, which the agents of the competing powers each think will give them the edge. Other players in the game where Truck seems to be a pawn include a cabal of space anarchists led by a aesthete, an interstellar drug business and its kingpin, and the evangelical cult of the Openers, who have windows surgically installed to reveal their innards.
Although Harrison seems not to be especially proud of this early effort, saying it was from before he “learned to write,” it still stands out as bucking the trends of space opera in interesting ways. The antihero John Truck is not too unusual in the new wave science fiction set that Harrison participated in. I enjoyed the surprising passel of Swinburne references, especially to Atalanta in Calydon, along with allusions to Huysmanns and other decadents. Admittedly, most of what Harrison does well in this book, he does again far better in the more recent Kefahuchi Tract novels.