Outside the 'Stainless Steel Rat' series, Harry Harrison was a serious science fiction writer. Among an array of comic sci-fi novels that also included the 'Deathworld' trilogy and the 'Bill the Galactic Hero' novels, he produced lots of more serious work. Most famously, of course, 'Make Room! Make Room!' was adapted into the movie 'Soylent Green', but there's a long string of other novels and stories too.
So, I believe that, by the late seventies, when he wrote this fourth Stainless Steel Rat novel, it was an opportunity for him not just to lampoon the traditionally conservative military sci-fi genre, but also to relax and just go hog wild for a while before getting serious again. This one is even sillier than the last three, which makes me wonder about the next volume, which is the one I think was my favourite growing up, 'The Stainless Steel Rat for President'.
The first sign of silliness arrives pretty quickly. Angelina, the lovely and formerly psychotic wife of our hero, Slippery Jim DiGriz, has been kidnapped, and Jim, whose tinges of grey highlight how far we've progressed forward in time since the previous volume, 'The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World', goes to collect the twins from the Dorsky Military Boarding School and Penitentiary, from which they're a few days away from graduating. Colonel Dorsky has no intention of letting them leave, because rules are rules and there are no exceptions, but Jim points out that Angelina was kidnapped by agents of the Interstellar Internal and External Revenue and that's good enough for the colonel. He graduates them immediately and off they go to fight the great evil that is the taxman.
Of course, that's not our primary story and that gets even sillier. Jim is once again tasked with saving the galaxy, this time from a space war being waged by a large coalition of horrible space monsters of no fewer than 312 different species, all of whom have banded together to destroy mankind for being simply too ugly to exist. Think bug eyes and tentacles and copious amounts of slime and all the clichés from the 1950s wrapped up in as repulsive a package as can be comfortably imagined. If that wasn't a giveaway to how silly this is, the First Official of their War Council is named Gar-Baj. That's how far we go this time out.
So, with 312 different species, each more hideous than the last, Jim gets himself immersed into a wild and wacky alien suit to introduce himself to them as the 313th. He's Sleepery Jeem of Geshtunken, a Yiddish word that means "to stink". Sleepery here translates to "He Who Walks on Backs of Peasants with Sharp Claws' and denotes a member of the nobility. And they all start flirting with him, including Gar-Baj, because Sleepery's as sexy a beast as he's seen. "Six of his eighteen eyes winked slowly and I knew the old sex-appeal was still at work."
As long as you can get past that level of silliness, and especially if you can raise a smirk at it, this is as fun as the series has got. If you can't, then it might be a tough ride for you until we uncover the real story behind this horribly beweaponed BEM fleet. I won't spoil what that story is, but I will say that it serves as a good progression for the series, the hidden power being people we've met before. Those scenes aren't as silly and read really well, because they allow Jim to get up to his usual shenanigans in an interesting and dangerous environment while facing off against a characterfully characterless foe. They're anti-emotion and pro-conformity and their collective demeanour is as cold as the planet they're still pissed about being stranded on, however many generations later.
It's also fun to see Jim not working entirely alone, because Angelina is along for the ride, of course, even if she isn't always present during the action, and the twins are a heck of a lot of fun too. James and Bolivar are both chips off the old block, with as much ingenuity and healthy disdain for any and all forms of authority. They even finish each other's sentences, which is cute instead of annoying, as it easily could have become. They don't play a huge role, more's the pity, but the potential is certainly there already and I remember them doing more in later books, presumably starting with the next. I have to say that the years have blurred them together quite a bit.
And I can't really say too much more about this one. It's a whole bundle of fun, if you're OK with this level of silliness, especially during the first half. I couldn't help but visualise the scenes on the aliens' flagship and it's next to impossible not to do so in terms of Vogons and Ravenous Bugblatter Beasts of Traal and the like, as perhaps performed by the Goodies with guest appearances by the Pythons. It would be either unbearably awful or side-splittingly funny. It probably works better in print.
But all the really good stuff comes later, after the line I'm not willing to go past from the standpoint of spoilers. I'd love to talk more about what happens on a particular frozen planet, but you'll need to discover that for yourself. I'd also love to talk more about certain events towards the end of the book but they don't begin until chapter eighteen and chapter twenty-two is the last one, so that's late on indeed. Frankly, the funniest sections for me arrive at this point, with a surreal appearance, a killer back and forth between very important people and a wild set of leaps from there onward. But, that late, that's so far into spoiler territory, it's gone native. So, you're on your own. If I haven't somehow put you off with all the silliness stuff, leap in and have a blast. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles in the Stainless Steel Rat series click here
For more titles by Harry Harrison click here