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The Stainless Steel Rat for President
Stainless Steel Rat Published #5 Chronology #8
by Harry Harrison
Sphere Books Limited, 1982
Published: October 1982

It's been so long since I read through the 'Stainless Steel Rat' books that they've blurred somewhat together and I've been struggling to figure out which was my favourite. Well, it's this one. Without a doubt. It does everything I want a 'Stainless Steel Rat' book to do and doesn't do much at all of what I don't want 'Stainless Steel Rat' books to do. This is close to the sweet spot.

What I want from Harry Harrison when he makes a periodic return to this increasingly long running series is fun, with danger always hiding in the shadows and fun ready to take it down. Slippery Jim is primarily a fun character, a wish fulfilment version of the reader, because he breaks every law he has a whim to break but does it without killing anyone and without anyone suffering adversely from his crimes unless they absolutely, unequivocably deserve it. That's a dream job if you can get away with it and DiGriz can always get away with it because he's always one step ahead.

All of that shows up in abundance here because our antihero finds himself running a revolution on a corrupt planet, ironically named Paraiso Aqui, or Paradise Here. He's never heard of it, but the cops on Blodgett need his help, because they've just found their first murder in a century and change, an unknown corpse with a note in his mouth reading "Stainless Steal Rata". Figuring out who he is leads Jim and Angelina to Paraiso Aqui and that trip sets the rest of the book into motion.

What I don't want from Harrison when he makes his periodic returns to this series is overt silliness, a bad habit he often found himself drifting into, especially on the previous volume, 'The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You'. That silliness is here, early on, in characters like Capt. Kretin of the Blodgett police and suggestions that Paraiso Aqui is the most corrupt planet in the galaxy, as if there's some sort of league table keeping track, but it's mostly kept to a minimum.

Perhaps it's put in check by the seriousness of what Jim and Angelina find on Paraiso Aqui. Sure, it's an overtly happy place in the tourist areas, rather like a galactic McDonalds, but it isn't hard to see past the dazzle and front to the brutal reality behind it, namely that there are a very few people on the planet who are lording it, quite literally, over everyone else. There's a substantial downtrodden peasantry doing all the work but aching for the freedom that only a Stainless Steal Rata can deliver and a galactic crook with an ego and chutzpah of Slippery Jim diGriz who secretly aches for the challenge.

What makes it all so much fun is how he goes about it, not by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor or by kickstarting a guerrilla war from the hills. He does it by entering willingly into the Paraiso Aqui election program, which is every bit as rigged as you might expect, and conjuring up the process by which he can beat the crooked incumbent, General Julio Zapilote, at his own game. Really, it's an incredibly good approach for Harrison to take, a game of crook against crook, so the bad guy always loses but with a heavier dose of sympathy even than usual for our bad guy of choice.

Everything comes together on this one, including elements that Harrison bizarrely hasn't combined in this recipe before. Jim is the lead, of course, though he isn't the candidate standing against Julio Zapilote; for that, he locates a conveniently eccentric aristocrat to serve as his stooge. However, he's not alone in his battle for the majority of the book this time. Angelina is right there with him, being just as steely and deadly as ever and underlining her worth not just as his wife but his equal partner in crime. What's more, both the twins are here, all grown up and ready both to follow their father in his latest scheme and occasionally to one up him in the process. The book is a better one for all their presences.

I loved this as the kid I was when I first read it, even though I didn't see the subtext. Everything is so obviously modelled on the stereotypical South American banana republic, likely Cuba, right down to the languages being Spanish and, inevitably for the author, Esperanto, that it's easy to miss that it's also a satirical look at democracy, anywhere. The author was American but he lived for a long time in Ireland, as well as for periods in Mexico, Italy and Denmark, and he ended his days in London. He saw democracy from a lot of different angle and was able to play with it magnificently here.

What I think nails it for me is that Jim has grown up somewhat over the series, albeit not too far; he still keeps the mischievous wink of a child and the unabashed automatic rebellion of a young misfit. This was only his fifth book in over two decades—'The Stainless Steel Rat' was first published in 1961 but grew out of novelettes printed in 'Astounding' as early as 1957—but he lived those two decades. Most authors would have progressed him a few months or maybe a year, leaving him unchanged for the most part, but Harrison let him grow in our real time and that matured his arrogance a little. It was fantastic to watch him taken aback by unexpected pride at how well the twins work. Sure, he's a little overfond of the local beverage here, called "ron", but we can excuse him that after saving the galaxy a few times.

From here, though, Harrison backtracked. My numbering for the series is chronological according to original publication date, but there's another numbering that goes by the in series chronology. If we follow that, this becomes book eight rather than five, as the next three books are prequels, starting with 'A Stainless Steel Rat is Born' from 1985, which doesn't quite go as far back as the title suggests, recounting the birth not of James Bolivar DiGriz but of his more famous persona, the Stainless Steel Rat. Having had a blast with the older Jim here, over a few glasses of "ron", I'm looking forward to a long overdue reunion with the younger Jim in December. See you there. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles in the Stainless Steel Rat series click here
For more titles by Harry Harrison click here

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