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WesternSFA


A Stainless Steel Rat is Born
Stainless Steel Rat Chronological #1 Published #6
by Harry Harrison
Spectra Books, 219pp
Published: September 1985

The first five novels starring Slippery Jim diGriz, better known to the universe at large as the Stainless Steel Rat, unfolded in chronological order, Jim getting a little older as time went by, gaining first a wife, a pair of twins and a little weight, if partly due to his habit of enjoying the local fermented beverage of choice on whatever planet he might find himself on at any particular moment. However, that progression stops here.

'A Stainless Steel Rat is Born' is the sixth book in the series, originally published in 1985 almost a quarter of a century after the first, but, as the title might suggest, it goes all the way back to begin the in-series chronology of his story. So it's book six but also book one. And, while it doesn't involve little Jimmy literally emerging into the world, it does involve the metaphorical equivalent. We first meet him as a teenager, robbing a bank on his home planet of Bit o' Heaven in order to get caught and thrown in jail. He waits very deliberately until he turns eighteen to ensure that outcome.

Why? Because he's always been a little different from everyone else, his philosophy on crime already in place, if not yet perfectly formed. He has the skills, honed through an enjoyable set of glimpses into his schoolyears in flashback, but he doesn't have much in the way of knowledge and he wants to learn from the best. Where are criminals to be found? Well, in jail, of course. So that's where he ensures that he gets quickly sent, so that he can begin in earnest his education in crime.

Of course, he soon discovers the fatal flaw in his reasoning. The criminals in jail are the ones who got caught, so they're not the ones that he should be learning from. So, once in, he orchestrates his way back out again, engineering an escape and fashioning a new plan, to uncover the identity of the most legendary uncaught crook on Bit o' Heaven, a criminal known to law enforcement (and the public) only as the Bishop. It's fair to point out here that he succeeds in finding the Bishop, though things don't proceed onwards quite as young Jimmy expects and therein lies the story.

I remember being wary of diving into this book way back when I worked through what I could find of this series back in the day. 'The Stainless Steel Rat' came out in 1961, a full decade before I was born, so, by the time I discovered its existence, there were Sphere paperback editions of the first half dozen books available and relatively easy to find on market stalls and secondhand book dealers' tables. This was the most recent of them at that point and I'm somewhat shocked to realise that it's also the most recent that I have actually read. Everything from here on out will be new to me.

Maybe part of my reticence was that it was a book alone back then. I'd enjoyed, albeit to different degrees, the first five novels with their intricate, somewhat silly and very outrageous adventures for the Stainless Steel Rat, and I wanted another one. What I got instead was a dive back into his youth and I wasn't sure I wanted it. Fortunately, it's just as much fun as its predecessors, the young Jim almost as confident and a little less obnoxious as his later self.

Of course, there's no Angelina here and no twins, so there's a strong need for another sidekick. I love the character of Jim diGriz but I enjoy him more when he's tempered by his wife, the series at its best when they're working together as a family and its worst when he's stuck on some alien planet on his own. Initially, his sidekick is his cellmate in prison, a gentleman who goes by the subtle name of Stinger, but he's unworthy in that role and that's much of the point of his scenes. Things pick up considerably when Jim is joined by the Bishop, from whom he learns many lessons, from a grounding in what he truly is to the name that he adopts: the Stainless Steel Rat.

Almost two thirds of the book takes place on Bit o' Heaven, providing us with insight in where not only Jim diGriz but the persona of the Stainless Steel Rat came from. It's an inherently limiting venue for action, though, so Harry Harrison wisely moves Jim and the Bishop offworld for the final act, which is almost a sequel to what went before. It's fair to read this as the novel it was published as, but it's also fair to read it as a novella and a novelette, the origin story and the first adventure.

That first adventure isn't far from what you might imagine it will be, taking place on a planet with a civilisation behind our own level of technology, let alone the much more advanced one that diGriz was born into on Bit o' Heaven. What's surprising is the way it ends, because Harrison handles a sad inevitability well enough that it becomes rather emotional and we fight vainly against it. It had to be, not only to set up the next book, 'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted', published two years after this one in 1987, but to allow the newly dubbed Stainless Steel Rat to fly free and achieve what he must.

And so it does what it does. The bits that I liked most are joyous and the bits that I had most trouble with were ones that had to happen for the sake of the series. What that means from the grand scale is that I enjoyed the book, but it was never going to be my favourite, even had Harrison nailed every aspect of it to perfection. And, of course, it's not perfect, though it's surprisingly good. It's not as good as I hoped but much better than I feared. I can see now why I didn't leap into 'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted' on its original release, but I'm eager to do so now. ~~ 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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