The seventh novel in the 'Stainless Steel Rat' series, this novel tends to be labelled #2, because it's a direct sequel to 'A Stainless Steel Rat is Born', the earliest if you go by the in-series chronology, and it begins as soon as that one ends. Our dubious hero, James Bolivar diGriz, has now gained the training he needed from the Bishop, and he's obtained the famous nickname we've known him by since 1961, the Stainless Steel Rat. However, he's still a young chap who is green enough to still seek revenge for the death of the Bishop and that's what this one is all about.
Sure, there's a story around it, but that's not what drives Jim and it's not what drives us. Yeah, it's a bad thing that the island nation of Nevenkebia is a militaristic stereotype that's about to invade an alien planet, one that resembles a Utopia, because of its universal practice of Individual Mutualism, but we don't care that much. We know Slippery Jim will manoeuvre his way through a set of tortuous predicaments until he's in the right place to win the day. He's the Stainless Steel Rat! What else is he going to do? What we care about is whether he's going to take down Captain Garth.
You'll remember that Captain Garth was the ship's captain who transported Jim and the Bishop from Bit o' Heaven into slavery on whatever planet that was called. When Jim won that day, Captain Garth vanished, leaving behind the suggestion that he wasn't just a smuggler who took a bigger bribe than the one our hero could provide. He's clearly something more again and, at least initially, we're right with Jim as he seeks out the secret to that mystery and the quickest path to getting his hands around the captain's neck.
And, with the discovery of Bibs, Captain Garth's assistant, as a fellow prisoner, that quest begins. It's almost redundant to explore how it proceeds, because, if you've read any of the prior 'Stainless Steel Rat' books, there's nothing here that's going to take you by surprise. Jim may still be a teenager but he's one growing in confidence with every stride and he has the balls to con his way out of prison, into the closed city of Nevenkebia, into the military and up the ranks by leaps and bounds.
Harry Harrison was a pacifist, though he became one after serving in the Army Air Corps during the Second World War, leaving its ranks as a sergeant. That pacifism manifests itself over and over in the 'Stainless Steel Rat' books. We know that Slippery Jim doesn't take human life, but we do wonder if it might be a personal philosophy that he merely hasn't formed yet, being so young and inexperienced in the wider worlds of the galaxy. To a large degree, that's the one factor that enables some tension here, because, while we have every expectation that Jim is going to find Captain Garth, whatever his real name might be, we just don't know what he's going to do when he does.
Probably inspired by his wartime experiences, Harrison paints the Nevenkebian army as a bundle of stereotypes. Some of them are bloodthirsty evil monsters. Some of them are just idiots whose every deed is an inept punchline to an inept joke. Many are conscripts whose only goal within the military is to get out of it; they're only there because they never had a choice and they don't have the balls of a Stainless Steel Rat to manipulate the situation, they can only try to survive it. And, from these few categories of military men, every cliché emerges. The food is awful, the hours are exhaustive and the officers order and the men die. The further up the chain of command you go, the less you have to do, because you can just order someone below you to do the job instead. All the usual stuff. Sergeant!
But, hey, it's all fun enough. I can't say that this one grabbed me particularly, but I also remember an oddly similar setup in 'The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge', the army du jour being Cliaandian rather than Nevenkebian, but they were focused militaristic conquerors hellbent on taking another planet and the highly positive primary difference is that Nevenkebia is less boring than Cliaand. I'd still put this book relatively low in a ranking of the series, but this isn't the worst. It's just another early yarn that's inherently missing the deadly charms of Angelina but there's no Bishop either, of course, and there isn't a replacement character for these. Given that it also treads some old ground, it becomes a lesser volume in a wildly fun saga.
Next up is technically a short story, 'The Golden Years of the Stainless Steel Rat', which I believe is in an otherwise unrelated collection of Harry Harrison's short stories called 'Stainless Steel Visions'. I have that on the shelf, so it'll be easy to check that out next month and see what will go down at the other end of Jim diGriz's stellar career. And then it's the third in the young Jim trilogy, 'The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues', published in 1994, before we shift back to regular chronology for the final three books. All of these will be new to me, so I'm looking forward to singing the blues next month. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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