Most long-running series tend to either deteriorate slowly over time or just find a particular comfortable level and tread water on out, but Harry Harrison's stories about "Slippery" Jim DiGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat, refuse to do either. My long-term favourite is the fifth book, 'The Stainless Steel Rat for President', which was the last in the initial run of stories in chronological order, before the author leapt into prequels. My second is now this one, the tenth book in the series and the first to return to that original chronology after the prequels. The silliness is exactly right and the whole thing is just fun.
Jim and Angelina are enjoying themselves on the massively expensive tourist planet of Lussuoso, the former in disguise as an admiral and the latter spending far too much money, when they come across a religious scam. It's Angelina who decides to do something about the Temple of Eternal Truth, which is promising actual glimpses of Heaven, but the result is that she promptly disappears, which in turn prompts Jim to call an emergency. In come James and Bolivar and the Special Corps, who send a talented and very female agent by the name of Sybil, over whose attentions the boys promptly vie. The task at hand: to find and retrieve Angelina by any means possible.
They soon find out a few key facts. One: Angelina is no longer on Lussuoso. Two: there are other religious scams on other planets that seem to be renamed versions of the same thing, so off they go to check out the Seekers of the Way on Vulkann. And three: they may actually be telling the truth. Cough up enough money, and it's a large sum indeed, and you will absolutely get a glimpse of Heaven, complete with flocks of cherubs flitting about the skies around you. Of course, if the religions we know about can raise insane funds on promises that can never be delivered, how much will one earn if it can actually deliver on those promises? They must be taken down.
Beyond the fact that Angelina fails in her immediate mission, perhaps because she didn't take it as seriously as she should have done, there's a big change in the tone of this book compared to its predecessors. It's been over a decade since the previous book in the chronology, fourteen years to be precise, and Harry Harrison has finally come to terms with how problematic especially the first book was at points when it came to women. Sure, Jim's an incessant hound dog, not that he'd ever cheat on his wife, and he has a healthy disdain about everyone who isn't him, but the general approach thus far of kowtowing to his wife in humorous fashion is superseded here.
It takes Angelina to utter a line like "One more word of that male chauvinist pig dreck and I will claw your eyes out" and mean it to get the point across. We're not quite sure if she's talking to Jim or the author, but it works either way. In fact, there's even a plot device here that involves a particular McGuffin being only detectable by women. It's natural to write to your own era and this book, after the reason behind Angelina turning evil in the original 'Stainless Steel Rat' novel three and a half decades earlier, makes me wonder how other male authors from the classic era might have written differently, had they only lived to the present day.
But back to the story. It only takes five chapters for the title to be fulfilled. Jim and Sybil find themselves caught by the mastermind behind these pop up religions and exiled to Hell itself. Well, it isn't really Hell, but it is exile, something that happens more than once, as there's super-pseudoscience going on here that's actually quite fun and it means that this mastermind is going to remain ahead of them at every turn unless they manage to figure out a way to switch that around. Given that there are another two 'Stainless Steel Rat' books still to come, you can be pretty sure that they will succeed in doing that, but there's a lot of joy in how that comes about.
How much joy can be summed up by explaining that the silliness here actually works. Never mind some the more outrageous exploits of Slippery Jim in earlier novels and the outrageous names given to minor characters (hello, Capt. Kretin and Gar-Baj, I'm talking about you). Here, Harrison carefully orchestrates his worldbuilding to make the silliness appropriate. Let me just explain why weaponised salami is absolutely the best approach to be taken in one particular scenario. No, let me not do that. You should track down a copy of this annoyingly hard-to-track down book and read it for yourself. Yes, it's still silly but it also makes sense for a change.
I could talk about the science that Harrison bends and manipulates to his aims here, but I won't do that either. It may or may not make much sense and it really doesn't matter. Like the weaponised salami, it makes sense in the internal consistency of the book, which means that we don't roll our eyes too much at it and it all plays better to my mind because of it. I like Jim here, because he's Jim but I also like how he doesn't have to do as much himself because the boys do some of it for him. I like Angelina here too, because, initial underestimation aside, she kicks ass the way she ought to kick ass and Hell hath no fury and all that. Sybil is a fun addition, enough so that I have to wonder if she'll return in 'The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus' and it's good to see Inskipp and Prof. Coypu back in action again.
I have to say that, when I decided to return to this old favourite of a book series, I could have stopped at book six, because that's where I'd got to back in the day and that's what I had on the shelf. I have to say that I could have given up on seeking out the rest, because the next couple of books were, shall we say not as good as they could have been. I enjoyed them because I'm always going to enjoy this character, but I had to admit to myself that the magic wasn't there like it was in the better of the original books. And I have to say that I'm now incredibly glad to have persevered so I can wrap up the series, because I adored this one which is firmly now second in the series in quality to my way of thinking. Bring on next month's discovery! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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