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The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus
Stainless Steel Rat #11 published, # 10 chronological
by Harry Harrison
Tor, 272pp
Published: November 1999

There are a lot of good reasons to write a sequel, but the one that seems to have triggered this book is not the greatest of them. I have a feeling that Harry Harrison, who was a serious science fiction writer as well as the creator of a number of well-known comedic science fiction series, wanted to wrap up this one and didn't really have anything special to bring to bear for the season finalé. It's enjoyable, as all of these books are, but it's also even more fluff than usual. If even one of the ten 'Stainless Steel Rat' sequels could be called necessary (and one of them is my favourite from the entire series), it certainly isn't this one. It doesn't even end properly, just with a cautious "The End?"

One reason why these sequels become progressively more problematic is that Harrison decided that they would—with the exception of the prequel trilogy halfway through—unfold in chronological order. I realise that sounds weird for a series where Jim goes back and forward in time more than once, but he's older in each succeeding episode, as are Angelina and the kids, James and Bolivar. He was quite a seasoned crook when the series began and he started showing his age before the prequels arrived. By this point, the tenth novel, he's far from the spring chicken he was.

If Harrison wanted to wrap things up properly, it seems to me that he would go out in a blaze of glory and end his final volume dead, but only in the eyes of the universe, because he would have faked that death well and instead gone into luxurious retirement on some pleasure planet somewhere or other. After all, James and Bolivar are chips off the old block and, should Harrison ever regret his decision to wrap up the series, could easily take over as the anti-heroes of the next book.

Sadly, that's not what he did here and, while the boys do show up, they're relegated to a kind of deus ex machina role. If Jim can't do something himself, because the internal consistency of the story won't allow it, then James or Bolivar show up out of nowhere and take care of it for him. It's a literary cheat just as much as the much-used molecular debinder that Jim is so fond of using. Angelina doesn't fare a lot better than the boys, being stolen away yet again and not given the opportunity to turn the tables herself, something that she's clearly capable of doing, as a potential lead in her own spin-off novel. It has to be said that, while the undercurrent of sexism that blighted some of the earlier books is mostly gone, it persists in this sort of thing.

What works well this time is the structure. Jim and Angelina are happily fleecing the stock market on some planet or other through insider dealing, when they're attacked and attacked hard. They fight a good fight, but inevitably lose, only to discover that it was all really a test by a prospective employer, who's very happy with how they acquitted themselves. He's Imperetrix Von Kaiser-Czarski—"You may call me Kaizi"—and he's supposedly the oldest and richest man in the galaxy, a scientist who invented the first longevity drug, which he kept to himself and so reached the ripe old age of forty thousand or so. His wealth slowly but steadily built until he now owns entire star systems.

However, Kaizi reckons that he's being systematically robbed and he's willing to pay Jim four million credits a day plus expenses to figure out who's doing it and stop them. Needless to say, it isn't quite as simple as that and there are a number of points where we learn enough to reevaluate the situation in entirety. That's arguably the best aspect to this novel, because while it's unnecessary, Harrison didn't just treat it as a knock-off to wrap things up. He put as much imagination into this novel, if not more, than a few of the earlier books in the series.

As you might imagine from the title, the search leads Jim and Angelina to the circus. James crunches all the data on what would have seemed in 1999 to be a powerful computer system and discovers that there was one commonality to every crime: the presence of a gentleman by the name of Puissanto, or the "Strongest Man in the Galaxy", though the circuses he worked at changed over time. And, in one month's time, he'll be headlining for Bolshoi's Big Top arrives in Feterrscoria on the planet of Fetorr. It's time for Jim to put his talents as a stage magician to good stead.

As you might imagine from the fact that this is a 'Stainless Steel Rat' novel, a good part of the fun is in the references. Harrison must have been enjoying his Asimov at the time, because he trawls in Isaac's Laws of Robotics not once but twice, albeit to have fun with the idea, and the strongman hails from an obscure planet known as Trantor. He isn't above self-deprecating references either, as the strongman, who Jim sees as "a mindless and sordidly violent weightlifter" naturally reads "mindless and sordidly violent fiction", like 'Star Bashers of the Galaxy Strangers', a clear nod to his own 1973 science fiction comedy novel, 'Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers'.

More fun still are little touches that wouldn't mean anything to an audience contemporary to events in the novel but certainly mean something to us. The ringmaster at Bolshoi's Big Top, for instance, is a Harley Davidson. And Harrison introduces us to "the most concentrated and most powerful explosive known", a substance "completely sealed so it can't be detected". What is it? Playtexx. I can't pretend I didn't get a giggle out of that one.

The flipside of that is that many of the things that pervade each of the 'Stainless Steel Rat' books and this one in particular, aren't likely to be remotely viable in this far future either. Sure, some of that is because Harrison is poking fun at society the time he was writing in, but a lot of it is technological or cultural in nature and that dates the book substantially. For instance, there's a lot of focus in this one on computers and, while Harrison attempted to extrapolate their capacity and power into the future, he failed utterly. Similarly, the very concept of circuses is practically gone, just in a couple of decades, just as surely as the masculine beer and cigar attitude that was an easy target when Harrison wrote a novelette for 'Astounding' in 1957 but were already dated by the time he wrote this in 1999.

It could be argued that Slippery Jim could have been set in his ways, but he's a criminal of unparalleled talent and you don't get to stay one of those for five decades by being set in your ways. In fact, I recall lessons in the very first book where Jim explained that you can't repeat yourself ever. There's no real argument at all when it comes to the advancement of technology and the wider cultural shifts that we have seen since the previous millenium. Harrison simply got those wrong and those prophetical errors make this book seem a lot older than twenty-three years.

But hey, I'm getting overly analytical again. The bottom line is that this one's a fun entry in the series even if it isn't one of the best. It isn't one of the worst either and wrapping up the 'Stainless Steel Rat' saga with this one works OK. It simply could have worked better and that's probably why Harrison was unwilling to leave it that way. He eventually took advantage of that "The End?" loophole and brought out a final final book in the series, 'The Stainless Steel Rat Returns' much later, in 2010, a book that is now—and permanently will be, given that Harrison died in 2012—not merely the final 'Stainless Steel Rat' book but the final Harry Harrison book too.

And, even with so many technological and cultural gaffes, there's one thing that Harrison nailed, that there's always going to be someone railing against the authorities of his day, whether that be the tax authorities or the police or whatever fictional organisation an author can conjure up, and Slippery Jim diGriz is a timeless foil for all of them. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Harry Harrison click here

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