After seven 'Stainless Steel Rat' novels, which became 4 to 8 and 1 to 2 in the in-series chronology, the series took a brief jink sideways. The eighth story, which counts as 12 in the chronology, is just that: a short story, the only original one in a collection of Harry Harrison's shorter work, entitled 'Stainless Steel Visions'. That was published in 1993, six years after 'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted' and a year before this eighth novel, number 3 in the chronology, which is where I'm at in my runthrough of the Rat stories, so, having a beaten up ex-library copy on the shelf, I'll knock this one out first.
It's called 'The Golden Years of the Stainless Steel Rat', which is a misdirection, because Jim is not the "doomed nonagenarian reaching the end of his tether" that he appears to be as it begins. No, that's no spoiler, because we're frankly never going to believe that the Stainless Steel Rat is going to end up at the Terminal Penitentiary, known to most as Hell's Waiting Room, run by Warden Sukks. Of course, it's a scam and he's up to something and what that is would be the spoiler I'm not going to let slip, as this is a short story indeed, clocking in at a mere twenty pages. It's a fun piece and one that connects back to the other end of his career, but it's an inconsequential one.
And so to the next novel, which wraps up the prequel trilogy. It's clear from simple publication dates that Harrison wrote a standalone novel, expanded it into a trilogy a decade later, added a couple of further books for fun a little later again, shifted tack to write a prequel duology, which he expanded some years later into a trilogy, and then added three final books just because he could. I wonder if it was a case of alternately getting fed up of Slippery Jim DiGriz and then being inexorably drawn back to what had become his most famous and successful character.
I liked this one but I'm genetically disposed, I think, to like anything that features the Stainless Steel Rat. This benefits from telling a standalone story within the prequel trilogy, as there isn't any direct connection between the last one and this one, just the gradual progression of young Jim in his life of crime. While he does pretty well generally, he starts this one out by failing to rob the impenetrable Mint on the planet of Paskönjak and finds himself sentenced to imminent death. Naturally, that isn't the end, given that it's the beginning, but his rescuers have plans for him.
They're the Galactic League, who cut a canny deal with him, cementing it by injecting him with a 720-hour poison, guaranteeing that he'll behave and stay on mission because, if he doesn't, he'll be dead in 30 days. Only they have the antidote and they won't give it to him unless he completes the task he's given. And that's where the title comes in. It seems that an artifact has turned up that may count as the first evidence of alien life in 32,000 years. That's a big deal. But it's been stolen and is now on the planet Liokukae, a dumping ground for the scum of the galaxy, a sort of colonial Australia in space. It isn't remotely a place that the League can wander, without causing a war, so in goes Jim instead.
How does that connect to the title, you might ask. Well, beyond being a depressing challenge for our young antihero, his plan to locate and retrieve the potentially alien artifact, if that isn't a linguistic faux pas, is to form a band, inevitably called the Stainless Steel Rats, who will quickly take the galaxy by storm in whatever news is being picked up on Liokukae and then be exiled there for dealing drugs. That should make them the centre of attention and, with the rest of the band comprised of talented and experienced military operatives, it should also enable them to get the information they need to complete the mission.
And so it goes. Yes, this is as ludicrous as it appears, but even their most dedicated fan couldn't claim that the 'Stainless Steel Rat' books have been particularly grounded in reality. Jim is ordered on this wild mission by Admiral Benbow, the head of League Navy Security, surely named not for the actual Englishman who comported himself so notably in the Caribbean in the late seventeenth century but for the inn named for him that serves as the opening location in 'Treasure Island'. One musician who joins the Stainless Steel Rats, codenamed Floyd, performs on an "apparatus that looked like a large and bulging spider with many black legs" and sounds like "screams of mortally wounded animals". If you haven't figured it out yet, Floyd comes from a planet named Och'aye.
So, suspend your disbelief and dive into the fun that Jim has working his way through the subcultures that have grown up on a penal planet, and enjoy the wordplay. It's not just subcultural slang, though there's plenty of that, it's sometimes just Harrison figuring out how to sneak in a multisyllabic word that he digs. "Baksheesh" is a perfect fit for a Stainless Steel Rat book, but I particularly appreciated "seguidillad" and "antidipilatorisational". It's not often that you'll see a word of ten syllables used in a work of fiction, let alone appropriately, but Harrison nails that one.
The catch is that it isn't quite as much fun as it should be. I was eager to dive into this one, especially after the previous novel, 'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted' was another military affair. This one I thought, if not entirely fluffy, will be at least lighter-hearted; and, while it is, it keeps forgetting that and so getting serious for a moment. I'm certainly not against social commentary and science fictional idea exploration in a Rat novel but it shouldn't be the point and this one ends up, perhaps inevitably, with this location, rather short on the commission of wacky crimes that really drives the series. That's the opening chapters and Jim loses.
The other thing that kept bugging me is the McGuffin of the piece. We aren't supposed to care about the supposedly alien artifact that's lost on Liokukae, because everyone in the story cares about it for us, but we kind of do. What is it? Why is it the first evidence of alien life in 32,000 years when we know from earlier books (set later) that there are all sorts of weird and wonderful alien species out there. Jim gets to dress up as a particularly ugly example of such in 'The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You', as a fake ambassador to a collection of ugly species who banded together to remove the human race from the galaxy, given that we look as ugly to them as they do to us. Harrison will connect the dots, right? Wrong. It's just a McGuffin and a very odd choice of one to my way of thinking.
So, this was this and I enjoyed it but it's over and we'll move on, saying no more. Next up is the return to the original chronology, this delving into Jim's early life being complete, so book ten, which is 'The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell', or 9 in the chronology, follows my favourite of the entire series thus far, 'The Stainless Steel Rat for President'. That bodes well and I'll find out if it's good as I'm hoping in April. Watch this space! ~~ Hal C F Astell
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