Sunday, March 03, 2013

Stainless Steel Reviews - Part One

Part One of our recent return journey through the biblioverse with a certain well-known intergalactic rodent. (Reproduced from Goodreads.)

A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born

I'm not generally a fan of prequels and I don't remember feeling any differently when I first read this the first time round. But this time I get to read it as though it was an actual beginning of a series and it'll be interesting to see if it holds up as such.

As an individual book, it's a cracking read as we're introduced to young Jim DiGriz and follow his exploits after a less than spectacular plan to get himself incarcerated in one of Bit O'Heaven's penal institutions in hopes of learning from master criminals. The twist being that if there are any master criminals to be found they are all on the outside. Seems a bit obvious when you think about it but Jim is meant to be a bit green around the gills. Indeed he varies between being smart as a whip and a bit slow, with wits as flexible as his fortunes it seems as we run from a brief stay in jail into a series of mishaps and lucky escapes, seasoned with a few ingenious and elaborate schemes.

But while it's a bit of a rambling affair, it's a brisk and entertaining romp. Ideally, I'd have liked more on the starting premise with Jim doing stir, but the book is not about to hang around for any length of time on one situation when it has so many to throw at you with each short chapter.

The planet and circumstances where Jim and master-criminal mentor The Bishop ultimately find themselves embroiled struck me as more likely fare for Jason DinAlt in Harrison's Deathworld series and an odd setting for a young Rat to cut his criminal teeth, but it does establish some precedent for Jim's later switch to life as a secret agent.

But there I'm getting ahead of myself and showing it's impossible to read this entirely free of 'foreknowledge'. All in all, a winning combination of light and smart and quick. It won't tax the brain, but Harrison's love for his most famous character shines through - and Jim DiGriz is very much opposed to taxes of any kind.

The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted

While in the previous prequel, the opening premise (young Jim DiGriz getting himself arrested as a means of enrolling in some hypothetical academy of crime) is just that – an opening, breezed through pretty quickly before moving on to other things – here our freshly graduated Stainless Steel Rat doesn’t get pressed into military service until page 60.

The book isn’t War & Peace, but with this slightly stretched route to the crux of the plot it begins to feel overlong for a Rat caper. That’s not to say the journey isn’t fun – the spirit and tone are there, but the first few chapters are more like a pleasant diversion before we get to the nitty gritty. Not that a Rat book is ever going to be gritty. From there on the story comes alive a bit more though and the author warms to his subject matter, ripping into the bureaucratic and blinkered mentality of the military machine.

And no sooner has Private Rat enlisted, he’s moving up the ranks in a nice twist on self-promotion. Then he’s Oscar Mike on an interplanetary invasion. And just as Harrison enjoys playing with the military, he rolls out another different society model (building the impression of a wonderfully colourful variety of worlds making up his League universe) and has fun with that, pitting the invading force against a thoroughly pacifistic and altogether genial populace who embrace a philosophy known as Individual Mutualism. I’m not sure how it would ever work in practice, but it’s a nice idea and incidentally strikes a nice satirical note against our current system of rampant-monetarism-gone-horribly-wrong.

The usual combination of ingenuity, incident and accident drive the plot forward and there’s no lack of momentum as you’d expect, with Jim occasionally dropping himself in the cagal with a rash and ill-considered move, reminding us that the young rodent is still a bit wet behind the ears. And you expect a generous helping of serendipity to bail him out from time to time, although it’s a tad disappointing here that the conclusion relies too heavily on one of these fortuitous rescues.

Taken together, it’s also something of a shame that both see Jim working for the League Navy as between the prequels and his actual debut it paints him as having spent way more time as an agent than as a crook.

All in all, perhaps not Grade A Stainless Steel, but good (and mostly clean) fun. And with names like Zennor and Praze-an-Beeble cropping up in a sci-fi book, you have to wonder if Harry Harrison holidayed in Cornwall around the time of writing. Which would explain some of the lazier aspects of the plot – I get that too from time to time.

The Stainless Steel Rat


James Bond in space.

The tagline could easily be as simple as that. The fact that this James is recruited from the criminal world is almost incidental, but it does throw an additional cherry bomb into the basic ‘martinis, girls and guns’ cocktail.

One thing you learn after reading three Rat books on the trot is that while the mazes they run in aren’t complex, they are pretty free-wheeling. Harrison drops his anti-hero into a given situation and sees where it takes us, tossing in extra ingredients and events along the way to keep the sauce bubbling.

So when Slippery Jim’s caught and recruited by the Special Corps, you’ve no idea where it’s all going to lead. Having previous notorious master crook, Harold Inskipp, as head of the Corps is inspired, painting the impression of a sort of MI6 staffed by a whole host of ne’erdowells. Of course, one slight wrinkle thrown up by the prequels is that none of Jim’s past service for the League is mentioned at all, but that’s just a problem with prequels and not a failing here.

One thing we do know is that Jim, for all his crooked ways, is no killer. And there’s a nice bit o’ character conflict as his first case pits him against a ruthless murderess, Angelina, who also happens to be a worthy intellectual rival – or better, since she’s steps ahead of him most of the time. That he falls for her is perhaps the only predictable element, but it would be churlish to dismiss any given Bond movie on the basis of knowing which women the Commander is going to end up in bed with.

Harrison does seem to love applying the retro touch to his sci fi worlds and the final action here takes place on a backward, feudal planet, just emergent after the galaxy-wide ‘Breakdown’ which is part of the make-up of the Steel Rat universe. But it’s fair enough, since they’re the sort of society that allows for internecine activities within the otherwise very orderly and controlled League.

Fast, fun, skims along like a powerboat with almost no depth, but you can readily see how the book – and the series that followed – made waves.

How this has not been made into a movie is beyond me.


(More Rat reviews in a couple of weeks!)

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