Saturday, March 23, 2013

Stainless Steel Reviews - Part Two

The much-anticipated sequel to Part One of our journey through the biblioverse with a certain well-known intergalactic rodent. (Reproduced from Goodreads.)

The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge


Harry Harrison, 'the Monty Python of the spaceways' declares the Daily Telegraph on the back cover of this Stainless Steel Rat sequel. Well, that's somewhat wide of the mark, but they are ripping yarns.

This one's a particularly strong episode in the series, I think, with our hero pitted against a genuinely formidable and sinister foe. And I don't mean his new wife, Angelina.

Harrison walks a fine tightrope, managing to grant Jim wedded bliss while avoiding fully domesticating his Rat. In a similar way, he has his cake and eats it with Angelina's rehabilitation - she's no longer a murderess, but somehow retains much of her murderous edge. They make a good team, enjoying a crime-spree honeymoon at the outset, but luckily Jim DiGriz still gets to operate as a lone agent as he's sent after some militaristic powermongers who are conquering planet after planet against the odds.

The action zips along as niftily as ever and this time the seasoning has a little bit of grit to it, with some interesting reflection on how mortality and the absence of an afterlife affects Jim's morality, as well as the general impossibility of interplanetary conquest. (Not something the likes of Independence Day would ever pause to consider, but it is right at the core of the central mystery here - although once again it throws up continuity questions from the prequels, but - again - not this book's fault.) As DiGriz comes face to face with the real enemy, the 'Gray Men' who are using another planet's invasion force as their puppets, there's also a surprisingly brutal moment that almost seems to belong in a much darker thriller.

But it wakes us up to the seriousness of the threat and ramps up the stakes very effectively.

It's let down a little at the end, with everything a touch too easily resolved by a gadget and there's an odd hokey-cokey segment in the middle where Jim breaks into a military base, breaks back out the same day only to then break back in almost immediately. And, of course, when Angelina does turn up on the scene, Jim has someone who can conveniently bail him out when all other plans fail.

But never mind. It's the usual entertaining mix with a sprinkling of some actual bona fide thought-provoking ideas and that chilling slap in the face that confirms the Gray Men as more than your average menace. And their origins are left intriguingly unrevealed, so the story ends with the promise for their possible return.

Whether they do or don't, all in all it's a cracking sequel, with every indication that Slippery Jim has the potential to run and run.

The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World

By this stage in our journey, we should have a clear understanding that the Stainless Steel Rat is actually a little on the fluffy side, with only the rare and occasional glint of a harder edge cutting in here and there. This, adverstised with the words TIME-JUMPING RAT emblazoned on the back cover, is perhaps like the giant rat in Doctor Who’s Talons Of Weng-Chiang: a touch too cute for its own good.

Weighing in at what feels like the length of a Target Doctor Who novelisation, it’s as fast and light as a MacDonald’s salad – which is, I understand, the bit that a lot of people remove from the burger before consuming. As a read, it’s better than that makes it sound, being seasoned with goodness and Harrison’s customary ability to entertain but it misses a trick or two along the way and uses one familiar trick once too often.

The latter amounts to having Mrs Rat, Angelina, show up out of the space-time blue and rescue our hero when all seems lost. Has to be done, since the author left Jim no way out, but it strikes as particularly weak and unfortunate here. Maybe though that’s only because by this point in the story I wasn’t feeling engaged by the usual twists and turns and instead it’s just been a simple game of temporal hopscotch.

Harrison has great fun with the Stainless Steel Rat encountering the world of the good old US of A, circa 1975, and then with a Napoleonic French-occupied England and it’s all wittily and breezily delivered, but it’s all just a circular chase, with the ending much the same in each time zone. A promising mystery surrounding the deranged enemy known only as He is scuppered by the reveal that it’s all part of a closed temporal loop, similarish to what we were served up in Technicolor Time Machine but somehow less satisfying.

It’s the sort of thing that’s been done many times before (and after), possibly too many, and Back To The Future, Bill & Ted and Craig P Kelly’s Time Gentlemen have all done it better.

Not a waste of time and, as I say, generally entertaining, but feels more like an intermission in the series. So the next time I read about a time-jumping rat, let it be Rizzo as a companion to Gonzo in Muppets Doctor Who.


No comments: