Thursday, February 6, 2014
The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat, by Harry Harrison
The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat contain the first three adventures of Slippery Jim DiGriz ever written, although they're not the first three temporally as a few prequels were written at a later date. However, I think it's an excellent position to start from and meet James for the first time. The first story, The Stainless Steel Rat, details how Jim came to be captured by the Special Corps and recruited as one of their agents, as well as his first big assignment and how he eventually met his wife. The second story, The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge introduced the Grey Men, a mysterious enemy that will come back again in The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! which I'll be talking about next week. The final story, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, sends Jim on an adventure across both time and space back to the mythical home planet of humanity in an attempt to save the Special Corps and everyone Jim has ever known from ceasing to exist. Overall they're pretty interesting adventures and it's fun to watch Jim tackle various challenges with his criminal's bag of tricks, but this does not mean the book is not without issues.
One of the biggest things that I noticed was that there was a lot of casual old-timey sexism sort of woven into the stories in this novel. I had to keep reminding myself that these stories had been written forty to fifty years ago so they're going to have very different viewpoints on gender, but it's still jarring to read them. For example, one of the female villain's main motivations for why she turns to crime is because she was born ugly so she committed crimes to get money for plastic surgery so she could become beautiful. Another example is a planet ruled by women where men are almost second-class citizens, being limited to certain job fields and not being able to vote until a much later age. I almost got the impression of the author standing to one side and saying, "See! See how exotic it is! The absurdity of it, I tell you!" Based on Harrison's other views I think he was trying to help support the feminist movement, but it still felt weird to me and hasn't aged as well. Ultimately I would not blame it on malice but rather the prevailing culture of the time period in which these novels were written.
Another issue was inconsistencies in the overall universe between books. For example, the first story casually mentions Earth and it's implied that the home planet of humanity is a matter of fact, however in the third novel the home planet is referred to as Dirt or something like that and only exists as part of the distant past that's only distantly remembered. I feel like this is more a result of the first couple of books being written roughly a decade apart, which gives the author plenty of time to have forgotten some of his lore already. Again, something that you just have to accept as part of the nature of the series.
For whatever reason I greatly enjoy the first two stories in this novel and think they're some pretty fun space adventures that fans of pulp sci-fi could greatly enjoy. I'm more frustrated with the third story because of time travel shenanigans more than anything else, I think, but otherwise it's fairly good. I definitely recommend it for fans of space opera who are looking for something different.