Thursday, February 27, 2014
The Stainless Steel Rat Returns, by Harry Harrison
The basic plot of The Stainless Steel Rat Returns is that an entire ship full of distant relations and their porcuswine from Bit 'o Heaven have interrupted Jim's retirement and have faced him with a rather expensive an smelly problem. This drags Jim and his wife out of their erstwhile retirement on a series of adventures through the galaxy, looking for a good spot to get rid of Jim's tenuously related relatives and their porcine herd.
While the premise is good and the book's cover promises plenty of satirical entertainment, I feel like the book doesn't really deliver on said promises. There's an attempt at satirical humor with a banker, but it's very clearly a bitter "take-that" at banks after the 2008 financial crisis and falls flat. The introduction of religious extremes on the adventure, always good targets for satire, also fails because it boils down to little more than, "Religion can be crazy stuff, am I right?" Which for most audiences who are going to be reading this book I think we're going to already be aware of that and looking for a little bit more. I almost want to say there's an attempt at racism as well but for the life of me I couldn't find anything remotely satirical about it and if anything it supported segregation rather than integration which is definitely a step backwards.
The other big thing I noticed about this book is that I seldom felt as if the characters were in control of the situation. Things just sort of happened to Jim and company and they coped as well as possible, but they were always reacting to events rather than actively trying to make things happen to their benefit. Which I felt was fundamentally against the heart of the Stainless Steel Rat series. Jim is always plotting and scheming and working on making the next move so he can put his foes off-edge and gain an advantage. Certainly they do things unexpected and Jim has to plan in response for that, but Jim is always seeking to gain the advantage and very frequently his plans come to fruition. In this book Jim's almost always reacting and adapting to changing circumstances. When he does actively plan and put his adversaries off edge, the result is always anti-climatic and kind of an, "Oh. Well that certainly wasn't worth the effort." At best Jim manages to affect a few minor changes but his ability as a person certainly is reduced.
The end result of this book is that the stakes are significantly lower than they have been in previous novels and so there isn't as much danger to his adventures. Worlds or universes aren't at stake, he's simply on an adventure trying to find a good place to dump a bunch of country bumpkins and their pigs. At best it's a Stainless Steel Rat adventure because it happens to have the same characters, not because it's got the same tone. I'd actually recommend avoiding this one if possible.