Review of “The Stainless Steel Rat” by Harry Harrison

Okay, well, this was, a read. It is hard for me to say too much about this one. The novel sets us all up nice and neat. We have a well laid plan going sour, stealing government supplies right from their warehouse at a continuous rate was comical enough, and we have the plan’s exit being executed perfectly. This is our introduction into what, or whom, a stainless steel rat is. Then our rat sets off on another plan, one that goes off nearly perfectly until he, his name his Slippery Jim by the way, gets corralled into a meeting of sorts. To put it bluntly the story starts off interesting enough. It has all the satisfying bones of a beautiful plan that the reader doesn’t get to see the full scope of until they all fall into play. Like any good heist story really, but then the novel turns and puts a sour taste in my mouth, real sour.

Deus ex machina is a very interesting term, I bet you can see where I am going with this one, especially if you were able to dig up a copy of this book, but bare with me for a moment here. Deus ex machina loosely translates from Latin into “god from the machine,” essentially it was a term used to describe the moment when a playwright would have a god brought down (or in many cases up) from the heavens and onto the stage to solve whatever problem was at hand. Of course, unless gods happen to be a part of the yarn being spun, this will instead take the form of something fantastically unlikely happening that seems to solve all of the problems (i.e. plot holes) that have been put in place. Instead of bringing a god onto the stage the author is the one playing god.

Slippery Jim slips into the paws of the Inskipp from the Special Corps. After only a short period of being the Corps filing boy, DiGriz discovers a file that leads him to a gigantic war-ship being secretly constructed near some back water planet. Of course this went unnoticed by everybody else, including the royal nobody who signed all of the paperwork and every worker who had taken part in this massive project. Jim arrives, and wouldn’t you know it, the ship takes off before he even catches sight of it, but only just before, of course. Once again nobody really knew that it was gone until Jim discovered it. Then after being ordered not to track down his suspect, who, to his surprise is a woman, more on that later, he goes after her. He uses terribly simple logic to find her and still manages to be the only one on her trail. He even happens to find her in pretty much the first place he looks, and when he losses her again she turns up, again, in the first place he looks. Each time he uses vague logic that almost creates an uncomfortable experience for the reader. Who am I kidding, it was uncomfortable. I could go on, but let’s back up first.

I know I haven’t yet laid any quotes before you, and that’s not to say the book isn’t quotable, heck at times it is downright snappy, like something right off of noir celluloid, it’s just that the snippets of writing contained within don’t save it much, at least for me. I know I never really set out to review books, more to see what could be learned from them, but in this case the learning is in what not to do, and the not to do takes place over large plot points that don’t really stand up to quotation. That being said, here is a quote for you, “Women! They insist on mixing everything up together. Perhaps they operate better that way, but it is very hard on those of us who find that keeping emotion and logic separate produces sounder thinking.” Stew on that for a minute.

I know this book was written in 1961, and, as with many older books, you have to take age into consideration when looking at issues such as gender equality, and I will hand it to him, he did make the primary antagonist a woman who was smart as a whip, but she was also damaged, and used her attractive qualities as a manipulative tool in all of her plans. By the end Harrison has lost pretty much all of the ground he had gained. It just struck me as a missed opportunity to take a stab at a gender equal future, or at least a botched one. Science Fiction tends to be a progressive genre, but none of that is found here.

Don’t get me wrong, an author should be able to write whatever he or she wants to write and let the chips fall where they may. Some may say that this novel is comic science fiction or even young adult science fiction, and that it should be taken much more lightly. To that I say, shouldn’t we at least ask for more? There are novels of every shade, from humor to hard, Adams to Clarke, but I find this one skirting an uncomfortable line. Adams certainly utilized the deus ex machina, and he used it far more than Harrison did here, but that was the nature of the story he was trying to write, all of the solutions had to come out of left field. He was blindsiding the reader with creative force on a constant basis. The nature of “Stainless Steel Rat” though, is one of grit. It’s a futuristic con-man taking his shot at life, and the platforms that raise the gods from the depths of the stage are unnecessary and only serve to strangle the fiction. If you enjoyed the novel, then don’t let me rain on your parade, there are plenty more novels out there in this series, keep reading, but as for me I’m signing off from the rats of steel.

Next up I will be reading “Neuromancer,” by William Gibson. Another classic, and something that has a driving force that has yet to be looked at in any of these reviews. My heart is already pounding in anticipation.

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