Book three in Harry Harrison's 'Stainless Steel Rat' series was this book, published two years after its predecessor, 'The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge' and I remembered it as my favourite. It turns out not to be my favourite, as I think I'd confused it with 'The Stainless Steel Rat for President'; but I enjoyed it a great deal, at least until the finalé, which features the most blatant deus ex machina I think I've ever seen in print. Being humorous science fiction, of course, Harrison is more than aware of what he did and, in some ways, that finalé is the book in microcosm, all wrapped up in a time travel paradox.
For a while, this resembles the movie 'Trancers', although it predates it. Everyone at Special Corps is vanishing, including Slippery Jim DiGriz's boss, Inskipp, and wife, Angelina. And I mean vanishing into nothing, as if they never existed. Before long, all that's left is a time bubble set up by the gloriously named Prof. Coypu, and even that's threatened. So Jim is tasked with saving them all, by being sent back in time to stop whoever is messing with time before he does so, thus bringing everyone back.
And, almost inevitably, that means right here and right now. Well, given that the series is generally set 32,000 years and change into the future, that means a huge leap backwards not merely in time to our 1975, three years away from early readers, but in faith too because, to Slippery Jim's world, Earth is the semi-mythical home of mankind that has long since been blown up in an atomic war. That Jim's arrival is spot-on-the-money tells us how capable Prof. Coypu is, even if he's named for a giant rodent.
Now, I should make an observation here. For a novel published in 1972, this is rather prescient in its environmentalism. Jim, for instance, is taken aback by a jet aircraft, not for its primitive technology to his way of thinking but because of its fuel source. "Though the smell of this fuel was everywhere, and familiar," Jim suggests, "I could not bring myself to believe that they were burning irreplaceable hydrocarbons." However, he's only just left Prof. Coypu's time bubble, where they were printing out data on accordion style paper, so Harrison didn't foresee the future consistently.
The best thing about this book is the fun that the author has giving Jim culture shock. Even a couple of books into the series, we're used to him knowing all the tech, whatever planet he happens to be on, so that he can leap in and perform his dastardly but non-lethal deeds. Here, he has to wonder about how we miniaturised horses to place inside the internal combustion engine on a car. He accidentally shoots a gun because he doesn't know how it works and hilariously steals a police car that he has no idea how to drive, with destructive effect.
I enjoyed the language Harrison uses to illustrate this culture shock. Jim is confused, for instance, by the commercials that play during the movies he's watching on television in an attempt to learn some passable English, but he describes them as "brief playlets and illustrated lectures about the purchase of various consumer goods". But hey, at least he gets along swimmingly with the local distilled organ destroyer.
I also enjoyed the fact that this isn't about a single time jump. The enemy is cunning, even if he goes simply by "He", perhaps a riff on H. Rider Haggard's She (who must be obeyed), and He gets away. So, having a copy of Prof. Coypu in a form that can be uploaded to his own brain, Jim hands over the reins to the future scientist, once he's done all that he can do in 1975 New York, so he can build a new time machine from available materials that will enable him to follow He. To England under the control of Napeolon. Guess who He is there? You won't need a second attempt.
And so on. We don't jump around a lot but we do jump around and the progression is made to make sense to outside eyes in appropriately paradoxical terms. Then again it has to, because one of the key elements in the formula Harrison used for these 'Stainless Steel Rat' books is to have Jim triumph in everything over everybody; eventually at least, except for one instance where he has to be saved by his formerly psychotic better half, Angelina. Given that she blips out of existence seven pages in, the mechanism by which she saves her husband has to be carefully orchestrated.
While this didn't turn out to be the book I remembered as my favourite entry in the series, I liked this a lot more than its predecessor. Even though Jim is seriously up against it and he's inherently on his own for the majority of it, it never feels constrained. He has a blast in 1975 and we have a blast as he does so. New York is not the grey, mechanised setting that the warlike planet that Cliaand was in the prior book, and that did take some zip out of that one. Napoleonic England is even more vibrant and colourful and that's not the last place we end up either.
In other words, it's all fun and that's what this series should be above everything else. I'm sure you'll be able to poke holes in the time travel logic, whatever your grounding in temporal physics, so I would recommend not bothering. Like so many other time travel stories, this contorts itself every which way to get where it needs to go and that's all we need to care about. And that's a great moment for me to wrap up with what is easily the best sequence in the entire novel:
"Since I would return to the same time in time whatever time I left the present time, I took my time with the arrangements. But eventually, I ran out of excuses. The time had come."
Next up, 'The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You', which was published six years after this one, so meaning that readers of the time would have seen this as the conclusion to a trilogy. Book four challenged that assumption neatly and, if anyone had any doubts about this being an ongoing series, Harrison scotched those by releasing a fifth book in 1982 and a sixth in 1985, though that's chronologically the first entry in the series, with the original trilogy becoming four, five and six respectively. So next up for me is the fourth book that became the seventh. That seems acutely appropriate for a book that has such glee in its time travel shenanigans. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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