I'm still at a complete loss to explain who or what Slippery Jim di Griz is getting revenge on in this first of many sequels to Harry Harrison's 'The Stainless Steel Rat' but it's a fun read anyway, if not as good as the first in my opinion.
Its biggest problem may be its approach, because it sets us up with a fascinating hook: that no planet has ever been able to successfully wage interstellar war until now, when Cliaand seems to be doing a bang up job of it. The sheer logistics of such an enterprise make it supposedly impossible, but they're making it work and the Special Corps sends in the Stainless Steel Rat to figure out how. If that makes you think of the old Douglas Adams line about "a million sleek and horribly beweaponed star cruisers poised to unleash electric death", you'll be sadly mistaken.
The first half of this book involves a freshly married Slippery Jim travelling to Cliaand, under the guise of an ammunition dealer; getting away from the spies who monitor his every move; finding some way to survive in an alien city on an alien planet; and eventually taking on the persona of a local officer in the Cliaand armed forces. In a way, the first half of this book is the prologue, instead of the brief one we get in which Angelina finally gets him up the aisle. And it's a good prologue, if you're a fan of the Stainless Steel Rat, just not one featuring anything remotely sleek or horribly beweaponed.
In fact, Cliaand is almost the opposite of sleek and horribly beweaponed. Everything's grey, including the people, who live boring lives unless they're in the military, in which case they live boring drunken lives. There's a grim, totalitarian sort of feel to the place that's reminiscent of the Soviet Union, the appropriate enemy to an American author writing during the Cold War; this was originally released in 1971, when Leonid Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the Communist Party, a leader known today for such wild and wonderful achievements as stabilising the Soviet Union's nuclear parity with the US and overseeing general societal stagnation. Yeah, grey makes sense.
Of course, Jim di Griz is the antithesis of grey and boring, so we have quite the time watching him get up to all sorts of antics to subvert and infiltrate this grey and boring society. Harrison staged Slippery Jim as an antihero from moment one, someone who commits crimes in a crimeless world as a kind of public service, restoring a sense of adventure to whichever planet he happens to be on at any point in time, giving the bored police forces something to do and brightening up the lives of the locals. He has a moral code that primarily involves not killing anyone, but otherwise justifies every single misdeed as not really hurting anyone. And, goddamit, it's hard not to go along with him.
Part of this is due to Harrison's breezy prose, which is conversational but literate. It's easy to imagine that he was leaning over his typewriter with a twinkle in his eye. It helps that everything is told from a single perspective, that of our slippery but endearing lead, and, brief prologue aside, he remains the only series regular for half the book. It's one Stainless Steel Rat vs. the entire planet of Cliaand and, if we weren't already on his side before we opened the book, the underdog rule would place us firmly in his camp anyway.
This all changes halfway, because all Jim's cunning preparations and careful manouevering get him to the point where he's part of the next Cliaand attempt to take over another planet. This is good (for us if not for their new target, a holiday world named Burada), for a number of reasons.
One is that we start to get some answers to the questions clearly posed in the back cover blurb. How are these grey men managing to do what nobody has ever successfully done before and that everyone believes, with some confidence, to be impossible? Of course, I won't let you in on that secret, because you should read it yourself, but the explanation given is a neat one.
Another is that we get off the grey and boring world of Cliaand. Beyond being a holiday world, Burada has, until recently, been run by women, who are far more capable than the men, and, quite frankly, all the women of Burada whom we meet are far more interesting than anyone we met on Cliaand. It's as if Harrison aimed for this novel to play out like the 1939 version of 'The Wizard of Oz', where nineteen minutes of sepia suddeny change into TechniColor when Dorothy opens her front door in Oz. The book comes similarly alive on Burada.
A third is that one of the women on Burada ready to lend her hand to resisting the Cliaand invasion is none other than the newly married Angelina di Griz, who's given birth to twins, James and Bolivar, off screen and returned to the story to do what she does best, namely to be ruthless, dangerous and very uncaring of social expectations of the day. She's even more welcome at this point than Taze and Fayda Firtina and the rest.
I have to address the way Harrison handles women here, because it's important. I didn't find the first book sexist or misogynistic, as some have, except for the reason why Angelina went bad, which was as problematic as could be. I don't know if Harrison got feedback in 1961, but he seems to relish a chance here to continue to play with gender roles. He'd already had a woman as his boss villain in book one. I liked the reversal of traditional roles on Burada here, which goes all the way to this telling line from a male character: "I'm going home. I was never cut out for the police, it was all my mother's idea, she wanted me to be like a daughter to her and made a tomgirl out of me. When all I ever wanted to be was a simple househusband like my father..."
However, Jim's flippancy when it comes to women is a little overdone. He may call the Buradan ladies "murderous cuties", but they aren't in chain mail bikinis. This is less sexist than Euro beach volleyball tournaments. Sure, Angelina does end up in a bikini at one point, one with fabric as skimpy as a wing from a butterfly, but Jim's in swimming trunks then, so it's evened out. However, all Harrison's effort to give women prominent roles and substantial roles and a dominant place in society are countered by Jim's attitudes:
"You're my husband, not my owner - remember? I'm as good at this business as you are, maybe better, and there is a job that needs doing. Let's have none of your male superiority and possessiveness."
She was right of course, but I couldn't let her know it.
"I was only worried about your safety.'
She melted at this, even the smartest woman is a sucker for the loving attention, and rubbed against me. I felt like the heel I was.
Character flaws asideand Jim is a classic narcissist too, albeit with some validation, so Harrison isn't trying to paint him as a virtuous soul to mirror ourselves afterthis is a lot of fun and it sets the stage well for what I remember being my favourite Jim di Griz novel back in the day, The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, released only a couple of years after this one, as if Harrison had finally tumbled onto the fact that he had a character on his hands worthy of further exploration and so promptly turned a standalone novel into a trilogy. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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