Having never read any of the Stainless Steel Rat stories by Harry Harrison, I was pleased when Tor decided to send me a copy of the newest tale of space adventurer Jim diGriz. Ten years in the making, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns carries a lot of “baggage” in that readers have certain expectations of this long running series, and new readers may have come to expect a certain type of sophistication from SF which is not readily apparent in this story. But, if a reader approaches the tale knowing that it is both homage, pastiche, and member of classic SF from the 50s and 60s, the reader can really come to enjoy the tale immensely.
For myself, I sat down to read the book at 7pm on a Tuesday, and finished it at 11pm that same night. Partly this is because I am a fast reader, but the truth is, Harrison’s novel is designed to be read quickly. The organization of the novel, though not delineated this way, can be broken up into four short stories with a meta-narrative tying them all together. Each of the four stories is set on a different planet, in which diGriz and crew get into various scrapes. Overlying all of this is the problem of diGriz’s country bumpkin family, which suddenly appears on his doorstep (the first scene of the novel) expecting diGriz to use his accumulated wealth from working for the Special Corps of the interplanetary government (and his life of crime) to help them resettle on a new planet, along with their large, dangerous, and ill-smelling porcuswine herd.
diGriz’s efforts to resettle his extended family provide humor and impetus for the Stainless Steel Rat to leave his life of luxury, along with his wife Angelina, and set off for the stars in a sabotaged rust bucket of a spaceship. diGriz careens from one problem to the next, solving them all with wit and audacity and a large dose of alcohol. It’s wonderfully entertaining. Short, clipped sentences, a focus on dialogue to the near exclusion of all else, and writing from the first person perspective of DiGriz, allows Harrison to revive the old sense of wonder and entrancement that populated the early days of SF. Like Poul Anderson or Andre Norton, these stories have a hefty focus on interplanetary exploration, on creating new worlds, and populating them with various manifestations of humanity for the purpose of wonder. Harrison also adds a nice dollop of satire to the mix to give the story its own flavor.
Readers who do not like classical SF, with its patina of hope and adventure, are not likely to like this tale. The plotline is simple in construction, wastes no time on character building, nor has any sort of operatic quality to it. Character building is kept at a minimum. Harrison prefers instead to relate a tale of action, usually precipitated by some impossible problem that only the genius of diGriz can solve. This novel reads like a short story from the glory days of pulp magazines, and unless a reader enjoys that style of narrative, then they are unlikely to like anything about this tale.
It is a tale of problems, their solutions, and the subsequent problem raised by that solution. The story cycles like this over and over, which some readers may find repetitious, even annoying. I did at first, never having read Harrison’s work before, and it took a little while to see what Harrison was doing in terms of writing style, but once I did, I was engrossed. If all Stainless Steel Rat stories are like this one, Harrison may have just found a new convert.
If readers enjoy Poul Anderson’s Nicholas Van Rijn or David Falkayn tales, Asimov’s Galactic Empire trilogy, Andre Norton’s The Sioux Spaceman, or the more recent The Sheriff of Yrnameer by Michael Rubens, then The Stainless Steel Rat Returns is going to be right up their alley. This is an adventure tale, pure and simple, not concerned with illuminating social ills (though it does a little) or hard science (though it has a little here too), but rather just relating the rollercoaster ride of a thrilling voyage, fraught with peril and improbable solutions. Highly recommended for fans of classic SF from the so called “Golden Age”, those looking for adventurous SF, or those that want more positive outlook in an era where darkly introspective SF seems to be the norm.