When you're a doyen of science fiction and created one of the genre's all-time heroes, eighty-six years old and splitting time between the US, Ireland and England you can afford to be a little cynical. It is so with Harry Harrison and the latest installment of the Stainless Steel Rat series, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns.
Slippery Jim DiGriz has retired and is living on a pleasure planet when the novel opens only to have his dream life shattered by the arrival of relatives who need financial help. DiGriz watches as his hard-stolen nestegg percolates into an abyss - or an enormous spaceship. It's not bad premise - but far from Harry Harrison's strongest - and has the strong ring of autobiographical content. The DiGriz family's adventures are then used to take aim at some of the US & Britain's exclusionist immigration policies.
Harrison's reputation as writing the Rat as the thinking man's space hero is well founded. As, apparently, are his liberal principles which, while laudable in their attempts often become a little obtrusive throughout the text. That this is his first novel in nearly a decade means the satire for which he earned his reputation isn't so much an undertone but coats thickly nearly every scenario. In several other of the series' books subtle sociopolitical commentary is identifiable and makes the reader smile but with this perhaps final chapter in the life of the Rat (whose age is indeterminate here) all that comes to mind is "Again, Harry"?
It's hardly the place of a younger man such as I to question vigorously a legend of the field. With his deserved reputation for being one of the pre-eminent satirists in the field for over fifty years, he deserves the benefit of any doubt - perhaps he feels the picture needs to be painted in such green-and-white terms (read the book and you'll get the green/white rather than black/white reference).
In many places Harrison appears to be writing on an subconscious autopilot system evolving over sixty-plus years. This is a shame considering his remarkable talent to quickly and easily describe fanciful plot points and makes the text sluggish. His ability created eminently readable, enjoyable and, though dealing often with darker topics, lightweight tales. It's not the case in this book and it's the only SSR novel I've had to push myself to finish. Maybe this is a result of the author's changing perspective as he (and the Rat) mature to an age with which I struggle to identify. Considering how much I respect his body of work and loved the prior Rat novels, I want this to be a failing of mine rather than of the author. As a pioneer of SF, I don't even want to consider it's a marker that Harrison's skill with the word has eroded.
The Stainless Steel Rat Returns could well be the coda to Harrison's work with his most famous creation. Like other science-fiction series (cf. the Star Wars saga, Tennant-era Who, The Next Generation movies), it could prove a marginally satisfying - if slightly disappointing - conclusion. Tennis balls.
Cover Image courtesy: thenonreview.com; of Harry Harrison courtesy: en.wikipedia.org