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The Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus by Harry Harrison

1/12/2010. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus in the USA - or Buy The Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus in the UK

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pub: Gollancz. 436 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP10.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-08171-0.

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This ‘Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus’ contains three ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ novels which I will review one by one.

'The Stainless Steel Rat' is the book that introduces the character. Plot: Slippery Jim diGriz is an anomaly in the peaceful, settled future ten thousand years from now because he is a criminal and robs banks. However, he is captured by the Special Corps, a sort of super-galactic police force headed by Harold Peters Inskipp, a former criminal himself. Jim is put to work in the filing department but discovers, by close analysis of documents therein, that someone is building a giant, deadly battleship. He is sent to track down the culprits and so encounters the lovely Angelina, a criminal probably more clever than himself and definitely more deadly: she kills! Like Butch and Sundance, like Hannibal Haze and Kid Curry, the Rat is a nice criminal who doesn't kill people but robs banks, which has never been all that unpopular with the general public unless they get hurt and would probably be seen as downright virtuous today.

The second book in the series, 'The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge' is probably even better. After a holiday crime spree with his now girlfriend, Angelina, Slippery Jim gives himself up to Inskipp and returns to his duties with the Special Corps. He is assigned to Cliaand, a militaristic world that has conquered the other two planets in its own star system and is now branching out to interstellar war which is theoretically impossible in this scenario due to the immense costs and logistical impossibility of it. But Cliaand has done it and Stainless is sent to find out how and stop them if possible. There are the usual capers with explosions, alarms, gas bombs and chases galore which are superbly handled and great fun. As before, the comedic first person narration is the main attraction but the serious central point, that militaristic regimes are bad, is also conveyed. Harrison's anti-militarism found an earlier outlet in 'Bill The Galactic Hero'. The original book was a wicked spoof of Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers' and he turned it into a another series later.

The ending of the third book Rat book owes something to Heinlein, too. In 'The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World', Slippery Jim is sent back to the 20th century when people around him start disappearing, vanished from history because someone has changed the past. That someone is He, a mad genius with a formidable physical presence, too, due to surgery and various implants. The debt to RAH comes at the end in a 'By His Bootstraps' sort of trick whereby Jim is saved from peril by equipment sent back from the future then goes back to the future and sends the equipment back to save himself. ‘Doctor Who’ did the same thing at the end of the last series and I didn't like it then neither. I have to say also that Heinlein's story is more complicated and manages to make the practice seem almost reasonable but it has turned into an all-purpose SF get out of jail free card. Apart from this flaw, the third book is as enjoyable as the other two. Putting a future hero in your own time is great fun and obviously makes the book easier to write. You don't have to work so hard describing the world and his reactions to it make for good comedy.

I especially enjoyed his run-in with a gang of bikers. At another point in the story, diGriz, takes a super-stimulant drug which boosts strength, deadens pain speeds up his reflexes so that everyone around him seems to be in slow motion. This reminded me of the excellent ‘Ryder Hook’ books written by the prolific Kenneth Bulmer under the pseudonym Tully Zetford. They actually came out a couple of years after this Rat book but the principle of good, clean unpretentious SF adventure applied to both.

Having recently reviewed the ‘2000AD’ adaptation of some ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ books I was familiar with the plot and thought reading this might be a bit of a chore. I was pleasantly surprised because there is more characterisation in Harrison's original book than I remembered and the first person narration has lost none of its charm. Indeed, the narrator’s 'voice' and light touch is the books strongest feature. If you last read it when you were a spotty teenager, you remember the action and comedy. It is a fast-paced comic action story but there is a bit of depth, too. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eamonn Murphy

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