The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You!, by Harry Harrison
This is the fourth of Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat novels and the first one I read, remaining my favorite of the series. After Harrison's passing, last week I dove back into my stack of books and brought this one out. I haven't read it in decades. It holds up surprisingly well. The story appears at first glance to be a romp. The plot kicks off with a bang and never flags, zipping along nicely. You get a sense of Harrison's skewed take on things with the opening paragraph: "Blodget is a peaceful planet. The sun shines orangely, gentle breezes cool the brow, while the silent air is disturbed only slightly by the distant rumble of the rockets from the spaceport."
The story opens with Angelina, the wife of Jim DiGriz, taken by the internal revenue for tax evasion. Needing help, Jim springs his two sons from the boarding school/penitentiary where they (ahem) study and together they rescue their mother in high style, deleting their tax records along the way. Afterward, Jim investigates the mysterious disappearance of a satellite base full of League admirals attending a conference. Using the Time Helix featured in earlier novels, he observes a gigantic alien warship swallow the base, the start of an alien invasion.
Sent to investigate further, Jim and his son watch in horror as their ship gets swallowed by an alien patrol ship, taking Angelia and the other brother with it. Jim swears he would find his wife. Disguising himself as an alien monster, he hilariously infiltrates the alien high command (his disguise turns out to be too good: all the other monsters take him for a female beauty and practically drool over him). He manages to find Angelina, who escaped and joined forces with other humans hiding out in air ducts and walls of the command ship, the missing admiral, and the villains responsible for the alien invasion. Jim sets out to follow the mysterious Gray Men as he calls him, only to be captured and brought to their home planet of Kekkonshiki. After various escapes, captures, escapes, and finding an unlikely ally, he alerts the League to what they Gray Men are doing.
But first they have to deal with the alien invasion. The unprepared League face defeat on all fronts. However, Jim's solutions run afoul of the ultra-secret Morality Police and Time Police, leaving them with few options. When Angelina comes up with a brilliant solution, Jim uses his wits and a little logic to turn the Moral Code of Kekkonshiki against the Gray Men and convince them to help. In the final pages, Jim and family rocket off with a ship of treasure looted from the aliens.
In all, great fun. The story has the sort of loose epic sprawl I associate with the old pulp novels from the 1930's. The sort of novel seldom seen and seldom written these days; too old-fashioned, I suppose. Jim cracks jokes, some of the riotously corny, as he goes from one predicament to the next. All the while outwitting his opponents, trying very hard never to take a life. He may be a crook, but he does have his own code, however, odd it might be. The novel never loses its comedic edge, quite an achievement given how intense is Jim's efforts to flee through the snow-bound summer landscape of Kekkonshiki. One thing I didn't like was that Angelina doesn't have a much a role as in other books in the series, though she does have some excellent scenes and is the one who figures out the cryptic clue left behind by the Time Police.
Looking a bit deeper, beyond the high-jinks and satire, some serious social commentary lies buried underneath it all. The Gray Men and their world would make the heart of any fascist go pitter-patter in admiration. Dedicated utterly and completely to survival, they gave up everything that made them human, becoming emotionless machines not adverse to mind control and behavior modification to impose a strict Moral Code that leaves no room for individualism, emotion, or creativity. The result is a thoroughly top-down controlled, rigidly conservative, and highly unimaginative society where original thinking is condemned. How the Kekkonshiki men treat the women enrages even Jim, who is an avowed chauvinist. It is a nice moment to see him for once abandon his smirking attitude toward women and display some genuine chivalry. The scenes on the planet of the Gray Men illustrate how deadening such a society could be and Jim makes it his mission to change that.
While not entirely the best of the Stainless Steel Rat series, it is still a great entry and highly entertaining. I recommend it highly, though for a new reader it might be best to read the books in order. Meeting the Gray Men in earlier books would help because there are numerous references to Jim's earlier encounters with them.