Years back, I got to sit and listen to Harry Harrison speak. He was on of my favorite authors while in my teens and twenties, and while I really liked listening to him, he seemed to be slipping into irrelevance. Even his speech was a little choppy, and while I was happy to see him, I was faintly disappointed.
Now I know why.
Since I’ve gotten involved with all the wonderful books available in Project Gutenberg, I’ve been downloading old copyright-free books to read. Spotted this one, The Misplaced Battleship, a while back and snapped it up. What a title! How could you misplace a battleship? I had to find out.
It’s one of my all-time favorite characters, Slippery Jim deGriz, a super criminal who was dragooned into a life of law enforcement (as opposed to death, as he mentions in casual passing). It turns out that a shipyard on an obscure planet is producing a large freighter. But our Stainless Steel Rat has realized that this is no ordinary freighter. Someone has based its designs on the old super battleship plans from the bad old days, a massive ship that could trash any modern space fleet if it gets rolling. And this someone has wormed the effort through channels, modifying this, changing that, until he is nearly ready to launch is a machine that could do a Bismark on the spacelanes. And it’s up to deGriz to stop him!
I really loved this short story. It reminded me why I liked Harrison before, his smooth writing, his witty observations, and his character who is so likeable that you just wish you could hang out with the guy, regardless of the peril he finds himself it. Hell, you wish you could be that clever. Because the Stainless Steel Rat is all these things and more.
And as I read this and rediscovered my passion for his stories from the 60s and 70s, I realized something. Harrison came along at just the right time to make this work. Stories were evolving past the spaceman stories of the thirties and forties, where the hero was a paper cutout (as I recounted in my review, HERE, of 1930’s pulp scifi). And later, in the 80s, we’d begin that drift towards “realistic” science fiction, where everything was carefully thought out, everything made total sense, and there were no boltholes for rats, stainless steel or otherwise, to hide in. And that’s really too bad – yes, the fiction of today is stunning, staggering, and astounding, but it generally isn’t lighthearted space opera that cracks a grin and tells a tale.
And I think that’s why the mid-twenties me had problems relating to the elder Harrison – I was moving into that future worldview of scifi and forgetting my origins. But leave it to Harrison, and deGriz, to bring a little bit of that home.
You can get it free, and HERE. Pull it down. It’s a fun and fast romp.