A Cure For Stainless Steel Rat Withdrawal

Illustration for article titled A Cure For Stainless Steel Rat Withdrawal

Are you missing Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat novels? Me too. It turns out there's a placebo available, for your space-opera anti-hero needs. Philip Palmer's Debatable Space, which came out earlier this year, is a very Rat-like tale of a space pirate who kidnaps a princess.


In Debatable Space, the pirate Flanagan kidnaps Lena, who's supposedly the daughter of the Cheo, the dictator who rules over most of the inhabited worlds, except for the "debatable space" in the borderlands. We quickly learn that Lena isn't the Cheo's daughter, but his mom, who's lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. The story of Flanagan and Lena is interspersed with long stretches of Lena's diary, narrating her experiences from the early 21st century to today. We learn how she helped humans colonize the stars, and why she gave birth to a total monster.

Debatable is basically several cheese trays worth of cheese, and Lena's long diary excerpts get a bit tiresome. But it successfully duplicates the tongue-in-cheek tone of the Stainless Steel books, and Flanagan's pirate is pretty much exactly the charming no-good-nik you want to see in a book like this. He's a famous rock star who was like all of the members of Van Halen stuck together (but no Sammy Hagar) and then he gave it all up to plunder the universe. But then his home planet was wrecked in a comet strike that turned out not to be an accident, so it could be re-terraformed and turned into a leisure planet for the super-rich.

The segments where Flanagan outwits the bad guys, including the Cheo's army, are worth reading for the pure escapism. At one point, he unleashes a swarm of millions of nano-bots on the Cheo's fleet - but they're almost all fakes. The fleet figures this out and attacks, but then he unleaseashes a big device that spells out the words "ANTI-MATTER BOMB." The fleet thinks it's another fake - but it isn't. Later, trying to win over Lena to become his comrade instead of his prisoner, he arranges to have a fellow brigand named Black Jack fake a fight with him and his men, so Lena will leap to his aid. Unfortunately, Black Jack has a grudge due to a deal that went wrong, and smashes Flanagan's skull and spine for real.

So if there's a Rat-sized hole in your reading collection right now, you might want to check Palmer's book out. [Amazon]


There are very, very few books that I'm simply unable to finish reading, and this is one of them.

I'm not sure if it's just the storyline, or Palmer's writing style, but Debatable Space is fingernails over the chalkboard of my soul.