The Stainless Steel Rat

The Stainless Steel Rat from Harry Harrison in 1961 remains one the most essential and most exciting of all science fiction thrillers.  I think it’s because of the humour.  He has a way of telling it, which is so warm in the way in which you’re invited into the Rat’s world of superior thought, in which he loves more than anything else, to rob banks.  When The Rat is co-opted into working for Special Corps — something he does not relish — we enter and alternative criminal universe in which the former greatest crook in the Galaxy, Harold P. Inskipp (a.k.a. Inskipp the Uncatchable), runs the inter-galactic intelligence agency.

The Rat has great adventures.  It’s not enough for Harry Harrison that he commits a few chapters of space opera to paper. What he supplies is far greater in scope, in content and amusement factor.  In The Stainless Steel rat, the Rat himself comes close to death on several occasions, and he’s better at extricating himself from these fixes than is James Bond — seriously. 

After waking up in hospital, the Rat falsifies his records while the robots are not looking, marks himself as dead, allows his body to be wheeled to the morgue, where he robs the dead bodies around him and escapes.

Like all good thrillers, The Stainless Steel Rat also starts with a bang.  It’s tremendous, and Harrison flings readers into the action in the most casual and amusing manner, meaning that by the bottom of the first page, you’re wondering how on earth the Rat is going to live to the top of the second.  It’s an amazing performance, and although I’ve read widely in science fiction, I read Stainless Steel Rat books and always ask — why can’t more people write like this.  It may not be sophisticated, although it often is, and it may not be high on down-to-earth type of reality, but it’s always exciting, and imbued with a hacker ethic that I adore.

Yes, I stand by that.  It’s not just the ingenuity that Harry Harrison applies to the character of The Rat, but the fact that devices and bodily adjustments are up for grabs every minute as the next way forward.  The Rat simply has a different way of thinking — and in each book, is provided with a new nemesis to challenge him on that level.

The opening lines are tremendous:

When the office door opened suddenly I knew the game was up. It had been a money-maker—but it was all over.  As the cop walked in I sat back in the chair and put on a happy grin.  He had the same somber expression and heavy foot that they all have—and the same lack of humor.  I almost knew to the word what he was going to say before he uttered a syllable.

“James Bolivar diGriz I arrest you on the charge—“

I was waiting for the word charge, I thought it made a nice touch that way.  As he said it I pressed the button that set off the charge in the ceiling, the crossbeam buckled and the three-ton safe dropped through right on top of the cop’s head.  He squashed very nicely, thank you.

It is such a great opening and it actually carries on this way.  Light, funny, wicked but never cruel, Harry Harrison is in The Stainless Steel Rat is dedicated to your reading pleasure.  It’s actually something of a stitch-together as a novel, or at least in its final form it continues of two short stories which originally appeared in Analog.  

James diGriz is a most enlightened thief and conman who lives outside the rules of society, and who occasionally, and always reluctantly and in unorthodox manner, acts as an agent for the Special Corps.

Special Corps in The Stainless Steel rat, incidentally appear more competent than they do in certain other stories.  In fact, in The Stainless Steel Rat, they seem to be controlling events quite nicely, very like a present-day CIA with their fingers in all sorts of pies, and able to use people as puppets for their own projects and ends.

The future isn’t a surprising place in The Stainless Steel Rat, and in essence it looks and feels like present day America.  That’s because the same things populate the various landscapes, such as dumpsters, banks, vehicles, races, bars and everything else that might feature in any other vibrant American genre story.  Yet this is the far, far future and it’s supposed that genetic manipulation and have bred the malcontent or criminal gene out of people in general, and society is pretty sterile and homogenous.  Not too far a leap then, so it is easy for Harry Harrison to add a whole bunch of funny future contraptions and adaptations to the mix.  In fact everything that features in Stainless Steel Rat books is stuff that can be done nowadays — merely in Harrison’s future they do it better, faster and blander.

Slippery Jim is simply a loveable character, and this first person tour through this world in which he has decided to run as a criminal is so memorable.   If Harrison hadn’t nailed this voice it wouldn’t have worked but it does, so we have dramedy, action, tricks, spills and difficult corners from which to escape.

Here also we are fortunate to meet his love, another interesting criminal, albeit one with a resentful streak and a dark secret as to why she needs to steal so much money.  This is a world of criminal masterminds, and they are all psychologically interesting characters, as you'd expect in the world of The Stainless Steel Rat.