A Series Ian Likes: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

James Bolivar diGriz is a crook. But he’s really much more than that: he’s a gift to the bureaucracy that plagues his hi-tech society. His actions, he maintains, keep the inept forces of law and a sluggish economy active. He provides entertainment for people jaded by boring news stories. He… well, he’s good at what he does, and he likes doing it, keeping his nose one sniff ahead of the authorities. It’s only natural that when they eventually catch up to him, they make him one of their own…

Harry Harrison (1925-2012) was an award-winning novelist, short story writer and editor. He wrote a lot of modern-day classics, from the iconoclastic Bill, The Galactic Hero to Make Room! Make Room! (more famously filmed as Soylent Green). But his most famous creation is “Slippery” Jim diGriz aka The Stainless Steel Rat. The Rat made his first appearance in 1957 and his last in 2010 so let’s look at them, starting with The Stainless Steel Rat (1961).

The first seven chapters of this first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction (now Analog) as two separate stories (“The Stainless Steel Rat” (1957) and “The Missing Battleship” (1960)). These were then expanded into a novel-length adventure. In it, we meet Slippery Jim (as he likes to refer to himself), hear him expound on his philosophy of individualism versus society, and see his techniques in action as he gets recruited as an agent for The Special Corps, an ultra-secret organisation made up almost entirely of reformed criminals headed by the legendary Harold Inskipp. With their resources at his back (sort of), Jim chases down a psychotic murderer whom he captures and, in the first chapters of the sequel, marries. Harrison has a capable, breezy prose which tells a story quickly. The 150-something pages of my copy literally fly by, with a range of vivid and colourful settings. The plot is fast and exciting, but it is the Rat himself who really captivates.

Because Slippery Jim is a professional. These books were written at the height of “competency porn” (stories in which the protagonists were ridiculously capable of nearly everything they set their hands to: for a modern example, read Andy Weir’s The Martian). The Rat knows his equipment inside out, he plans and rehearses his capers meticulously, and he always has a back-up plan. Because he needs to: if captured, he faces a makeover with the more undesirable elements of his personality smoothed out so that he can be a functioning and contributing member of society. Jim uses the metaphor of society being an old house with criminals being the rats that live behind the walls, hiding from the people who think they own the place. Of course, in an advanced society, the rats need to be smarter and stronger to survive… However, things don’t always go according to plan for Jim and a lot of the comedy comes from his beautifully-crafted plans going pear-shaped and watching him improvise and snatch whatever crumbs of victory he can from the jaws of defeat.

Harrison blends genres effortlessly. He mixes up caper novels with espionage and military thrillers while firmly fixing everything to a comedic baroque/ golden age SF background not dissimilar to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. He described the books as being in the mould of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner Of Zenda and, in particular, its sequel Rupert Of Hentzau and – in this book especially – I can see why he does.

Of course, it was popular and people were hungry for a sequel. Which came in 1970 in the form of The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge. This starts a year or so after the first book and begins with Jim robbing a bank. He exits successfully, with Angelina (the psychotic villain of the previous novel) acting as his getaway driver. With the proceeds of their crimes, he makes an honest woman of her and they proceed to their honeymoon, which is interrupted by a visit from Inskipp, who wants Jim to thwart the plans of a world that is invading other planets.

Jim is sent in on his own with no resources or back up and, of course, manages to succeed. It’s a brilliant story and one of my favourites in the series: Jim’s efforts at infiltrating a planet-wide military dictatorship and then escaping from it into a high-security army base and thence to their invasion force is a tour-de-force in taking the reader’s breath away.

It’s a tough act to follow but The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972) manages it. Set just a few months after …Revenge, Jim is receiving a dressing-down from Inskipp when the entire Special Corps base begins to disappear, victims of a temporal attack from the distant past. Jim is one of the last to go and the Corps’ top scientists manage to send him back in time to the source of the attack: a small, primitive planet named Earth…

This was the first one of Jim’s adventures that I read and I still love it. The complexity of its plot (it eats “timey-wimey” for breakfast) as well as the sheer lightning velocity of its story means that you hardly have a moment to catch your breath before faced with the next impossible twist. It didn’t hurt that Harrison had practiced something similar in his 1967 novel The Technicolor Time Machine, which offers a similar circular plot, though one that is even funnier.

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You (1978) was the fourth volume and the Rat has taken a bit of a break: it was six years for his fans but about fifteen for the man himself. But it’s all for the best because he is joined on this mission – thwarting an alien invasion – by Angelina and their twin sons, James and Bolivar, who are every bit as capable and brave as himself. The change in perspective – as Jim is required to keep an eye on people other than himself – offers some avenues for tension and humour as Jim realises that he isn’t getting any younger

The fifth novel, The Stainless Steel Rat For President (1982) sees the Rat and family take on the corrupt president-for-life of a tourism planet. This was obviously influenced by the prominence of several Central and South American dictatorships during the 1970s and early 80s but manages to be applicable to any number of situations. It’s another gripping yarn but retreads a few familiar situations from the previous book as Jim’s family are imperilled and become another thing for him to worry about despite them being every bit as competent as himself. The story also feels a little laboured in parts and, for the first time in the series, the humour seems a little forced.

Possibly because of the lack of freedom given to a Rat with a family in tow, Harrison returned to his roots (sort of) with the next entry in the series. A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born (1985) goes back to a young Jim on the cusp of adulthood, realising that his talents are wasted on the pastoral world he lives on and learning to become the master criminal we know and love. It’s a fresh take on the character and one that could have been brilliantly realised but it doesn’t quite get there. Young Jim (or Jimmy as he is constantly referred to) is an engaging character but he doesn’t really feel like a younger version of Slippery Jim; more like the memories of youth being retold through a looking glass of many years hence. The plot is terrific, though: Jim realises that he needs a mentor and gets himself thrown into prison to meet the sort of people he wants to learn from. However, he quickly realises that his fellow inmates are pretty shabby at what they do so he promptly breaks out and locates a retired career criminal known as The Bishop (which has to be a nod to Leslie Charteris’ The Saint, a series that Harrison ghost-wrote a novel for), to teach him everything he wants to know. Chaos ensues, but Jim is launched into his future.

The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) takes place almost immediately afterwards. While searching for revenge against a starship captain who betrayed him, Jimmy finds himself drafted into an invasion force. Any similarities to …Revenge should be noted because you can argue that this is where Jim picks up his knowledge of interstellar invasions from.

This novel, with its clear debt of inspiration to his earlier novel Bill The Galactic Hero (both novels display the author’s dislike of the military), introduces a couple of interesting trends: this is the first of the novels in which Harrison openly expands on his plot and theme as an expository tool. That is, there are lengthy passages in which Jim explains – or has explained – the reasons for what has happened and why it is a good or bad thing. It’s done as a way of explaining why the world being invaded is so cooperative towards the invaders but it doesn’t feel organic or flow naturally from the storytelling. It’s also the first of two occasions in which Jim is accompanied by a wiser companion who advises him on how to behave or offers suggestions on what to do. While it does make the novel more believable, it does become a little frustrating because we want the adventures of The Stainless Steel Rat sorting things out himself, not being advised by cooler heads so that everything ties up neatly.

It doesn’t get any better in The Stainless Steel Rat Sings The Blues (1994). Jim finds himself blackmailed into performing a mission (the old “poison-sacs-that-will-dissolve-unless-you-do-this-in-x-number-of-days” routine). The idea of Jim being advised/mentored makes more sense here as he must find information and compare notes so that his mission can be completed promptly and efficiently, but it still feels like a holdover from the previous novel, as does the proselytising on just how dodgy the villain’s doctrine is… which is a shame because the real-world version of this philosophy was just ripe for a good satirical puncturing.

In The Stainless Steel Rat Goes To Hell (1996), we return to the older and somewhat wiser Jim, who has to rescue Angelina (which is an interesting twist) from a religious cult which is using some sort of VR/ cyberspace/ dimensional warp… thingy… to convince people that they are headed for Heaven or Hell. Hilarity should ensue as Jim cuts a swathe through various recreations of unearthly paradises, but the comedy is far from divine: once again, an interesting idea with a target worthy of skewering is left somewhat under-deflated as the villain of the piece is made too cartoonishly evil and one-dimensional to be considered a genuine and real threat and it renders the story a little too harmless to be considered a genuine satire.

Some pace and genuine tension return in The Stainless Steel Rat Joins The Circus (1999) as Jim and Angelina become itinerant entertainers to uncover another galactic threat: this time a conman who is peddling immortality but is really looking to get rich quickly. It’s a breezy novel that passes the time adequately and it hits all the right notes most of the time but it does meander a lot on the way, although it does score points for managing to genuinely imperil the normally-unimperillable Angelina and make Jim desperate to find her, a desperation that adds quite the edge to his narration of this tale.

It does end well for our criminal couple, though, because they do not reappear until The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010) where they have been enjoying their retirement… until some of Jim’s relatives manage to track him down in order to guilt-trip him into funding an family expedition for pastures new. The blurb for this novel compares it to Gulliver’s Travels but it doesn’t quite reach those heights. It is quite a Swift-paced yarn, though: we travel to different worlds in order to find one that is suitable for Jim’s extended family and their livestock (and there a couple of scenes that are definitely inspired by Harrison’s much earlier novella The Man From P.I.G.). However, the Rat is finally allowed to retire gracefully and it was nice to get this swan song before Harrison himself left us two years later.

Surprisingly, for a series that has lasted as long as it did (1957-2010) there were very few other iterations of the rat. There are a couple short stories along the way, as well as a board game and a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style book, but that has been about it. The most notable spinoff were the comic book adaptations of the first, third and fifth novels serialised in 2000 AD, scripted by Kelvin Gosnell and exquisitely drawn by Carlos Ezquerra. It’s a cleverly produced adaptation which gets the story pretty much pitch perfect. The only real flaws that I could find in it were that this version of Jim does not indulge in as much cosmetic surgery or disguise as the original, but in a serialised weekly comic, I’m guessing that would be a bit much for readers who might miss an issue and wonder why their hero looks different this week..

Something else quite interesting is how the setting remains largely uniform and coherent across the 50+ years of the series. It’s a hi-tech future with space travel being a common and universal thing, with computers and automation taking care of a lot of the drudgery of daily existence. But, as William Gibson said, this future is not evenly distributed: many planets have regressed due to civil war, invasion, disaster, or just plain old isolation, both natural and artificially enforced (as is the case in …Revenge). It’s not consistent and parts of it have not aged well: in his first adventure, Jim alters the details on his space liner ticket with a hole punch (reflecting the tech of the time it was written), while in … Is Born, his lessons on computer programming feature details cribbed from the Home PC boom that was happening at the same time. It’s unfortunate because these details immediately date a story and take you out of the “goshwowness” of it all. Ignoring those slipups does reward the reader, though, and we get dumped into a wonderfully anarchic, anachronistic, post-scarcity-wish-fulfilment fever-dream of a future… steam-powered robots? Yep! Monocycles? Definitely! Pills for breakfast? But, of course! Technology that shrinks or restores mass? Why the hell not! There’s a real “everything but the kitchen sink” feel to the tech that Harrison adds whenever the story seems to need it but which only occasionally feels forced or convenient. It’s a trick that other SF writers could benefit from learning.

So what are the other attractions of the series?

Well, it’s mostly well-written and clever. Harrison has a very visual style of writing and also engages in a lot of physical humour in his writing which makes the movie in your head immensely entertaining. He’s also good at keeping track of little details that can come back and bite your arse if you’re not careful. The series also – mostly – doesn’t take itself too seriously: there are no Important Ideas being paraded around, although it is apparent that Harrison does have Thoughts on some Issues, but the authorial voice only sometimes sneaks onto the page.

It’s also the appeal of the main character. Jim tells all the stories and is a refreshingly honest and wry narrator. He doesn’t indulge in fooling himself (or at least not for long) and is always prepared to admit when he’s wrong and needs to change his mind, often for the sake of survival. He’s also a wonderfully individual character and is prepared to go to any lengths to preserve it, even hiding it under incredibly elaborate disguises for long periods of time in order to finally get the upper hand. He also cares about his fellow man and the people around him. When I came to this series, I had been also reading some other long-running series of novels and many of them were either completely bereft of any kind of individuality and depth or were full of Ideas that looked set to sink whatever joy a reader might take from them. But something that really struck me about a lot of them was that they were firmly committed to the bigger picture: that sacrifices (usually other people’s) had to be made for something good to happen, and the protagonists of these stories were prepared to make them, while possibly shaking their heads in sorrow afterwards. The Rat, an individualist living in a society that punishes people with deviant personalities, joyfully expresses his individuality in ways that the authorities find troubling and baffling, despite them being – in terms of what happens in the world – comparatively harmless. Jim’s atheism also made sure that he very rarely took a life, even someone that thoroughly deserved it. As a person who sometimes went against the grain but never in a way that would get me in too much trouble, his rebellions against society’s mores always appealed to me far more than characters who were striking a pose rather than taking a stance.

Another element of appeal is that Jim often relies on other people, despite his rampant individualism. He’s a loner (and many of his best tales are from him working on his own) but isn’t afraid to ask for help, mostly from his reformed wife, Angelina, and their sons.

Jim and Angelina were pretty much the first husband-and-wife team I came across in fiction and I’ve always been struck by how much Jim relied on Angelina’s unique skills, or by how often she would rescue him from peril. It was not how women behaved in a lot of books I’d read at this point, even those written by people who apparently knew better. Angelina was strong without being tough and ruthless without being mean. And there were no points being made about how “girls could do anything”; she was just written as a competent character who happened to be married to our narrator. And while the politics haven’t aged well in their nuance around this situation, the books are definitely on the side of equality without explicitly staking out a position (well, mostly: … Revenge makes a couple of howlers that would have any mildly progressive reader squirm uncomfortably… but it’s still doing better than a lot of its contemporaries).

They’re also fun. Even at their worst, the pages just fly by and the stories are always engaging. I’ve lost a lot of patience with many books and stories that I loved when I was a kid, but I’ve never gotten that from this series. It’s been a companion to me for longer than I care to think about and while I get a bit cranky with it now and then, I know that its heart is in the right place.

Unless Jim has stolen it, of course…

You can find out more about Harry Harrison at: https://www.michaelowencarroll.com/hh/index.htm

2 thoughts on “A Series Ian Likes: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

  1. I read all of these when I was a kid (well, all that they had made up until now. It made me want to be an interstellar thief, but my guidance counselor talked me out of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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