The Stainless Steel Rat

Harry Harrison
The Stainless Steel Rat Cover

My return to The Stainless Steel Rat

Carl V.

“Here’s to crime.”

James “Slippery Jim” diGriz is a master criminal, a stainless steel rat in the wainscoting of society, a society that is becoming increasingly devoid of crime thanks to the successful efforts of the galaxy’s infamous Special Corps. Cocky and self-assured, diGriz goes about his business with rare aplomb, each caper uniquely different so as to stay one step ahead of what passes for the law on whatever planet he happens to find himself located. When a particularly clever theft goes awry, Slippery Jim finds himself a cornered rat in a maze that lands him in the lap of the dreaded Special Corps.

And to make matters worse, the inmates are running the asylum, for the Special Corps is headed by none other than the most famous criminal mastermind ever: Harold Inskipp, aka Inskipp the Uncatchable. Soon DiGriz is presented with an offer he cannot refuse. As the old adage goes, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”.

At any rate, it is better than having your mind wiped.

The first of Harry Harrison’s popular Stainless Steel Rat series was published in 1961, although portions of the story saw life in Astounding Science Fiction in 1957 and Analog Science Fact and Fiction in 1960. Slippery Jim DiGriz is the prototypical anti-hero. Skilled in the art of crime and yet highly moralistic in his respect for life, DiGriz is a step nearer the heroic mold in comparison to those protagonists written by Alfred Bester, for example, in The Demolished Man or The Stars My Destination, and he is the precursor for loveable rogues like Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds. In Jim DiGriz we see some of the vestiges of the chivalry and honor of the 1950′s coupled with the shifting changes in attitude about government that came about in the 1960′s. In addition The Stainless Steel Rat was somewhat prescient in showing a future where the free and casual use of drugs and alcohol was later born out in the late 60′s and in the 1970′s. In fact, The Stainless Steel Rat sits on a very interesting dividing line by including some of the older, now dated ideas that dominated science fiction in the 40′s and 50′s and other ideas about government and crime and the immensity of space that are relevant today.

In James DiGriz’s universe, a bank of psimen was used to send messages telepathically across light years and the future remained filled with a great deal of paper when it came to the wheels of bureaucracy. Computers used punch cards and destinations were laid into starships using course tapes. At the same time Harry Harrison envisioned space as the kind of massive place that even with largely populated galaxies an enormous warship could be impossible to find and envisioned a future in which women were every bit as clever and capable as men. All these things aside, what makes The Stainless Steel Rat a “vintage” novel that remains worth reading today is that it is a fast-paced, witty, fun story with just enough timely twists and turns that it remains satisfying from start to finish.

Slippery Jim’s schemes are cunning in their planning and execution even when they do not work out entirely as orchestrated and he soon finds out that to be a really good cop in the Special Corps, it pays to keep the criminal skills in good working order. The Stainless Steel Rat is a quick read and I continue to find it absorbing enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to any young boy or girl looking for a rollicking good science fiction adventure, nor to any adult wanting to read something fun with a hint of nostalgia to it. The story never flags, it is paced beautifully, and the dated elements never get in the way of the action.

I fell in love with the world of the Stainless Steel Rat as a pre-adolescent, when Slippery Jim and the lovely Angelina were the kind of characters who excited a young boy’s imagination and stirred his emotions. When I got older and picked up the book to read again I discovered that Harry Harrison did what many try to do and fail–he created an adventure/detective series set in a science fictional universe that has a timeless appeal because it is both smarter and better executed than many novels of the same mold that went before and have come after. Not all of the Stainless Steel Rat books are gems, but the first two especially (The Stainless Steel Rat and The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge) form a nice two-part tale that holds up well today from a pure enjoyment factor.

After 3+ decades of being a fan of his adventures, I readily admit to a bias towards (most of) Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat stories. Yet even in my fanatical devotion, witnessed by the title of my blog, I like to think that I have enough objectivity to see that there is really something here. There is a spark that good older science fiction stories have that keeps them popular to some degree today. Slippery Jim DiGriz will delight you with his escapades and you will walk away with a smile on your face, even if it is a wry smile.