Monday, December 12, 2011

Pulp Science Fiction Library: The Stainless Steel Rat

Alongside Poul Anderson's Sir Dominic Flandry, one of the longest-running characters from the Golden Age of Science Fiction is James Bolivar diGriz, also known as "Slippery Jim" or "the Stainless Steel Rat." The latter nickname is also the title of the story in which he debuted, published in the December 1957 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. Harrison would, in 1961, also use the title for a novel that contained the original 1957 story, its 1960 sequel (The Misplaced Battleship), alongside completely new material. Over the course of the next five decades, the Rat would appear in a total of twelve novels, the most recent of which was published in 2010.

In the future world in which Slippery Jim diGriz exists, crime is practically non-existent thanks to a combination of genetic screening and social control. The few malcontents who do exist are therefore aberrations, the most talented of which make life extremely interesting for law enforcement officers, who spend most of their time dealing with petty crimes like burglary and shoplifting. DiGriz himself explains the situation -- and himself -- in this way:

That is almost the full extent of crime in our organized, dandified society. Ninety-nine per cent of it, let's say. It is that last and vital one per cent that keeps the police departments in business. That one per cent is me, and a few others like me, a handful of men scattered around the galaxy. Theoretically we can't exist, and if we do exist we can't operate - but we do. We are the rats in the wainscoting of society - we operate outside of their barriers and outside of their rules. Society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as the old wooden buildings had more rats than the concrete buildings that came later. But they still had rats. Now that society is all ferroconcrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps between the joints, and it takes a smart rat to find them. A stainless steel rat is right at home in this environment.
It is a proud and lonely thing to be a stainless steel rat - and it is the greatest experience in the galaxy if you can get away with it. The sociological experts can't seem to agree why we exist, some even doubt that we do. The most widely accepted theory says that we are victims of delayed psychological disturbance that shows no evidence in child-hood when it can be detected and corrected and only appears later in life. I have naturally given a lot of thought to the topic and I don't hold with that idea at all.
A few years back I wrote a small book on the subject - under a nom de plume of course - that was rather well received. My theory is that the aberration is a philosophical one, not a psychological one. At a certain stage the realisation striked through that one must either live outside of society's bonds or die of absolute boredom. There is no future or freedom in the circumscribed life and the only other life is complete rejection of the rules. There is no longer room for the soldier of fortune or the gentleman adventurer who can live both within and outside of society. Today it is all or nothing. To save my own sanity I chose the nothing.
The Rat is thus a professional criminal in a world where such people are practically non-existent -- but not completely so. As he soon finds out, there are other people like him and the role they play in society is quite different than the one he chose for himself. I won't spoil the story by saying any more, except that Harrison creates a terrific vehicle by which the Rat can continue to have exciting adventures that are more than just endless con games and bank robberies. He also provides himself with plenty of opportunities for satire, social criticism, and philosophy in the best traditions of classic science fiction. I quite often disagree with the points of view Harrison advances in the Stainless Steel Rat stories, but I can't deny that he spins a good tale. Likewise, Jim diGriz makes for a great protagonist, as charming and self-rationalizing as any a lovable rogue in pulp literature. Plus, he's a native speaker of Esperanto, so what's not to love?

18 comments:

  1. I remember that one of the later stories had an awkward rant against Milton Friedman and monetarism, of all things.

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  2. Some of the stories were adapted into a well-regarded series of strips in 2000AD; there's a collection available.

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  3. Mi libron unuan legis. Mi ĉiam intencis ke mi librojn pluajn legus. Mi ilin al deziraro aldonos.

    (Wow...I am really out of practice... ^_^)

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  4. These books were a big influence on me, and informed my later (high school and beyond) sci-fi gaming immensely.

    I need to add porcuswine (from "Is Born") to my fantasy game and see if anyone recognizes them.

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  5. @Alex J:

    Probably 'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted', where he goes to a planet that seems to be Harry Harrison's ideal society.

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  6. PS Why 'of all things'? That came out in the 80s, when Reagan was in office. Of course it's a little outdated now, when the free market works perfectly...

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  7. I remember getting hungry at the description of porcuswine ribs. Mmm, porcuswine.

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  8. That guy in the background looks like his chest is going to burst into a gaping mouth.

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  9. Ok, after a little googling, I found the rant I was thinking of. It's in Starworld, which though written by Harry Harrison in 1981, is not a Stainless Steel Rat book. It's book 3 of the To The Stars trilogy.

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  10. Speaking of Esperanto, I first found out about it from this book and ordered the 10 free lessons by mail from the back.

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  11. I used to love these books! They were my first exposure to the idea that SF didn't have to be completely straight-faced and serious. Mind you, after that it was Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's Guide...at which point all bets were off!

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  12. I never got around to reading these, but I know my mother had at least the first couple novels. I should check them out one of these days, I always thought they sounded neat.

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  13. My stepson has tracked down quite a few of these stories in current reprints. Needless to say, the SSR lives on!

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  14. As a 12-year-old 2000AD fan, I was introduced to Slippery Jim via the comic adaptation, and was inspired to buy the first three novels in paperback at Christmas 1979. At that time, my favourite character on telly was Vila in Blake's 7. Is it any wonder I always played thieves in D&D?

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  15. The SPI game from Ares Magazine is pretty sweet as well.

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  16. That cover is so great I can't get over it!

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  17. I loved reading these stories as a kid.

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  18. I read the first Stainless Steel Rat novel when I was in high school. I had no idea it was so old (It probably helped that the painting on the cover of my edition was recent). But, like some of the other commenters here, it was my first exposure to Esperanto (inspiring me to get a book on it) and the first less-than-serious treatment of science fiction that I had read.

    One of the other things I remember enjoying was Harrison's use of the fade-to-black tactic: when Jim goes into the bedroom with the romantic lead, the author says (paraphrasing), "And they went into their bedroom and engaged in consensual adult activities that are really none of your business."

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