So I compile a science fiction/fantasy trivia quiz each month for the virtual CoKoCon Conversations in ConSuite social events we started up during the COVID pandemic and enjoyed so much we kept doing them. April's quiz was about planets and one of them was Bit o' Heaven, the homeworld of "Slippery" Jim diGriz in the 'Stainless Steel Rat' series, which turns out to be longer than I thought it was. I think I've read seven of them, but author Harry Harrison turned out a full dozen of them before he died in 2012.
Now, that question isn't why I'm re-visiting my old friend Slippery Jim for the Nameless Zine, but it is why Randall included the first novel in the series, simply titled 'The Stainless Steel Rat', as his choice for the CASFS Book Social in July. And, if I'm going to re-read, I might as well review, right?
James Bolivar diGriz is a criminal, which makes him an odd choice for sympathetic lead character, but he's a criminal in the far future, where there just aren't many such creatures. He has a strong moral sense, avoiding violence and stealing only from those who can afford it, and often countering his own deeds just for the artistry of it. He'll stiff someone on a bill, only to add more than the difference to his tip. He sees himself as a sort of adventurer, enriching the lives of the public who read about what he's done, and perhaps with good reason in his enlightened age.
Harrison plays with our expectations neatly in the opening scenes, as diGriz escapes from a hitherto successful enterprise stealing cans of food from government stocks, relabelling them with a different brand and selling them legally, undercutting the opposition in the process. There's almost a cartoon logic to proceedings from the very first page, when he drops a three-ton safe on the head of the first cop through his door, timed to work as wordplay as much as a physical deterrent. However, given that the cop carries on talking, we quickly realise that the cops are robots in this future.
I don't know if Harrison ever intended this to be the first volume of a series and I'm guessing that he didn't, given that he waited another nine years before publishing the first sequel. It works perfectly as a standalone novel, but the Stainless Steel Rat is just too good a character to leave on the shelf and not exploit further and, if you read knowing that this book began a series, you'll see so much that sets up stories to come.
For one, while we appreciate the Stainless Rat as a consummate rulebreaker doing what he shouldn't just because he can, there has to be a framework behind him to give him some sort of moral authority and the Special Corps gives him that. Not only is it an official law enforcement agency, albeit quite an unusual one that has to staff its ranks with the right sort of criminal, but it's a way to temporarily put Jim in his place, at least for a while.
He pulls a simple bank job on a new planet but finds himself uncannily herded into a particular room in a particular building so he can sit down with a particular person, Harold Peters Inskipp, a criminal who was something of an idol for the young Slippery Jim, for what's a rather unusual job interview. It makes Jim all the more human to lose once and all the more justified to find himself working for the forces of the law, how many of them he breaks in the process.
For two, there's Angelina, a criminal just as capable as diGriz but without his particular scruples. She has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in her way, our hero included. Yet, she's never depicted quite as the bad guy, just the villain. Somehow, we always have some sympathy for her. Maybe it's the light hearted nature of the novel that has us see a positive outcome for everyone and maybe it's the fact that Jim clearly and progressively falls head over heels in love with her; even as he tries to catch her and stop the body count rising any further than it already has.
Just as it's no spoiler to suggest that he does indeed stop her in the end, it's surely no spoiler to point out that they get married in the sequel, 'The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge', and eventually spawn an equally incorrigible pair of twins, James and Bolivar, who play prominent parts in future books. Even though there's no specific suggestion to point at those outcomes anywhere in this book, it's as much a given as the fact that the good guys win. I mean, how else could it have gone?
The only downside to Angelina is her origin story. And I don't mean the story that introduces her to us, the one that has her building her very own battleship, in public without anyone realising it; except an uncomfortable Stainless Steel Rat who wants back into the field. I mean the story we eventually hear about why she turned to crime in the first place. Put simply, she was an ugly girl and she started out in crime to pay for a physical makeover; the point, of course, being that she became utterly beautiful on the outside but remained ugly on the inside.
It's hard to accuse Harry Harrison of sexism here, given that Angelina is the wildly capable villain of the piece and she goes on to become our hero's wife and partner in future books, often proving to be even more insightful than him. However, she's also the only prominent female character and that's a terrible reason for her to turn to crime. I hope Harrison looked back on his reasoning in future years and felt that he should have taken a different approach.
Other than that, though, it's odd to realise that this novel came out as long ago as 1961 and was, even then, based on a short story of the same name that was published in 'Astounding' magazine in 1957. It was crystal clear to me that this could easily be adapted faithfully to film today without seeming to be out of time at all, excepting that required origin change for Angelina. What makes that realisation a little more surprising is that it's actually old-fashioned in what it does. The most obvious comparisions I could make are to swashbuckling silent movies and the cliffhanger serials of the forties. However, all those component parts are updated to fit a futuristic sci-fi crime action story.
Every time I go back to Slippery Jim diGriz, I feel happier somehow. He really does enrich the lives of those who encounter his stories. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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