Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat

Harry Harrison’s science fiction novel The Stainless Steel Rat was published in 1961, although it drew on two earlier novelettes, The Stainless Steel Rat (1957) and The Misplaced Battleship (1960), which had appeared in the pulp magazine Astounding. A sequel would appear in 1970, to be followed by another ten books in the series.

James Bolivar diGriz is a criminal in a far-future world in which crime is extremely rare. It’s a world that could be described as a flawed utopia. There is law and order and stability and prosperity throughout the far-flung league of planets but these benefits have been purchased at the cost of an oppressive regime of surveillance and social control. But it’s soft oppression. Nobody really minds. Well, almost nobody.

There are a few misfits like James Bolivar diGriz. They turn to crime as an escape from the boredom of an excessively organised society. They crave challenge and adventure. The challenge is what seems to appeal most to diGriz. He likes outwitting the system.

He is a loner. That’s another part of his motivation. He just doesn’t like being told what to do. He hates to be a cog in anyone’s machine. He wants to make his own choices, even if they’re bad choices. He sometimes thinks of himself as a kind of rat, existing in the dark corners of society.

As the story opens he is regretfully shutting down a very successful illegal operation. It is time to move on, in fact it’s time to head for another planet. He finds a suitable planet and soon he has another criminal scheme lined up. But his luck has run out.

Being caught is bad enough, but he is to suffer a fate much more unpleasant than prison. He is informed that he is now a member of the Special Corps, an elite interstellar police squad recruited entirely from former criminals. To his horror he is now a cop.

It’s as boring as he thought it would be, until he discovers something very odd and interesting in the computer files. It’s the blueprint of a space freighter under construction. But to diGriz it doesn’t look like a freighter. It looks uncannily like a space battleship from a thousand years earlier, a time when space battleships were built that were infinitely more powerful than anything known in the present day. He manages to get himself sent on a mission to find out what is going on, and that’s the beginning of a series of wild adventures.

The mission will also bring into into contact with Angelina. Angelina is a lady super-villain. She is a merciless killer, cruel and vindictive and totally lacking in any redeeming qualities. He is horrified by her. She is an evil woman who must be hunted down. At the same time he has to admit that he is strongly attracted to her. She is evil but fascinating. He can see the similarities between Angelina and himself - they’re both both misfits and rebels. He isn’t evil, in fact in all his criminal endeavours he has never actually killed anyone. But the similarities are there. Angelina is like his dark mirror image.

This is a semi-comic adventure romp. Don’t expect the science and technology to be even remotely plausible. Harrison clearly has no interest in such things. He doesn’t even resort to technobabble to try to explain things like faster-than-light travel. He just assumes it’s possible because it’s necessary to the story. 

This is superficially a science fiction novel but Harrison could just as easily have set the story in a world of magic.

The story is what matters, and the high adventure, and most of all the characters. Angelina is a wonderful character. Like diGriz we can’t feel being both repelled and fascinated by her. She might be a bad girl on an epic scale but she lives her life to the full and she loves the risks involved in her lifestyle and she loves the thrills. She’s an adventure junkie.

And diGriz is just as intriguing. He lacks Angelina’s ruthlessness and bloodthirstiness but he has a cheerfully amoral attitude and he’s just as much of an adrenalin junkie. He’s totally dishonest. He will cheat a cabdriver for the sheer pleasure of outwitting him, and will then leave an enormous tip.

Angelina and diGriz are drunk on life.

The Stainless Steel Rat is fine space opera but mostly it’s just superb entertainment. Highly recommended.

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