‘The Stainless Steel Rat’ is the nom-de-guerre of interstellar conman and criminal, ‘Slippery’ Jim DiGriz, whose life is a lone battle waged against conformity and boredom. In a galaxy so civilised that 99.9% of criminal tendencies are caught and cured in childhood, only somebody extremely smart and extremely larcenous can survive beyond the law, using bank robbery and confidence tricks to generate the excitement he craves. As DiGriz says at the start of the book, “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.”
While DiGriz is a criminal in the eyes of society at large, he sees himself as a benefactor of mankind, and a protester against its stifling laws and surveillance. He, and a handful of men like him, keep the police in business; they give the newspapers something to write about; and the citizens something juicy to read over their breakfast tables. In his own eyes, he is a Robin Hood figure with a strict code of personal morals. He steals only from banks, governments and large corporations, and holds human life sacred. Crime for him is a form of social protest, as well as a kind of intellectual extreme sport.
This knockabout novel began life as a ‘fix-up’, comprising a couple of previously-published short stories. It tells the tale of how Slippery Jim goes from being a lone criminal grafting away on the fringes of society, to star field agent for the top secret ‘Special Corps’ – an elite law enforcement agency with staff recruited from the best of the criminal underworld.
When one of DiGriz’s operations goes wrong, the Corps pull him in and offer him a job. Then they turn him loose against a very different sort of criminal: a homicidal mastermind intent on building a battleship and carving out an empire.
The story is told in the first person by DiGriz himself, which lets us get inside his head and enjoy (and sympathise with) his crooked view of the world. Intelligent, wry and self-important, Slippery Jim makes for an engaging and amusing narrator, and Harrison keeps the action moving by using short chapters, each ending on a page-turning cliff-hanger – a trick I’ve picked up and used in my own work. He never lets our anti-hero rest on his laurels. As soon and Di Griz thinks he’s got everything figured out, Harrison pulls the rug from under him. Some of the coincidences and surprises in the plot are a little contrived, but the whole thing is done with such energy and brio that it sweeps you along before you have time to question it.
As the original short story was written in the late 1960s, some of the technology seems dated. Computers still require punch cards, for instance. But these lapses don’t detract from the story’s frenetic pace, and can be explained by the fact that galactic society is recovering from an event referred to only as ‘The Breakdown’, when many planets reverted to medieval levels of technology, and are only now being slowly rediscovered and brought back into ‘The League of Planets’.
In fact, this discrepancy in available technology from one planet to another gives DiGriz considerable room for manoeuvre, as his pursuit of the piratical mastermind (whose identity I won’t reveal here), leads him to infiltrate a recently re-contacted feudal society, where the locals don’t stand a chance against his knowledge of high-tech chicanery, and he’s able to pass himself off as a minor nobleman.
Part of the fun of reading this book is the knowledge that, however bad things get and however many setbacks he suffers, Slippery Jim is going to emerge triumphant at the end. He might be a criminal in the eyes of society, but he’s on the side of the angels when it comes to righting wrongs and standing up for the little guy.No tags for this post.