Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat really needs no introduction: the adventures of Slippery Jim DiGriz are the most famous and widely translated of the author's creations - in France he is Le Rat en Acier Inox, or Ratinox; in Germany Stahlratte, and in Italy Il Titano d'Acciaco. This being the case, I'm going to use this space to first give a few background details about the series, and then to try and answer two questions: Why is the Stainless Steel Rat so popular? And: If the stories are so popular, can they possibly have any literary merit?
Historical BackgroundJames Bolivar DiGriz - alias Slippery Jim, alias The Stainless Steel Rat - first appeared in the August 1957 issue of John W. Campbell's Astounding magazine. The 10,000 word novelette "The Stainless Steel Rat" now forms the opening chapters of the novel of the same title.
You can read the original short story here.
Harry Harrison revealed the origins of the idea for the Stainless Steel Rat in an introduction to the 2000 AD comic book adaptation: you can read that introduction here. The original short story began life as a narrative hook, written by Harrison as an exercise: "I was practising narrative hooks and wrote one - the first three paragraphs of the book - that hooked me so much that I had to keep going to find out what happened next."
Harrison elaborated on the definition of a 'stainless steel rat' in A Stainless Steel Rat is Born, written as a 'prequel' to the earlier stories, when master-criminal the Bishop explains to the young Jim:
We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment.
These words are taken almost exactly from a conversation between Harry Harrison and author Katherine MacLean. Harrison reveals more about the creation of the Stainless Steel Rat in an extensive interview which you can read elsewhere on this page.
A second novelette - "The Misplaced Battleship" - appeared in the April 1960 issue of Astounding / Analog. This story now forms chapters 4 - 7 of the novel The Stainless Steel Rat. The novel was first published in November 1961. Since then nine more novels and three short stories have been published.
You will find details of all the books, including translated editions, in the bibliography. The short stories featuring the Stainless Steel Rat are:
Why is the Stainless Steel Rat So Popular?The Stainless Steel Rat stories are probably Harry Harrison's most popular books: they have been widely translated, and their appeal seems to cross all linguistic and cultural barriers. But why should this be? After all, they're just a bunch of tongue-in-cheek adventure stories aren't they? Even Harrison's friend Brian Aldiss dismisses them, in his Trillion Year Spree, as not adding to the Harrison's reputation. But then, tellingly, Aldiss goes on to quote the best part of a page from one of the novels... so the appeal is obviously there, but what accounts for it?
One of the inspirations for the Stainless Steel Rat character was Rupert of Hentzau, who originally appeared as one of the villains in Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (1894), and then got a sequel of his own Rupert of Hentzau (1898). Rupert of Hentzau is a villain with great charm: handsome, an excellent swordsman, and well able to live by his wits outside the bounds of polite society. Harrison took this idea of a swashbuckling anti-hero and put him in a plot based on the idea 'set a thief to catch a thief' - having James Bolivar DiGriz drafted into the Special Corps and becoming one of their agents. But Jim is a reluctant employee - he has no respect for authority, and a mischievous streak which leads him to try and humiliate authority figures at every opportunity. But such actions are never malicious, they are instead motivated by the boredom of a highly intelligent person trapped in a dull job.
It is this insubordination which accounts for much of the character's appeal: whether the reader is a teenager rebelling against parents or school, or a thirty-something bored by the daily grind of the nine-to-five, the Stainless Steel Rat provides us with a hero who dares to do what we only daydream about. He's a rebel, an outsider. He is intelligent, quick-witted, with a sense of humour, and a seemingly endless supply of great high-tech gadgets. He values his own freedom and individuality, but at the same time he is a person who values life, all life: in ten novels he has only ever killed once, and then only in defence and with great reluctance and regret. A refreshing change from all those machine-gun wielding Hollywood heroes. Jim believes in justice too, in the rights of the little person against the oppressive might of corrupt regimes.
There is another significance in Harrison citing Rupert of Hentzau as an inspiration for the Stainless Steel Rat, for the universe in which the Rat stories are set has a distinctly Ruritanian feel to it. Ruritania is the fictional German-speaking middle-European kingdom in which Anthony Hope set his novels.
John Clute, writing in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, says that the two ingredients required for a story to be considered Ruritanian are that "the tale must provide a fairy-tale enclave located both within and beyond normal civilisation; and it must be infused with an air of nostalgia." The best of the Stainless Steel Rat stories have both these features. The normal civilisation of the Rat novels is an empire or federation - the League - straight out of Asimov, but the individual planets on which the stories are set often appear in the form of middle-European Kingdoms, with castles and palaces and eccentric rulers, while the technology used is a bizarre mixture of science fiction rocketships and rayguns and Victorian steam power. And, curiously, it is this nostalgic air which has helped keep the Rat stories fresh and timeless: where other science fiction seems firmly rooted in the decade in which it was written, the original 1957 Rat story is not at all dated.
I think the appeal of Slippery Jim, too, is that he is not a perfect, whiter-than-white hero. He's something of a contradiction - a thief-turned-lawman - and this means that the distinction between hero and villain, good and evil, is not entirely clear cut: in the world of the Rat, there are good 'thieves' and evil 'lawmen', just as there are in the real world. It is not a person's deeds which define them, but rather their intentions. While appearing to be a self-centred, reckless individual, the Rat's actions reveal his strong sense of social responsibility. These are two sides of our own character which we strongly prize: we are proud of our individuality, but at the same time we are aware of our responsibility for others.
The Stainless Steel Rat is someone who is like us, someone who shares the same frustrations with daily life that we do, and has the same social values, and who also dares to do the sort of thing we wish we could do. The perfect fictional hero for exciting escapist entertainment. But is there anything more to these stories than simple light-hearted adventure?
Do the Stainless Steel Rat Stories Have Any Literary Merit?Literary critics seem to believe that because something is popular it can't actually be any good. And if something is funny and popular, then it must be juvenile rubbish. Leon Stover, in his book Harry Harrison, is damning with faint praise when he says of the series: "They really are not as 'juvenile' as their targeted audience might indicate. The adult reader can find much amusement in them at a more sophisticated level of appreciation." Unfortunately Stover doesn't probe very deeply to reveal what these more sophisticated levels of appeal are.
Steven R. Carter is a little more obliging. He wrote a lengthy critique of the first three Rat novels in the Summer 1980 edition of Extrapolation. He said it is: "a series in which the desire to entertain frequently interfaces with the desire to instruct ... [These novels] although delightful to read, might be dismissed as the literary equivalent of cotton candy if one failed to note the number of interfaces in them and the humanistic viewpoint developed from the interfaces."
Carter then details these 'interfaces', pointing out that the stories blend science fiction elements with crime fiction ones; adventure with humour. He also considers the humanistic elements of the stories: the criminal is not an evil creature which must be destroyed, rather he or she is a human being who can be saved. The character of Angelina, both as the criminal and as Jim's wife following her rehabilitation, is equal in abilities to the Stainless Steel Rat, showing that "Harrison is on the side of women's liberation."
But the most important interface is "between humanistic concerns and technological advances in Slippery Jim's philosophy about killing." Carter quotes this philosophy in the Stainless Steel Rat's own words:
Cold-blooded killing is just not my thing. I've killed in self-defence, I'll not deny that, but I still maintain an exaggerated respect for life in all forms. Now that we know that the only thing on the other side of the sky is more sky, the idea of an afterlife has finally been slid into the history books alongside the rest of the quaint and forgotten religions. With heaven and hell gone we are faced with the necessity of making a heaven or hell right here. What with societies and metatechnology and allied disciplines we have come a long way and life on the civilised worlds is better than it was during the black days of superstition. But with the improving of here and now comes the stark realisation that here and now is all we have. Each of us has only this one brief experience with the bright light of consciousness in that endless dark night of eternity and must make the most of it. Doing this means we must respect the existence of everyone else and the most criminal act imaginable is the terminating of one of these conscious existences.
That's pretty profound for a tongue-in-cheek action-adventure story! But it does, as Carter points out, go "to the heart of Harrison's philosophy as represented in various works since it offers a key to his ideas about the brutalising effects of war (as in Bill, the Galactic Hero), a key to the dangers of superstition and too great a respect for any type of authority, including religious authority (as in Captive Universe), and a key to the need for international co-operation to solve the worldwide problems of overpopulation, poverty, and dwindling resources (as in Make Room! Make Room! and Skyfall). To make this speech, Slippery Jim diGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat himself, must have had an all-too-brief interface with nobility. In him, the mock hero meets the true hero to form the most interesting interface of all."
Stover is correct, then, it is possible to enjoy these stories on a more sophisticated level. And that these 'serious' subtexts exist is no accident, it is a conscious and important of Harrison's method: "I have found that an action story with two or three levels of intellectual content below the surface enables me to say just what I want to say," he is quoted as saying in Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers. "I have also found that humour - and black humour - can carry ideas that can be expressed in no other way."
© Paul Tomlinson, August 1999