When a friend of mine told me about Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat series several years ago, I noted that this was an author I had only heard of in passing, and he was doing comedy science fiction…in the 1970s.
I was skeptical. I imagined it being filled with lame sendups of tropes of the day that really hadn’t aged well other than in an ironic retro fashion. I was worried it wouldn’t take the SF part of its comedy seriously, as much of an oxymoron as that might sound. I imagined something like Spaceballs, only written by the people who made Scary Movie. Yeah, let that image sink in for a bit.
Thankfully I was wrong. The fact that I didn’t learn about Harry Harrison until the 21st century may well go down as one of my big literary regrets. I can only imagine how much more fun my childhood might have been had I read these back then. I know some will wonder how I missed him in the first place. All I can say is we all have our blind spots, and not everything hits our radar the way it should.
The Stainless Steel Rat is that rare combination of humor and solid story that I adore. If I had to compare him to another I’d call him a proto Terry Pratchett. There are many similarities between the two, both in their humor and their attempts to have a consistent universe that facilitates that humor, yet operates under its own internal logic. Both are very funny, but they also know how to wield dramatic relief at the right moments. Harrison’s humor is slightly more dry and restrained than Pratchett’s, but I mean no disrespect by saying that. Quite the opposite.
It’s easy to see why someone might get the wrong impression of the series, however. Most of the book covers I’ve seen for it are…confusing. They give little to no indication that the cover artist involved understood what the series was about, looking far too serious half the time or simply using a literal rat made of stainless steel. There are a couple of exceptions out there.
James Bolivar diGriz is a grifter. A con man. A charming rascal. This might not seem like an original character concept except for one fact—the universe he lives in is practically crime free. A nice, wonderful peace-loving utopia…that is utterly boring and devoid of purpose to a man like diGriz. So, to keep things interesting, he robs, steals, and cons his way through life, but only from institutions with insurance coverage, until he’s finally caught by the Special Corps and convinced to work for them. They’re the reason the universe is in such good shape, and it seems it takes men like diGriz to keep it that way.
Fans of Terry Pratchett will see parallels between James diGriz and Moist Von Lipwig from the Discworld. Both are supreme con men with a personal sense of ethics who are captured and (unwillingly) recruited to defend the very institutions they’d been thumbing their noses at. Of course the trope itself is also used in contemporary stories, but I sense the connections strongest here.
The first book, The Stainless Steel Rat, shows us Slippery Jim (as he’s also known) in his element, committing an elaborate crime that he feels he got away with all too easily. Which he did, since he’s soon captured by the Special Corps. During his probationary period with them, he crosses paths with a beautiful woman named Angelina, who is secretly building a battleship, and falls in love with her. Angelina is intelligent, clever, and a criminal mastermind on par with diGriz himself—a perfect match in every way. Unfortunately, she’s also psychotic, homicidal, and has left a long trail of bodies behind her.
No one said love was easy.
The rest of the series isn’t hard to find, the titles all contain “Stainless Steel Rat” in the title. While The Stainless Steel Rat was written first, Harrison went on to write a few prequels before diGriz’s time in the Special Corps, and a half dozen after he joined.
One intriguing element of the series is that it doesn’t hit the reset button. With a series featuring a charming con-man foiling villainous plots, you’d almost assume that every book would have him acquire a new love interest ala James Bond, for example. You’d be wrong. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Angelina gets better—though how much better is a matter of debate. Time passes and his life grows and expands in other ways (with titles like The Stainless Steel Rat for President and The Stainless Steel Rat Goes To Hell, how could it not?)
Aside from the book series, The Stainless Steel Rat has also seen publication in comics, a Choose Your Own Adventure style book, and even a board game—albeit it back in the 70s. (I challenge you to find and review it, Lost Game Safari!)
If you’re a fan of classic science fiction and comedy, or a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, I have to recommend this series. Harry Harrison’s creation is one that deserves to live on into the 21st century and beyond.
Originally Published in KODT #221