It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Reading Challenge #5 – The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison

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I don’t know why I thought the books on my reading challenge for this year could ever be considered sf classics. They’re not. They’re just sf novels I really enjoyed as a young teenager. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise to me that this challenge is turning out to be little more than me poisoning the well of my own early years as a science fiction fan. I’m older now and a more discerning reader. And these books I’ve been reading, which have sat on my book-shelves for nearly thirty years… well, they’re proving to be not very good at all. I can sort of understand why I liked them as a kid, but that doesn’t make them good books.

After all, what kid can resist a character like Slippery Jim diGriz in Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat? He’s a master thief who’s been co-opted by the Special Corps, the interstellar organisation which catches master thieves. Set a thief to catch a thief. There is something appealing about a hero who not only marches to a different drum but, once made a member of the band, still takes advantage of his new position. Well, perhaps it wouldn’t appeal to schoolyard bullies and the like. But to impressionable young sf fans….

So it’s a shame that The Stainless Steel Rat fails on so many other levels. The genre is so much more rigorous now than it was back in the 1960s. DiGriz’s universe is pretty much the West of the mid-20th Century with added spaceships and robots. All the characters smoke like chimneys, computers use punched cards, records are made on paper and stored in filing cabinets, cameras use film…. There’s almost no invention on display. Harrison has just wheeled out a couple of sf tropes in order to call his book science fiction.

After all, diGriz could have been caught by some secret branch of Interpol. And the plot of The Stainless Steel Rat could be easily translated into present day (as was). The story goes something like this:

During a bank robbery, diGriz is captured and recruited by the Special Corps. Chafing to escape from his training, he trawls through the Corps’ records and discovers that someone is building a banned battleship, cunningly disguised as a giant freighter, on a backwater world of the federation. DiGriz is tasked to discover who the ship-builder is. It transpires that all those on the world involved in the construction is an innocent dupe, except one man and his female assistant. But they manage to escape in the battleship before diGriz can stop them. So diGriz sets off in pursuit….

Instead of a space battleship, make that some sort of missile destroyer or something, and you could pretty much tell the same story set in 1961 or 2009. So why bother to make it science fiction? There’s no central idea, there’s no exploration of a central idea.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the gender politics in the book appear to resemble 1921 more than 1961. The villainess of the piece is Angelina, a beautiful psychopath. The reason for her psychopathy, it is explained, is that she was originally ugly:

To be a man and ugly is bad enough. What must it feel like to be a woman? How do you live when mirrors are your enemies and people turn away rather than look at you? (p 138)

The horror of it: an ugly woman. Clearly it’s enough to twist the most stable of minds. And yet, throughout the book, both diGriz and Angelina frequently change their appearance. Sometimes it’s merely disguise; other times it requires surgery. Which suggests such techniques are relatively common. So why was Angelina ugly long enough for it to trigger her psychopathic tendencies?

It’s a silly quibble because Harrison’s stated explanation for Angelina’s murderous nature is offensive tosh. And to add further insult, Angelina is now beautiful but still has to work through men – cf the mention of “female assistant” above. The same happens later in the book – diGriz’s universe is clearly a man’s universe, and women only get to play secretaries, wives, whores and manipulative mistresses.

Oh, and did I mention that diGriz falls in love with Angelina? Because she’s beautiful, intelligent and a “stainless steel rat” like himself. Never mind the fact that she kills people for no reason at all, she’s gorgeous and clever…. If there’s an argument for sf being a young boy’s genre, then The Stainless Steel Rat provides plenty of ammunition.

After reading Alan Dean Foster’s The Tar-Aiym Krang last month (see here), I wondered why I’d bother hanging on for so long to the five Pip & Flinx books I own. But The Stainless Steel Rat is much worse. And I own seven of the books from the series. They’ll be going on eBay, then.

Incidentally, Harry Harrison was this year made the SFWA’s “Damon Knight Grand Master”.

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7 thoughts on “Reading Challenge #5 – The Stainless Steel Rat, Harry Harrison

  1. Sometimes I wonder if we’d be better off jettisoning about 90% of everything published prior to 1980 and declaring the following decade the true Golden Age of sf, bar the notable exceptions like Delany and Dick and others. What was it, do you think, that kicked off the raising of standards, assuming that it can be said that standards from roughly 1980-ish on were much higher than before? I still read first novels by various authors, and it seems to me the required word skills of today are considerably greater than in the books (of a similar vintage to the Harrison books) I grew up reading.

  2. It could have been the New Wave. It might have been the fact that certain powerful editors who had shaped the genre were no longer around. Or it may have been that the mid 1970s saw the first generation of writers break into print who had grown up reading a genre that wasn’t a small private boys’ club…

  3. The New Wave saved science fiction from the dinosaurs–it had more of a subversive effect on the writers that followed rather than readers, who never really warmed up to Ballard, Malzberg and some of the lads adding sex and drugs to the juvenilia that often passes for SF to this present day. But writers were intrigued, especially those who immediately recognized how awful the old “classic” shit was in comparison to the breath of fresh air the NW brought with it. I think SF needs something similar right now, to tell you the truth. That and, as in the 60’s with fossils like John W. Campbell, we need the old editors to die off and a new breed to move in. The David Hartwells and Patrick Nielson Haydens have held SF back too long and it’s time to put them out to pasture where they belong. Spay and neuter them first, so they can’t pass their mediocre genes on to the next generation…

  4. I'm sorry I never got around to reading this back when you originally wrote it. I fell hard for this series when I was in my pre-teen years, but unlike your recent experience I still love these books whenever I get around to re-reading them (hence the name of my website). There isn't much that you say in your review that I disagree with, and yet I still find them fun books to lose a little time in. I'm not all that concerned about what that says about me as a reader. I've always been one of those people who, for the most part, continues to be fond of the things I was fond of in my youth. The majority of the dated parts just add to its charm, in my opinion. Are the gender politics annoying…sure, to a degree. But Angelina certainly holds her own in this and later books so I never felt she was completely at the mercy of men, at least not as much after this book.I see that Harrison is writing a new Rat novel that is due out next year. The only Rat story I ever despised was The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus. I felt like HH wrote it merely to take this character and tear him down to nothing. I am looking forward to seeing if he does anything different with the character, but at the same time hope that it doesn't follow the path that the last novel did.

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