Jan 9, 2010

Critical Monkey entry #5 - The Stainless Steel Rat

After my last foray into forbidden territory led to nightmares and despair over the state of my mortal soul, I retreat to seemingly more moderate climes. Will I survive? Thrive, even? Read on...

The Stainless Steel Rat
by Harry Harrison (1961)

Why I might like it: I have come across references to SSR a number of times over the years. As an impressionable youngster, I was captivated by the pulpy cover that stared out at me from the paperback racks of the local Safeway. Being young, and unware of the concept of metaphors, I imagined that the title was literal, and there was indeed a robotic rat roaming the world somewher. As the years passed, my grasp of metaphors grew, but my interest in the novel faded, only revived when I chanced upon a copy of Harry Harrison's novel Bill, the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Zombie Vampires (a novel later disowned by Harrison, being actually written by Jack C. Haldeman II and only marginally based on a reputedly far superior original novel and character of Harrison's). Harrison, while I am unfamiliar with his work, is somewhat of a science-fiction icon, with near sixty releases, including Make Room! Make Room!, the novel that the cult classic movie Soylent Green is based on, and which automatically now goes on my TBR pile. He's also now, at the age of 84, working on the 11th Stainless Steel Rat novel, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns.

Why I might hate it: No reason. It has a good pedigree, and a fair number of admirers (but then, so does Twilight, so we can't go by that). It's clear that Harrison has had a lasting talent; I'm expecting a fun read, but beyond that, who knows? Maybe I should have taken on something more obviously not to my tastes, but after the spasms of reading Left Behind had finally passed (not to mention an unfortunate bout of glossolalia), I had to step back and tackle something that was not, on the face of it, going to cause internal parasites to feast on my innards.

The verdict: Phew, a good one. Really good, in point of fact, a prime piece of pulp. I can understand why this became a series.

James Bolivar diGriz is, in his own terminology, a "stainless steel rat," a criminal working in a future society that very rarely comes across a criminal element anymore. "We are the rats in the wainscoting of society - we operate outside of their barriers and outside of their rules...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." drGriz is a natural born criminal, and he is exceedingly good at his job.

Not so good that he doesn't get pinched, however, and forced into employment with the Special Corps, an intergalactic intelligence agency that hires people with diGriz's special talents to ferret out others with the same mindset. diGriz finds himself taking to his new job, and soon finds himself racing across the galaxy after a criminal mastermind who has procurred a space war ship and isn't afraid to use it.

There isn't a lot of excess plot or introspection to SSR; it zips along from plot-point to plot-point with near-light speed, counting on the charisma of the narrator to keep the reader balanced. There are some salient points scattered about concerning individual freedoms and the dangers of over-dependence on governmental authority, but Harrison is far more concerned with derring-do. SSR is primarily an adventure novel, and Harrison never pretends that his story is meant to do anything but keep you entertained.

And why shouldn't that be enough? There's more than enough bad pulp out there, so we should celebrate good pulp when we find it. diGriz is an engaging and resourceful lead character (as I said, I can see why this series has stretched to eleven novels), and the narrative never lets up. SSR is meant to be nothing more or less than fun, and it succeeds admirably, on the scale of some of
Robert Heinlein's peppier works. In the end, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and it doesn't linger long after completion, but the trek was memorable while it lasted.



Jeanne said...

So glad to hear you liked it. I remember the whole series as fun, but in the end forgettable.

Cam said...

I read heaps of Harry Harrison's books back in primary school. I remember nothing from them other than the "stainless steeel rat" moniker and that I loved them. BTW, I have printed out your 2009 book lists as a starting point to find some new authors. It's working allright so far.

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