Saturday, August 15, 2015

#Blaugust Day 15: Thalen Reads The Stainless Steel Rat

Now that society is all ferroconcrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps between the joints, and it takes a smart rat to find them. A stainless steel rat is right at home in this environment. - James 'Slippery Jim' DeGriz
Today we begin what I hope will be an ongoing feature; Thalen Reads. Each week I plan to read a book then write something about it here on my blog. A little bit review, a little bit simply my thoughts on the book. Hopefully it'll be interesting to readers, and will spur me to make more time for books. The majority of books I talk about here will almost certainly by science fiction and fantasy as that's where my tastes primarily lie.

For this inaugaral edition, we have an SF classic, The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison, first published in 1961. Like many works of science fiction from the 50s and 60s the first portions of the book were initially published in magazines and later reworked into a full length novel; this does show as the book breaks down into three mostly stand-alone sections that each lead into the next.

I've previously read Harrison's comedic yet biting military satire Bill the Galactic Hero so I had a notion what to expect going in. The humor is much lower-key here and where Bill was a reluctant 'hero' repeatedly thrust into situations entirely beyond his control, Jim DiGriz is a much more capable individual.

'Slippery Jim' is an interstellar criminal in a universe where crime has been nearly eradicated. The majority of those who would become criminals are identified early and 'adjusted' before they can become a problem. Jim is one of the rare few who slipped through the cracks and now takes advantage of the opportunities available to a master criminal in a universe where crime is almost unheard of. Jim is very much a 'rogue with a heart of gold' type; while he's comfortable with crimes up to and including armed robbery, he doesn't kill and when he harms someone he doesn't feel deserves it he does feel guilt and attempts to make up for it.

Plot Spoilers from here until you see the Stainless Steel Rat

As I mentioned, the book breaks down into three sections. In the first, we meet Jim just as the local police have shown up to arrest him for his latest scheme. We get to watch Jim outsmart the cops and escape, then move on to his next plan on a new planet. Jim is quickly established as a brilliant planner who doesn't take undue chances and is always ready to move on when the time comes. Then events start going off plan when the Special Corps, a secretive branch of law enforcement tasked with dealing with the few real criminals still extant, shows up.

In the second section, Jim has been recruited by the Corps. He detects a plot to secretly build a massive battleship of a type not in existence for over a thousand years and is dispatched to run it down. This part of the book plays out more like a secret agent story with Jim able to call on the agency's resources and using his con man skills to track down a criminal rather than committing crimes himself. Ultimately Jim successfully captures the battleship but the mastermind behind the plot escapes, leaving a trail of bodies.

The third part of the book is the bulk of the story and follows Jim as he strike out on his own to chase down the loose end from the battleship case. Away from the Corps, he is once more the criminal Jim we first met and quickly tracks his quarry to a backwater planet. Too bad it turns out be a trap laid by the villain who new he would be on their trail.

The third part is where things get complicated. See, the evil mastermind, Angelina,  is also the only woman in the book and even as he's chasing her Jim isn't sure what he plans to do when he catches her. On the one hand he admires her intellect and the fact that she was able to outsmart him, on the other hand she is a multiple murderer. Eventually it's revealed that she was extremely ugly in her youth and turned to crime to pay for operations to repair her flaws. Crime led to murder and on to her villainous career.

This gave me some pause. "Isn't this a bit sexist?" I found myself thinking. On discussing it with my wife I'm not so sure. She pointed out that we've seen teenagers who were teased and outcast turn to murder more than once in real life. If anything, Angelina has more agency throughout the book than Jim. Where his actions are a result of first being forcibly inducted into the Corps and later outsmarted by Angelina, she is pursuing goals of power and independence which are entirely her own.

All told, I enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the continuing adventures of Jim DiGriz. Jim is a likable rogue, and a clear ancestor of more recent characters like Han Solo or the Discworld's Moist von Lipwig. I can definitely see why the series is so well regarded. On occasions the tech is a bit outdated, but in some cases this is explained away as due to a planet being a more recent inductee into the Galactic League (one character is very angry that the League will only provide his planet with robot brains, requiring them to build coal-powered bodies for them as that's the height of local technology.)

For next week, we'll have a little change of pace. I'll be reading a book that my wife's been after me to read for months, Choke by Chuck Palahniuk. According to the cover blurb it's the story of a med school dropout who supports himself by pretending to choke in upscale restaraunts and cruises sex addiction recovery workshops for action. Should be interesting.


  1. I also got into Harry Harrisons work after reading Bill the Galactic Hero (I've struggled to find a personal copy of the book ever since) which mocked the books of the time like Starship Troopers.
    Steel Rat is awesome but more focused on the story over comedy as you say.

    I look forward to your next read.

    1. It seems strange how perenially out of print Harrison's stuff, given that he's considered a pretty important SF author. I guess he's not alone there though.

  2. I've read through the Stainless Steel Rat series a couple of times. Used to have most of the books on my shelf at one point. A few of them are very good. Most, though, start strong and then sort of peter out to rather weak endings. Okay, but not great stuff. Only "The Stainless Steel Rat goes to Hell" is outright bad in my opinion.

    1. Yeah, the ending on this one did a feel a bit like 'and then the deus ex machina arrived to save Jim's bacon'. It did fit pretty well with the overall impression I got of him as a man who's never quite as in control of the situation as he thinks he is.