Metallic Rodents and Secret Agencies: more of why I love sf/f

The 1961 paperback edition of The Stainless Steel Rat, cover art by John Schoenherr

The 1961 paperback edition of The Stainless Steel Rat, cover art by John Schoenherr (click to embiggen)

I was in middle school when I found a copy of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat in a pile of cheap used books for sale. It was missing the front cover, which I didn’t know at the time probably meant it had been stripped. When a bookstore decides that a book has been sitting on the shelf too long and isn’t going to sell, their distribution contract usually allows them to destroy the book without selling it and get a refund from the publisher. To prove that they’ve destroyed the unsold copies, the store is required to send back the covers from each book destroyed. Shipping back just the cover was cheaper than shipping entire books. This is why many books carry a warning on one of the opening pages that if the book is sold without a cover, it is considered stolen property. (Hardbacks usually are not destroyed, as they will be remaindered, specifically sold at super cheap prices at certain chain stores.)

I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew that whenever damaged books showed up at the used book store, they were sold for a lot cheaper than the others.

If my first copy of The Stainless Steel Rat was a stripped copy, it is highly appropriate, because the star of the book (and its many sequel), was Slippery Jim DiGriz, the slickest conman and thief of the 346th Century.

DiGriz lived in an interstellar society with very high technology that made it nearly impossible for petty criminals to escape prison and “psycho surgery” for long. It took a special kind of criminal to thrive in that society. As the blurb on most of the paperback versions said:

“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.”

The book’s written from first person narrative, beginning while Jim is in the middle of yet another insanely daring robbery. Things start going wrong, of course, and it isn’t too many pages in before Jim realizes that the dreaded Special Corps is onto him. The Special Corps is a shadowy agency that was responsible for catching one of the greats, a thief DiGriz admired from affair, Inskipp the Uncatchable… so, of course, when Special Corps hauls DiGriz in to be interrogated by the head of operations, it turns out it’s Inskipp himself. And he has a deal for DiGriz, the same deal Inskipp was offered years ago when he was captured: join the Corps and help catch dangerous criminals, or have his brain altered…

DiGriz was chosen, just as Inskipp was, because DiGriz always planned his heists to very carefully avoid causing and physical harm to any people involved. A few of his previous operations he had even abandoned the heist when it became clear that complications had put people in danger. DiGiz’s first assignment (and the rest of the book) is to try to catch a serial killer.

But this isn’t like a gritty modern bloody serial killer story. The book is written as a light caper, with comedic bits. So the book was a romping adventure story, and far more concerned with the puzzle aspects. The character arcs and interaction are the focus, along with some humor.

It wasn’t just humor. The story explored issues of identity, free will, and what does it mean to be a member of a social species. Jim had always been careful not just to avoid hurting people, but he also always picked targets that were fully insured. He rationalized his existence as providing entertainment or spectacle. He kept security people and police on their toes and in practice. At least that’s what he told himself. Buried in that, along with his eventual confrontation with the killer, were also serious questions about privacy vs security, and control vs freedom.

So it made me think about many things. At different times in the narrative, I found myself agreeing with Jim more than I thought I would. And as I read the book again and again (because it was yet another one that I re-read many times), I found my sympathies seesawing back and forth as I considered the questions. The Special Corps protecting people from sometimes quite serious threats, but they operated in almost complete secrecy, and apparently answered only to themselves.

On the other hand, they had a number of agents like Slippery Jim, who broke ranks from time to time, and demonstrated a willingness to take down the agency if it went too far. Was that enough of to balance things out? In a real world, probably not. And it’s the kind of question still very relevant today.

In my later teens I found the sequels, and after I enthused about them to friends, someone bought me a shiny new copy of the first book for my birthday. The first few sequels cover the next several years in the life of Special Corps (occasionally rogue) Agent DiGriz… and his wife, and their eventual children. Then in 80s Harrison wrote some prequels, showing us events in the life of young Slippery Jim, how he learned his craft and became a legendary thief.

Harrison returned to the older DiGriz for the rest of the series, writing 12 Stainless Steel Rat books total before his death (the last one published posthumously). The Stainless Steel Rat wasn’t the only multibook series the Harrison wrote, but Slippery Jim was the first of his books that I remember reading, and the likable, extremely smart, and capably rogue is a character type that I became very fond of.

The book gave me another way to wrestle with the idea of my own identity. Harrison argued colorfully but persuasively for the idea that the law and customs aren’t always right. Morality and ethics have to come from a sense of empathy and a willingness to do right by people. And those were notions that gave me some more hope, as a closeted queer kid growing up among fundamentalists.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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