Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book 27: The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

I have no idea how I stumbled upon this book. I was not a voracious sci-fi reader as a teenager. I devoured Agatha Christie books but never got into Asimov or Bradbury or Philip K. Dick. But 'The Stainless Steel Rat'? That one got me.

James Bolivar 'Slippery Jim' DiGriz a.k.a. 'The Stainless Steel Rat' is an unrepentant criminal mastermind. He lives to steal, loves to rob, risks all to con. The very first 'Stainless Steel Rat' novel which was published in 1961 opens in the midst of one of his signature heists.

This is no ordinary stick-em-up gun in the teller's face bank job. No. Slippery Jim has staked out an out of the way planet with a particular way of doing business. Once there he assumes the identity of a small businessman, owning and operating an actual factory. He is turning quite a nice profit and actually getting rich from the above-board running of this business but money is not the point. The thrill of the job is what he is after.

After an impossibly elaborate scheme which could never be traced, he seems just about in the clear when some small detail goes awry. This is not out of the ordinary, the Rat is used to improvising. He comes to believe that he is being hunted by the Special Corps, an elite police force created especially for tracking down criminals who have mostly been eradicated by gene reprogramming.

He takes evasive action after evasive action, shifting disguises multiple times, doubling back, taking random streets over and over again until he himself barely has any idea where he is. He rushes down some dimly lit corridor and collapses into a room. Waiting for him is the Chief of the Special Corps, a former criminal mastermind and hero of The Rat, Inskipp.

The Rat has a choice. Join or die.

He joins.

And thus we have the ultimate storyline for an impressionable teenage boy. The anti-hero. The unwilling good guy. The lusty misfit.

None of this is to be taken seriously. This is part of the fun of Harrison's writing. If you can even call it that. The novels read almost like screenplays and I'm quite frankly shocked that no one has ever tackled this on film.

Dropped into the midst of all of this is a psychopathic ball of sex appeal, Angelina. Behind all of the crimes he is asked to investigate for the Corps she lurks, a Black Widow licking her lips in anticipation of a good romp in her web and a quick meal of Jim's head.

He is shocked at her willingness to kill, something he avoids simply because he has more fun leaving enemies in impossible situations. He may be a sociopath but he is not a psychopath. She is both and he is drawn to her.

Again, I am actually making this sound more serious than it actually is. The whole thing is cigar smoke against futuristic glass and one-piece jumpsuits zipped just low enough to cradle some alien stone between perfect breasts and cargo freighters hiding behind asteroids. It is ridiculous.

So ridiculous that when I saw a paperback copy at my local Good Will store I snapped it right up. And felt fifteen again, browsing the stacks in the Kingston Free Library on a Saturday afternoon, looking for an escape hatch to another world.

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