Fiction Reviews

The Stainless Steel Rat

(1961 / 1970 / 1972 and 2008) Harry Harrison, Gollancz, 10.99, A pbk, 436 pp, ISBN 978-575-08171-0


It is the future and humanity has spread to the stars. You may expect that this future is filled with men and women of honour and virtue who bravely go where no-one has gone before and who are upright, decent folk who make for ideal ambassadors for our species... Nope, not a bit of it. We have taken vice, greed, treachery, and other human traits with us to the stars. So meet Slippery Jim, alias James Bolivar diGriz. True he is a man of many talents. He is charming, quick-witted, inventive and handsome. He is also a liar, a cheat and more than a bit of a rouge as he is a master thief. He is the 'Stainless Steel Rat'

All is going well for diGriz until he gets caught. However being so talented he is too much of a potential asset to throw into a jail and so the Special Corps recruit him for, well, what Special Corps do, special missions.

Gollancz has brought together the first three of the high action, high humour, Stainless Steel Rat adventures originally published as the stand-alone novels The Stainless Steel Rat (1961), The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge (1970), and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972). This is Clouseau without all that bumbling, James Bond without taking itself seriously, an SFnal and coherent Robert Rankin, and all from one of the twentieth century masters of SF. If you like SF and like humour then you'll love the Stainless Steel Rat's adventures.

Now it may be that if you are not yet middle-aged you might not have heard of Harry Harrison. Harry is not quite as famous as either Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov but he is most certainly there at the next rank of writers, such is his standing. Indeed any reader of English language SF on either side of the Atlantic who was even vaguely familiar with the genre in the decades 1960s - 1980s inclusive cannot have helped but come across Harry's works. His other comedy SF novels include The Technicolor Time Machine (1967) and the Bill, the Galactic Hero series (1965-1991). But he is also known for some accomplished short adventure SF novels such as Plague from Space (1965) and Captive Universe (1969) as well as some very masterly works such as the hugely significant environmental, population explosion drama Make Room, Make Room (1966); this last was made into the feature film Soylent Green (1973). Alternatively it may be that you are in your forties and British in which case the Stainless Steel Rat might just ring a bell. Now if that bell is 2000AD then you would be correct for his adventures were brought to that comic drawn by Carlos Ezquerra: 'The Stainless Steel Rat' (in 2000 AD #140-151, 1979-1980), 'The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World' (in #166-177, 1980) and 'The Stainless Steel Rat for President' (in #393-404, 1984-1985).

In the first adventure Slippery Jim, alias James Bolivar diGriz, is caught. It was a fair cop guv and so he expects to be sent down for a very long time. However he is given an offer he cannot refuse. The Special Corps have been after a particularly ruthless woman, Angelina, who has been committing crimes on several worlds. Angelina is ruthless and cunning. She also has her own battleship and a small interstellar war. What's more she is involved in a sinister scheme devised by an ancient nation: some United States of America or something... What better way to catch a master thief than by using a master thief? And so Slippery Jim is off...

Now if you are still in dount as to wehether to get this then note that when Concatenation ran its 1987 survey at the UK national convention the 'Stainless Steel Rat' adbventures came 9th in the all-time best SF category! As such it is arguable Essential Science Fiction.   In short consider this review as an appeal for you to seek this guy's books out while they are still around. Unfortunately there are too few reprints such as the one Gollancz have given us with this omnibus. Indeed if you do like this omnibus edition then the good news is that Harry wrote 10 Stainless Steel Rat novels in all, so you have some more delights for you to find. Enjoy.

Jonathan Cowie

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