I was saddened to learn that another great one of science fiction, Harry Harrison, has died.
Although he wrote other stuff, like the military-satirizing Bill the Galactic Hero and the Deathworld trilogy, to me as to many others there’s no question that The Stainless Steel Rat, aka Slippery Jim DiGriz, is his greatest creation.
I was waiting for the word `charge.’ I thought it made a nice touch that way. As he said it, I pressed the button that set off the charge of black powder in the ceiling. The crossbeam buckled and a three-ton safe dropped through right on top of the cop’s head. He squashed very nicely, thank you. The cloud of plaster dust settled and all I could see of him was one hand slightly rumpled. It twitched a bit and the index finger pointed at me accusingly. His voice was a little muffled by the safe and sounded a bit annoyed.”
(The Stainless Steel Rat, Astounding Science Fiction, 1957
As it happens that’s how I met Slippery Jim, though it was just over two decades after the story was published.I was instantly caught by the eponymous image:
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.
Slippery Jim was a smart and fast and capable con man and thief who had a quirky moral sense – he only stole from corporations with insurance and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the many explosions he set off didn’t hurt anyone. Since the stories are first person we naturally see Jim’s self-rationalizations and he’s the hero, but it’s also possible to see him as the menace to society from outside. I was struck when I read it (we all have to learn even obvious truths sometime) that no one is the villain in their personal story (except maybe Rchard III), and even a self-confessed, indeed self-aggrandizing, criminal menace can be a hero.
Goodbye, Slippery Jim (Harry). You were terrific fun.