By Chris Hallam.
First published: 2018.
He was born, got drafted, sang the blues, got his revenge, saved the world, ran for president, went to Hell and joined the circus. Chris Hallam takes a look at the many ups and downs of “Slippery Jim” diGriz, AKA The Stainless Steel Rat…
DAY OF THE RAT
It began as two short stories, The Stainless Steel Rat (1957) and the Misplaced Battleship (1960). Their author, Connecticut-born World War II veteran Harry Harrison, then in his thirties, had a long history as a writer of comics and short stories, but was on the verge of becoming a full-time novelist. In 1961, he expanded the two stories into his second full-length novel, The Stainless Steel Rat.
The book established the essentials which would characterise the series over the next half century. The book is essentially the tale of James Bolivar “Slippery Jim” diGriz, a professional thief living in the distant future. Providing his own narrative, diGriz views himself as a “rat” within the otherwise flawless pristine high technology stainless steel environment of his time. Despite this, he is not wholly without morals and has a strict code of ethics regarding not injuring or killing anyone in the course of his work. He also has a rather romantic Robin Hood-style approach to his duties, generally targeting major corporations as targets for his own crimes. Like any ‘rat’, however, he has had to do what he can to adapt to his situation and survive.
Ironically, just as we meet him, diGriz becomes unstuck, however, and he is captured and recruited by an anti-crime organisation called the Special Corps. Dedicated to putting the principle “use a thief to catch a thief” into practice, the Corps persuade diGriz to do their bidding. diGriz, keen to avoid a prison sentence, reluctantly agrees.
His first mission concerns an investigation into the construction of a battleship. With war eradicated, having been recognised as ridiculously impractical and expensive in the future, the Corps are completely mystified as to why any planet would need to be developing a warship in the first place. diGriz investigates it. In the course of his adventure, he encounters Harold Inskipp, the director of the Corps, once a notorious criminal himself and Professor Coypu, the Corps head scientist, who like Q in the James Bond saga, has a penchant for ingenious gadgetry. As with Bond (the films of which, this first book predates) gadgets and disguises play a recurrent role in the Stainless Steel Rat.
Jim also meets another crucial figure in this first adventure, the feisty Angelina, another (largely) reformed criminal who retains residual psychotic tendencies but who ultimately becomes his wife. In The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970) the couple have two twin sons, James and Bolivar diGriz, both named, with a touch of ego, after their father, James Bolivar diGriz.
RISE OF THE RAT
Harrison then had a busy Sixties spent establishing himself as a novelist. He completed the three books of the Deathworld trilogy, which would later be expanded further. He wrote Bill The Galactic Hero, a humorous riposte to the ultra-conservative science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers. He wrote the overpopulation saga, Make Room! Make Room! which was later made into the Charlton Heston film, Soylent Green in 1973. He wrote other books too.
From 1960 onwards, he would in fact produce on average of more than one novel a year for every one of the remaining fifty-two years of his life.
But it wasn’t until 1970, that he returned to Slippery Jim diGriz. The next decade saw the Stainless Steel Rat become a full-blown book series as Jim underwent numerous adventures.
The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970) has a now rather dated sounding slightly Carry On film style storyline as the newly domesticated Jim is forced to team up with a tribe of beautiful sexually liberated Amazon women who are humanity’s last best hope against an interstellar war being launched by the Grey Men of the Planet Cliaand.
The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972), meanwhile, sees diGriz forced to use a time helix to travel back to the 1970s (not 1984 as some blurbs claim) after certain people including Angelina and their two infant sons are suddenly erased out of existence. An enjoyable adventure sees our hero falling in with some Hell’s Angels and even witnessing a high technology version of the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th century England which the wrong side seem to be winning.
The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! (1978) sees diGriz facing twin challenges from the Internal and External Revenue Service and a crop of alien invaders hell-bound on overrunning the galaxy.
The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982) meanwhile sees Jim and Angelina drawn into an election against a corrupt South American style dictator after investigating a murder. Time is clearly moving on by this point as Jim and Angelina’s sons, James and Bolivar are, by now growing into young men.
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
One feature occasionally referred to in the books is diGriz’s society’s utter fluency in the real life language of Esperanto. This in fact reflected Harrison’s own enthusiasm for the language. Speaking in Brighton in 1987, he said:
“The Esperanto movement is international, it breeds international co-operation… it was virtually wiped out during the war – the Nazis were against it, the Stalinists were against it, and the Americans were totally indifferent! I kid you not! The world knows no bounds. I have a great interest in languages, as well as in science fiction, and the two of them finally met in The Stainless Steel Rat books.”
Today it is believed up to two million people worldwide, to varying degrees, speak Esperanto. This is somewhere below the levels envisaged by Harrison. But then, The Stainless Steel Rat books are set in the 346th century, so there is still plenty of time.
THE COMIC STRIP PRESENTS…
In 1979, it was decided to adapt the Stainless Steel Rat for the new-ish British science fiction comic, 2000AD. Although Harrison actually had some experience in comics himself, scripting duties went to the comic’s founding editor Kelvin Gosnell. Spanish-born artist Carlos Ezquerra, a major figure in the creation of 2000AD legends, Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog was tasked with bringing the first book to life on the page. The story was a success, the combination of sci-fi, dry humour and action, fitting in well in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Harrison himself expressed his support with a letter to Tharg’s Nerve Centre (it is unclear what he spent the resulting £3 prize money on) and Ezquerra’s visuals were well received. He gave Angelina, a suitably fiery Latin-style temperament. Many felt Ezquerra’s version of diGriz owed something to the Hollywood actor, James Coburn.
A sequel soon followed, 2000AD skipping over the sexist second book and moving straight onto the third, the time travelling Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World which ran in 1979 and 1980. After some hiatus, Gosnell (now no longer 2000AD’s editor) and Ezquerra returned with the third and perhaps best of the three comic adaptations, The Stainless Steel Rat For President which coincided neatly with Ronald Reagan’s re-election as US president in 1984, running into 1985.
Given the success of the series which managed to be both generally faithful to the original books but still entertaining, it’s surprising 2000AD never attempted to adapt any of the other books. Indeed, the three stories remain the sole example of any straightforward book to comic adaptation in the comic’s forty-one-year history thus far.
Today, we are probably rather overfamiliar with the concept of the prequel. Yet in 1985, Harry Harrison’s decision to explore the early days of the adolescent Jim diGriz’s burgeoning criminal career, particularly his tutelage by his mentor, known only as the Bishop was actually a very good one. The three prequels A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born (1985), The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) and The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994) are all fresh, engaging and entertainingly written. And even if they do raise awkward tedious Star Wars type questions about which order the books should be read in, we can surely forgive Harry Harrison for that.
Harry Harrison died in 2012, aged 87. He left an impressive legacy, in addition to the books already mentioned above, he produced the Eden trilogy of novels which imagined that the fatal asteroid which is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs had never struck the Earth, the Viking-orientated Hammer and the Cross saga, seven Deathworld books, the Bill the Galactic Hero novels and numerous stand-alone titles including The Techncolor Time Machine, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Raiders and Queen Victoria’s Revenge.
The Stainless Steel Rat books in fact reflect only a sizeable minority off his prolific literary output. Yet he was writing them right to the end. His final published book was The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010).
THE RAT PACK
The complete works…
The Stainless Steel Rat (1957): Short story
The Misplaced Battleship (1960): Short story
The Stainless Steel Rat (1961)
The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970)
The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972)
The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! (1978)
The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat (1981): Short story
The Stainless Steel Rat For President (1982)
A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born (1985)
The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987)
You Can Be The Stainless Steel Rat (1988)
The Fourth Law of Robotics (1989): Short story
The Golden Years of The Stainless Steel Rat (1993): Short story
The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994)
The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell (1996)
The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus (1999)
The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010)