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Literature / The Stainless Steel Rat

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Breaking the rules, and loving it!

The adventures of a Lovable Rogue in a Space Opera setting, by Harry Harrison.

Humanity has spread across the stars, setting up many different civilisations on numerous planets, ranging from advanced megalopolises to rural kingdoms. Space travel is available, but still most people spend their entire lives planetside. But one thing is missing in their lives relative to earlier generations: crime.

See, it is now possible for psychological profiling to spot criminals before they act. This has resulted in the populace being safe, and rather bored.

James Bolivar "Slippery Jim" diGriz is one of the few who can slip below the radar. He was bored enough to take to crime and smart enough to go uncaught. He has his principles: he won’t kill and robs those he thinks can take the hit. The local cops can do nothing because they have no practice in crimes of his magnitude.

So begins The Stainless Steel Rat, with Jim planning yet another daring heist. But unbeknown to him, he is being tracked by the Special Corps, an interplanetary organisation set up to catch criminals like him. His confrontation with them, and later with the serial killer Angelina, sets up the status quo for the later novels.

    The Stainless Steel Rat stories 
  • 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 Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982)
  • A Stainless Steel Rat is Born (1985)
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987)
  • "The Fourth Law of Robotics" (1989, non-canon short story crossover with Isaac Asimov)
  • "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)
  • "The Stainless Steel Rat and The Misplaced Battleship" (2015, short story)

    Comic Book adaptations 
  • The Stainless Steel Rat (12 episodes, published in 2000 AD, 1979-1980)
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World (12 episodes, published in 2000 AD, 1980)
  • The Stainless Steel Rat for President (12 episodes, published in 2000 AD, 1984-1985)

     Other adaptations 
  • You Can Be the Stainless Steel Rat is a Gamebook.
  • The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat is a Board Game published by SPI in their magazine Ares.

The first three novels of the series have been anthologized twice, once under the name The Adventures of the Stainless Steel Rat, and once as The Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus.

The Stainless Steel Rat series provides examples of:

    open/close all folders 

  • Absent Aliens: Several of the early books claim humans are the only sentient species. Then, in The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You, it turns out the far side of the galaxy is inhabited by several dozen extremely unpleasant-looking ones. After some initial strife, they make peace with the humans — and become unimportant for the rest of the series.
  • A.I. Getting High: At the end of The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, the victory party has everyone drinking, except for the resident AI, who has a robot pour some electrolyte into a dry battery. It starts slurring words very quickly.
  • Anachronistic Clue: In The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, Jim, while in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, learns that the villain whom he followed from the future is checking all people entering his stronghold with some kind of device. He's puzzled at what it's supposed to detect, since they don't have his personal data, and all parameters of his own body are within the Earth norm. Then he realizes they didn't use nuclear power in the 19th century, and sure enough, the radiation level of his body is far above that of the locals.
  • Anti-Hero: Jim loves nothing more than to plan daring crimes, but he won't use lethal violence and picks targets who can take the loss. The Special Corps sends him after far worse criminals.
  • Anvil on Head: The opening of The Stainless Steel Rat features diGriz dropping a safe on a policeman who's come to arrest him. (It's not until he's sure he has your attention that he bothers to mention that it's a robot policeman, and so well-armoured that the safe is not going to do it any serious harm - he dropped it on the robot's head because that's where its radio is.)
  • Armed Blag: Jim and Angelina keep robbing banks for fun after joining the Special Corps. Schizo Tech is used to justify this trope, there not being much Rule of Cool in Jim trying to rob a cashless society via computer fraud.
  • Auto-Kitchen: Jim's home planet has a fast food chain called Macswiney's. One night he breaks into a Macswiney's, looking for a place to hide from the cops, and discovers that the restaurant is completely automated. Customers place their order via a computer screen or a microphone. By the time they finish, the entire order has been retrieved from deep-freeze and microwaved to serving temperature - although the customer doesn't actually get the food until they pay. The only human staff is the guy who comes by once a month to restock the freezers and collect the money.
  • Author Appeal: Harry Harrison's protagonists have a tendency to be atheists who evangelize Esperanto.
  • Back-Alley Doctor. Jim goes to a Back Alley Doctor to have whole body alteration surgery in The Stainless Steel Rat. Now that's dedication to the art of disguise! Pretty understandable, considering the criminal he's tracking saw right through his more ordinary (but still quite thorough) disguise and shot him nearly to death.
  • Bathroom Search Excuse: Jim purports to have been looking for a bathroom when he was actually checking out the area in preparation for a robbery. The guards have no trouble buying the story, since it happens at an Amusement Park.
  • Batman Grabs a Gun: Jim the Technical Pacifist does once almost kill a guy, who was a monster and indirectly responsible for Jim's mentor's death. Jim would've gone through with it, if he wasn't knocked out.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Surveillance is everywhere, and only the most skilled criminal can practice his/her art. See also the planet Cliaand in The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge.
  • Boxed Crook:
    • The entire premise of the Special Corps.
    • In The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues, Jim is caught trying to rob a mint, and secretly spared from execution on condition he undertakes a dangerous secret mission.
  • Brainwashed: In The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, the Grey Men use a particularly brutal method where they implant false memories of the subject having their hands cut off, in order to shatter their sense of reality.
  • Brainwashing for the Greater Good: Most people with criminal tendencies are caught and 'treated' early in life. Depending on the degree of deviation and the stage at which you are caught, that can mean anything from a light therapy to having your personality wiped and replaced with a state-sanctioned one! For an otherwise humane civilization, this little crime against humanity strikes a jarring note. Angelina has supposedly been implanted with an artificial conscience, but it's not the real mind-wipe: her husband frequently has to restrain her enthusiasm for torture and killing. This is mostly talk however — when push comes to shove she recoils from the monster she used to be and does not kill. Although mess with her family and all bets are off.
  • Chemically-Induced Insanity: Jim has trouble predicting a psychopathic murderer's next move, so he takes a drug combination temporarily giving him the same kind of insanity.
  • The Chessmaster: Inskipp, though only in the first novel. Most other times his role is simply that of Da Chief.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Jim knows better than to cheat on his well-armed wife. Which doesn't stop her from putting a knife to his throat if he so much as looks sideways at the Girl of the Week. When Jim tries to weasel out of their wedding, she quickly produces a Hand Cannon from Hammerspace and invites him to reconsider.
  • Clock King: Jim has elements of this when he's planning his heists.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Two of the Stainless Steel Rat novels were adapted into comic form for British serial comic 2000AD. The two strips were later released in Graphic Novel format.
  • Constellations as Locations: Cittanuvo in the first-written book of the series (The Stainless Steel Rat) is described as being "Second planet of a B star in Corona Borealis". A star would only seem to be "in" Corona Borealis from a very specific vantage point (the Solar System, and perhaps other star systems very close by), yet Earth doesn't even seem to be the capital of the League (let alone the entirety of the human race), and in The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World Earth is long-destroyed, its claim to being humanity's original homeworld treated as legendary at best.
  • The Convenient Store Next Door: The first book starts with that as the protagonist's latest job. He rents a part of a warehouse. Next building, there is a large amount of seldom checked government supplies. He makes a hole, and sells these supplies with different labels.
  • Corrupt Church: The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell.
  • Covers Always Lie: The cover-art of more than one edition depicts Technical Pacifist Jim wielding a laser gun of some variety.
  • The Cycle of Empires: The League is an attempt to reassemble all the Lost Colonies of an Empire which fell about a thousand years ago, and is still far from done. In The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You, we see an Alternate Timeline where this Empire (or a similar one) apparently never fell due to the need to fight an alien invasion.
  • Days of Future Past: The Stainless Steel Rat for President takes place on a Banana Republic planet with the countryside composed of largely independent nobility-governed feudal estates.
  • Deadly Scratch:
    • In The Stainless Steel Rat, Jim accidentally kills an assassin by scratching him with his own poisoned blade. Then he very carefully takes off his own shirt torn by the same blade because the poison in question doesn't even need a scratch, just skin contact.
    • The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You has Angelina and one of the boys captured by aliens. The guards are later found dead with the captives gone. After the family reunites, Angelina explains the two of them used poison on their nails, copying the trick Jim himself used in The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, though he himself used a sedative then.
    • In The Stainless Steel Rat for President, Jim surrenders to The Generalissimo Zapilote, then scratches Zapilote's face, describes the horrific death that Zapilote is about to suffer from the virus he smuggled in on his fingernails, and trades the cure for the release of all his captured family. Afterwards, he admits to a friend that he was bluffing with a drug to give Zapilote a harmless fever.
  • Driving into a Truck: At the beginning of the first novel Jim diGriz steals an armored car full of money and drives it into a truck to escape the police.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first novel refers to Earth in a manner that suggests it's at least known, if not inhabited. Later novels state that the planet is forgotten, and its location can be found in no computer record.
  • Emergency Temporal Shift: After finally tracking down the time criminal He, James diGriz and his wife Angelina break into He's lair. Unfortunately, He uses his time-helix device (time machine) to escape into the past before diGriz and Angelina can kill him.
  • Faking the Dead: At the climax of The Stainless Steel Rat for President, President diGriz gets assassinated — but this is all part of the plan, so he can let power devolve to the people on whose behalf he was working, and doesn't have actually stick around being presidential for years.
  • The Family That Slays Together: A non-lethal version; Jim returns from his Time Travel adventure to find his two baby boys have grown up in his absence and been educated in the criminal arts by his wife.
  • Fantastic Livestock: Porcuswine, genetically-engineered quill-covered animals with the size and temper of a really big and angry pig, are raised for their meat on an otherwise backwater planet, which exports their meat all over the galaxy.
  • Femme Fatale: Angelina in the first novel, she seduces men and makes them do her criminal bidding; in later ones (after her Heel–Face Turn), more of a Dark Action Girl.
  • Full-Body Disguise: In a universe of ubiquitous surveillance and paranoid secret policemen this is a basic survival technique, ranging all the way up to full body surgery.
  • Future Imperfect: Humanity's original planet is long lost in the mists of history, and nobody knows much about it. They're not even sure about the name; Jim at one point vaguely recalls that it might be "Dirt".
  • Gargle Blaster: In The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted, Jim somehow procures 400 proof alcohol. That's twice as pure as pure alcohol for the sake of reference. There's also mention made of his indulging in Syrian Panther Sweat, which is banned on most civilized worlds.
  • Get into Jail Free: At both ends of his career.
    • In A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born, a young DiGriz allows himself to get caught in the belief that he'll meet criminal masterminds in prison who'll teach him the art of crime. As it turns out, he only meets the pathetic losers who are dumb enough to be caught.
    • In "The Golden Years of the Stainless Steel Rat", the elderly DiGriz apparently loses his touch and gets arrested and imprisoned. It turns out he's still got it, and let himself get caught as the first step of a plan to bust an old friend out of the prison.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: More accurately, Sane Cannot Comprehend Homicidal Psychopath. In the first novel, Jim puts himself through Chemically-Induced Insanity to try to understand Angelina. He concludes afterwards that it didn't help.
  • Heads or Tails?: Summed up nicely:
    I flipped a coin to decide, and of course won since I had palmed the coin before the toss. It was going to be action.
  • Had to Come to Prison to Be a Crook: The Stainless Steel Rat tried to deliberately invoke this trope, hoping to learn the tricks of the trade from real criminal minds. Of course, he quickly realizes his mistake: He won't find any criminal masterminds in prison, because they don't get caught.
  • Hammerspace: Exactly how do you conceal a .75 caliber recoilless? Plus the Rat always carries a myriad of miniature escape/burglary/explosive devices in his teeth, fingernails, skin, and who knows where else.
  • Hand Cannon: The Rat's .75 caliber recoilless pistol — frequently referred to as "That piece of field artillery". Sometimes a 'compact' .50 is mentioned.
  • Hereditary Republic: In The Stainless Steel Rat Runs For President, he urges this on a Blue Blood as a wonderful way to keep the incompetent nobles out of the way.
  • Horse of a Different Color: The Porcuswine, a product of genetic engineering to survive a harsh environment.
  • Identical Twin ID Tag: Jim's sons James and Bolivar are distinguished only by a small scar behind James's ear, from when Bolivar bit him when they were four.
  • I Have Your Wife: This has been tried several times, and is generally a bad idea, because it's a sure way to make Jim angry — assuming Angelina hasn't already carved up the kidnappers herself.
  • Improvised Lockpick: Jim once picks a lock with the wires connected to his Shock Collar on a rare occasion when he had been strip-searched thoroughly enough to deprive him of his regular tools.
  • Inconvenient Attraction: In the first novel Jim is drawn to Angelina not just because she's beautiful, but because he genuinely admires her brilliant criminal mind. But he also knows well that she's a sociopathic killer.
  • Involuntary Suicide Mechanism: When the Resistance questions one of the Gray Men under hypnosis in The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, it turns out they have all been implanted with an "irresistible order" to die rather than reveal the name or location of their true home planet.
  • Karmic Thief: Jim refuses to steal from anyone but rich corporations that are insured against theft, though once he is recruited by the Special Corps, he also turns his skill against various villains.
  • Kidnapped from Behind: In The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, when Jim is being escorted by soldiers after a failed escape attempt, he looks at his captors and suddenly notices their number seems to grow smaller. Turns out The Cavalry, in the form of his wife, has arrived and is quietly taking out the rear of the line one by one.
  • Knockout Gas: Both local law enforcement and Slippery Jim use knock-out gas with great abandon, although slightly more realistically than is usual in fiction. Jim makes sure to use nasal filters or a mask to avoid breathing it in himself, it's usually invisible rather than brightly colored, and there are numerous different types, with different effects, speed of action, duration and after-effects.
  • Lampshade Hanging: In the original novel, Slippery Jim has been shot and seriously wounded, and finds it convenient to have the person who shot him think he has been killed. He arranges to end up in a hospital morgue. It would be convenient if he had some way of making sure he isn't interrupted while he plays with the toe tags on the corpses to hide his trail:
    "The door was perfectly designed, I couldn't have done better myself, with no window and a handle on the inside. There was even a bolt so that it could be locked from this side, though for what hideous reason I couldn't possibly imagine. It gave me some needed privacy though, so I slipped it into place."
  • La Résistance: The Rat teams up with underground organizations in several novels.
  • Loss of Inhibitions: In The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, Jim takes a drug that suppresses a person's morals to give himself absolute confidence and self-righteousness.
  • Lost Colony:
    • The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted has the third act on a planet inhabited by humans totally forgotten by the rest of the galaxy until a militarized country finds them and decides to conquer them.
    • This also turns out to be the origin of the Grey Men, who assume they were deliberately abandoned on a frozen hell world, explaining their vendetta against the rest of humanity.
    • Used to justify the Anachronism Stew aspects of the series. Many planets are former lost colonies, and haven't caught up with everyone else on a technological level.
  • The Man in Front of the Man: Jim makes this almost fatal mistake when he first confronts criminal psychotic Angelina. Bringing down an arrest, he refuses to believe the ditzy, hysterical, beautiful airhead he sees is anything more than a low-level mook and gangster's moll. He therefore ignores her and focuses on arresting her accomplice - who is brooding, intense-eyed and unshaven and looks like an Evil Genius. In the confusion, she escapes, having conned diGriz into thinking she's insignificant. While he is arresting the hired help, she slays two policemen and steals an escape pod, evading laser fire and tractor beams with some skilled stunt-flying.
  • Mama Bear: Angelina, for her husband and sons.
  • Master of Disguise: In a universe of ubiquitous surveillance and paranoid secret policemen this is a basic survival technique, ranging all the way up to full body surgery.
  • Mega-Maw Maneuver: In The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You the Special Corps investigates the mysterious disappearance of a navy space station whose last message was: "THE TEETH!" Jim uses time travel to go back to the event and sees it swallowed by a planetoid sent by alien invaders, who carry the station back to their homeworld.

  • Outlaw Couple: To the protagonist and his wife, an extended crime spree is a nice way to spend a honeymoon.
  • Papa Wolf: Jim, for his wife and sons. And his sons for their parents. Did we mention they are a close family of highly skilled criminals and Special Corps agents?
  • The Professor: Professor Coypu
  • Phlebotinum Pills: Numerous, this being the future. Among them, a pill to make one instantly sober.
  • Planet of Hats: Planet of Uniforms in the case of Cliaand.
  • Police State: The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge and The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (military dictatorship), while the planet in The Stainless Steel Rat For President is a Banana Republic.
  • Rebellious Spirit: A pervasive theme is the power of breaking the rules, especially the ones that even rulebreakers follow.
  • Shotgun Wedding: Jim tries to run off on the pregnant Angelina on the day of their wedding. She's having none of that. Either he goes with her to the altar, or he gets a huge hole blasted in him with her Hand Cannon. You don't mess with a pregnant woman, especially if she used to be a sociopathic murderer. Of course, once their marriage is entered into the planetary database, the cops are quick on their tail, which means that maybe Jim was right in avoiding a legal marriage.
  • Shout-Out: Chojecki's socioeconomic system is very reminiscent of Walden Two.
  • Shrink Ray: Used in at least one story to carry large equipment in a suitcase.
  • Space Police: The Special Corps. Later they discover there's also a Time Corps and a Morality Corps, much to Inskipp's annoyance.
  • Stable Time Loop: The result of all the running around in The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World. He (this is his name, which gets confusing) attacks the Special Corps by eliminating key elements in the past, prompting Jim to travel to 20th century Earth, where he first encounters He and disrupts his operation there. He travels to the time of the Napoleonic Wars, where he kills Napoleon and impersonates him, and Jim travels there and tries to kill him. He escapes and travels to the future, leaving Jim trapped in a collapsing time loop, but not before Jim throws a heavy object and messes up the controls on the time machine, sending He to sometime in our future. Insane as he is, He's memories fade, and pretty much the only thing he keeps is his hatred of Jim. Being functionally immortal, a long time passes, and Jim along with Angelina travels to shortly before Earth's destruction to confront He. At the end, He travels to 20th century Earth...and launches his time war on the Corps. Again, he doesn't get any older, so He just runs around and around the loop while Jim and Angelina go back to their time and get on with their lives. Pretty much a Fate Worse than Death for He.
  • Staged Shooting: In The Stainless Steel Rat for President, Jim runs for and wins the presidency of the planet Paraiso-Aqui. But he doesn't want to actually be President of Paraiso-Aqui, so he arranges to be "assassinated" right after he's announced as the President-elect, which makes the well-qualified Vice-president-elect the actual President.
  • Stompy Mooks: Subverted and exploited. Jim diGriz is trying to escape from soldiers inside a building. He avoids one pursuer making noise with heavy boots, then another soldier coming from another direction with loud boots, and ends up in a meeting with the chief of the pursuers. He then learns that the soldiers had been ordered to herd him into the meeting with their stomping.
  • Suicidal Pacifism: An entire planet in The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted.
  • Take That!: The books where Jim is conscripted into the military and subjected to all its mindless indignities, bureaucratic inanities and Neanderthal NCO's are Harrison's personal revenge against the US Army Air Corps, in which he was a draftee during the Second World War.
  • Technical Pacifist: Jim is a classic example. He is quite happy to employ non-lethal violence, but he will not kill, either as a criminal or a law-enforcement agent. For Jim, there is no God or afterlife, so this life is all we get. Which means that to take someone's life is to take everything they have.
  • Thicker Than Water: Jim's sons override his scruples on leading them into a life of crime on the grounds that saving their mother from the income tax people is a good cause.
  • This Bed of Rose's: The Back-Alley Doctor who does the plastic surgery to Jim has been reduced to that after losing his job. After he finishes with the surgery, Jim gives the doctor the final part of the payment... in marked money, explaining the hooker deserves some compensation for supporting him, so he sent the sum to her instead.
  • Time Loop Trap: the villain of The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World is stuck in one, created by a paradox that Jim inadvertently brings about. +
  • Time Travel: Central to the entire plot of The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World, in which a hate-filled megalomaniac named only "He" attempts to destroy the Special Corps (and the entire happy civilization of the League) by traveling in time to ensure that the people and institutions he hates will never have existed. Slippery Jim must therefore travel back in time to the dim mists of prehistory (that is, back to Earth circa 1970) and eventually to other historical periods as well to stop this plan.
  • Time Travel Taboo: In The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! the Special Corps is mulling over the idea of ending the war with the creepy crawly aliens by just sending all the aliens a hundred years forward in time (by which point humans will presumably have figured out how to deal with them) when an agent of the Time Police suddenly appears (right in the middle of their "secret meeting") to inform them that this solution is forbidden. An interesting variation on the trope in that the heroes aren't even planning on sending their enemies into the past—which could raise obvious paradoxes—but into the future, but it's still forbidden by the Time Police.
  • Tomboy Angst: In The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge, Jim visits a planet where the traditional gender roles are inverted. One policeman complains loudly that his mother raised a tomgirl out of him while he wanted to be a househusband like dad.
  • The Unfettered: Jim ordinarily maintains a lot of principles (particularly differing from the supposed 'good' government on the subject of mind control). But in The Stainless Steel Rat he uses chemicals to temporarily become a psychopath, and in The Stainless Steel Rat's Revenge he uses drugs to induce psychotic rage. The sequences are pretty appalling - particularly since Evil Feels Good until he reverts to sanity.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Averted in the first book when Jim tracks down Angelina only to find she's been lying in wait for him all along. Angelina just gives an Evil Laugh and shoots Jim four times in the chest and once in the head without even trying to find out who he is. He survives and tracks her down a second time. Angelina again sees through his disguise, but doesn't kill him because she's hoping he'll realise they're not that different.
  • Zeerust: The first novel was written in 1961, so there's plenty of this. One example from very early in the first-published book: Jim buys a ticket for an interplanetary spaceship. He then changes his destination to a different planet (to evade pursuit by the authorities) using a cigar punch to alter the pattern of little holes on the paper ticket, thus altering the machine-readable information on the ticket. All pretty slick and 1961.

Alternative Title(s): Stainless Steel Rat