The Stainless Steel Rat story

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.

RAT REBORN

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.

RAT REDUX

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)

2000AD timeline 9: 1985

1985 (Prog 399- 450)

January: Prog 400!

February: (Prog 403): The cover price rises to 24p, three times its original 1977 price.

(Prog 404): The Stainless Steel Rat (Gosnell/Ezquerra) ends for good.

(Prog 405) The Ballad of Halo Jones (Moore/Gibson) returns for an acclaimed award-winning Book 2. Halo leaves the Hoop for a job on the luxury space liner, the Clara Pandy.

May (Prog 416): Judge Dredd favourite Cassandra Anderson confronts the Dark Judges in her own new strip, Anderson PSI (Wagner and Grant/Brett Ewins).

Other stories this year include Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Sam Slade: Robo-Hunter, Helltrekkers, Ace Trucking Co. and Strontium Dog.

June (Prog 425): Dredd runs into Chopper again in Midnight Surfer (Wagner and Grant/Cam Kennedy).

September (Prog 435): Nemesis the Warlock Book 5: Vengeance of Thoth (Pat Mills/Bryan Talbot).

(Prog 437): The Mean Team arrive (Wagner and Grant/Belardinelli).

October: The Best of 2000AD Monthly begins. Initially reprinting a range of stories in one issue e.g. Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and Rogue Trooper, later issues restrict themselves to just one story e.g. Nemesis and the Gothic Empire or a collection of Dredd stories. it continues for 119 issues, falling just short of the ten year mark ending in August 1995.

November: Bad news for Johnny and Wulf as they run into Max Bubba in Strontium Dog.

Elsewhere:

Fantasy films, Legend, Red Sonja and Ladyhawke are all released this year.

French-Japanese animated space epic, Ulyssees 31 arrives on Children’s BBC.

January: James Cameron’s Terminator arrives in the UK.

Warrior comic breathes its last. Adult comic Viz goes nationwide.

March: 2010: The Year We Make Contact is released, Peter Hyams’ sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

April: Max Headroom (Matt Frewer) debuts on Channel 4.

December: Release of Back To The Future.

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines and websites including The Companion, Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Metalzoic, Dan Dare, The Eagle and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the past, he wrote for Metro.co.uk, Radio Times, DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He also provided all the written content for the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars as well as for sections of the 2014 South Park annual and all the 2015 Transformers annual.

2000AD timeline 8: 1984

1984 (Progs 350 – 398)

There are fewer progs of 2000AD than usual this year, due to industrial action halting publication of the Galaxy’s Greatest comic for several weeks in the summer.

March (Prog 359): Judge Dredd investigates The Haunting of Sector House 9 (Wagner and Grant/Brett Ewins).

(Prog 362): The cover price rises to 22p.

April (Prog 366): Dave the Orangutan makes his first appearance in Portrait of a Politician in Judge Dredd.

July (Prog 376): The Ballad of Halo Jones (Alan Moore/Ian Gibson) begins. Initially not popular, in time it becomes one of the most highly acclaimed 2000AD stories ever produced.

August (Prog 377): Mean Machine returns in Dredd Angel (Wagner and Grant/Ron Smith). This is the first issue in a month, following a printers’ strike.

September (Prog 385): Halo Jones Book One ends. Strontium Dog saga Outlaw! ends too.

October (Prog 387): Nemesis the Warlock encounters The Gothic Empire (Mills/O’Neill). The story will see him re-unite the ABC Warriors as well as ex-Ro-Busters, Ro-Jaws and Mek-Quake.

November (Prog 392): Rogue Trooper tracks down the Traitor General.

Other strips this year include: The Helltrekers, Ace Trucking Co., Rogue Trooper, Slaine and D.R. and Quinch.

(Prog 393): The final and perhaps best of the comic adaptations of Harry Harrison’s novels, The Stainless Steel Rat For President begins (Gosnell/Ezquerra). Judge Dredd meanwhile confronts the Hill Street Blues in City of the Damned.

Elsewhere:

February: Surprisingly disturbing John Wyndham adaptation, Chocky airs on Children’s ITV. Chocky’s Children (1985) and Chocky’s Children (1986) later follow.

March: Horror comic Scream! is launched. Sadly, it finishes in June, partly as a result of the strikes this year. Stories such as The Thirteenth Floor find their way into The Eagle.

Peter Davison regenerates into Colin Baker on Doctor Who.

July: William Gibson’s ground-breaking cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer is published.

Star Trek III: The Search For Spock arrives. It is one of the odd numbered ones, so is generally considered less than good.

The Last Starfighter is released in the US.

Extra-terrestrial thriller, V lands on ITV this summer.

August: The first series of Manimal hits the UK.

September: The Tripods stride boldly onto British TV screens. Horrifying nuclear war drama, Threads is also broadcast.

October: Conan the Destroyer is unleashed.

November: The fourth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book, So Long and Thanks For All The Fish by Douglas Adams is published.

December: The year ends on a high as Ghostbusters hits UK cinemas along with Joe Dante’s Gremlins. As does David Lynch’s Dune.

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines and websites including The Companion, Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle, Metalzoic and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the past, he wrote for Metro.co.uk, Radio Times, DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He also provided all the written content for the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars as well as for sections of the 2014 South Park annual and all the 2015 Transformers annual.