Sphere, 1961, 158 pages
Jim DiGriz is caught during one of his crimes and recruited into the Special Corps. Boring, routine desk work during his probationary period results in his discovering that someone is building a battleship, thinly disguised as an industrial vessel. In the peaceful League no one has battleships anymore, so the builder of this one would be unstoppable.
DiGriz' hunt for the guilty becomes a personal battle between himself and the beautiful but deadly Angelina, who is planning a coup on one of the feudal worlds. DiGriz' dilemma is whether he will turn Angelina over to the Special Corps, or join with her, since he has fallen in love with her.
The Stainless Steel Rat is a sci-fi classic. The first in what became a long series, this book presents a galactic civilization in which antisocial behavior has been genetically or psychosurgically eliminated from most of the population.
James Bolivar "Slippery Jim" DiGriz is one of the few exceptional individuals who still dreams of doing things society doesn't approve of. In the old days, he'd have been an explorer or a highwayman or a soldier-of-fortune. Now, he's a criminal mastermind, committing crimes more for the thrill of breaking rules than because he actually needs anything in this post-scarcity society.
That is almost the full extent of crime in our organized, dandified society. Ninety-nine percent of it, let’s say. That last one percent is me and a handful of men scattered around the galaxy. Theoretically, we can’t exist...but we do. We are the rats in the wainscoting of society - we operate outside of their barriers and outside of their rules. 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 ferroconcrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps between the joints and it takes a smart rat to find them. A stainless steel rat is right at home in this environment.
He only talks about men, because this book was written in 1961, but in this book he encounters Angelina, a beautiful femme fatale who arranges a caper to steal a battleship, then tries to start a coup on a backwards feudal planet. DiGriz, having been captured by the Special Corps, which exists only to stop men like him, discovers that the Corps is in fact made up of men like him — ex-criminals. He's sent to track down the would-be owner of a battlecruiser, discovers that the criminal mastermind behind it is a woman, and falls in love with her because she's brilliant and beautiful. Unlike DiGriz, though, Angelina has no compunction about killing.
DiGriz is a charming rogue, so affable and self-justifying that one could hardly call him an anti-hero. He's a thief, yes, but a (mostly) non-violent one, full of rationalizations and much to his disgust, scruples. Angelina is actually the more interesting character, even if the explanation given for her bloodthirsty criminal career is rooted in the chauvinism typical of the era. DiGriz himself, for a master criminal, gets blindsided awfully easily just because his adversary is a woman.
This is not a deep story, it's just a classic sci-fi adventure for fans of space opera with a touch of humor. It's dated but still fun, set in an almost squeaky-clean Star Trek-like universe that still has a little room for outlaws.
Verdict: The Stainless Steel Rat is humorous, light-hearted space opera that will cause readers of a certain generation (ahem) to recall classic Traveller games of yore. Particularly recommended for fans of Keith Laumer's Retief or A. Bertram Chandler's John Grimes series.
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