The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! by Harry Harrison

cover photo

I picked this copy of The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! at Logos on a trip back to Santa Cruz. They have a lot of really sweet vintage scifi and if you ‘re passing through the area, you should stop by. It’s right on Pacific Street and it was one of my favorite haunts when I was in college.

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! is a blend of humor, science fiction, and spy fiction. It’s fun, light reading with some funny moments, like the main character flirting with an amorphous alien to gain access to their ship, but its politics are very of its time, which gives a window into how people in the 1970s might have thought about things like Japan and gender relations.

First the plot: James DiGriz aka ‘Slippery Jim’ aka ‘The Stainless Steel Rat’ is an ex-criminal working for the Special Corps, a secret branch of the government dedicated to fighting crime. He has no aversion to theft, but he abhors killing, preferring to sneak in, steal what he wants, and leave without being noticed. He is amusingly resourceful, and his adventures consist of repeatedly getting into trouble and using his wits and surroundings to escape.

He is married to Angelina, ironically named because she was previously a ruthless killer and fellow criminal. She underwent psychosurgery ( in order to calm her homicidal tendencies. The story begins when she is kidnapped by the space IRS because their family hasn’t been reporting their earnings. Upon which the Rat goes and retrieves their two delinquent sons from military school and explains the libertarian perspective on taxes:

Big government means big bureaucracy which means big taxes.

The Rat sees the taxman as the real thief, which is ironic because he’s literally a thief (and not the Robin Hood kind, as far as I can tell). After that, he and his boys set off to go save their mother. What ensues is a series of adventures and a war with slimy, shapeless aliens who are trying to destroy the humans because they perceive the humans to be ugly á la that Twilight Zone episode where “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

Helping the aliens are a race called the Gray Men (maybe a reference to gray matter in the brain) who can control people’s minds by creating or erasing memories. The strangest thing about the Gray Men, and the novel in general, is that all of the Gray Men and things connected to the Gray Men have names that seem randomly pulled from a Japanese dictionary.

They live on a planet called Kekkonshiki, which means marriage in Japanese. The headmaster is called Hanasu (to speak), the school where they indoctrinate students in some kind of totalitarian ideology is called Yurusareta school (‘was permitted’), there’s a guy named Ahiru (duck, the quacking kind), and a girl named Kaeru (to return). Most of the names make sense in the context of the story, but it’s very strange to see words from an actual living language used as exotic names in a science fiction story with no attempt to alter them or hide their origins.

With that in mind, it becomes impossible not to think of the implications of the Gray Men being Japanese. This novel was published in 1978, when the Japanese economy had recovered from World War II but hadn’t moved into the boom of the late 80s yet. Japanese cars were beginning to become popular in the US and Americans were beginning to realize that Japan was becoming a major economic power.

The Gray Men seem more akin to World War II Era Japan, though. Their history is that they were abandoned to die on an icy planet and they developed this thing called “Moral Philosophy”, which basically means never showing weakness or emotion. The children are taught, “When they [the thousand survivors] were weak, they died. When they were afraid, they died. When they allowed emotion to rule reason, they died.”

I think this is the American perception of Nazi philosophy coming into view here. Nazi Germany and Japan were allies during WWII so it makes sense that Harrison would show Nazi influence in his portrayal of the Gray Men. I do not think it is really Nazish because the Nazis embraced emotion, using nostalgia for the homeland and hatred of the enemy to motivate the country. As far as I know, Nazis didn’t try to repress displays of emotion, as long as they were patriotic.

Also like Nazi Germany, the Kekkonshiki are told that they are the master race and they will use their survival skills and “Moral Philosophy” to conquer the galaxy. Empiricism and the ideology of a “master race” fits both Japanese and Nazi propaganda. The Japanese were part of the Axis powers with Germany, and their propaganda included the idea of the ‘Yamato spirit’ – the idea that the Japanese people were protected by deities and that they were morally superior to their enemies and would survive no matter the odds.

The women of Kekkonshiki are subservient and quiet, cooking the men food and not arguing when given  orders. Jim gives a speech to the woman while she’s cooking about how when they’re liberated she won’t have to work so hard anymore, which is trying to be progressive about gender relations while actually being empiricist and being the white savior. He could have used this as an opportunity to inquire about the Gray Man/Japanese culture, but instead he opts for erasing their differences and promising that his culture will come and take over and the other culture will be the better for it.
There’s also the awkward moment when Slippery Jim arrives at the Kekkonshiki school, he finds his way to the headmaster Hanasu, who is sympathetic to changing the curriculum away from war and towards peace. Since Jim is an escaped prisoner on Kekkonshiki, the police are after him and he hides in Hanasu’s office. Since the situation seems hopeless, he keeps suggesting that he and Jim commit suicide. I’m guessing this has something to do with the Kekkonshiki’s Moral Philosophy and the connection to something like Japanese bushido. Bushido teaches that fear of death is secondary to duty (I think), but in WWII it was used by Hideki Tojo and others in the Japanese government to forward a military ideal of victory or death.

Spoiler Text in white below:

At the end, the Kekkonshiki join forces with the humans against the gooey alien race to forge peace in the galaxy. This is very much like the end of fighting between Japan and the US during WWII, as the Kekkonshiki realize that to keep fighting would be suicide and Hanasu convinces them to reapply Moral Philosophy to the situation to save their lives instead of becoming an empire.

This is an interesting text, at its time for entertainment but now more for historical reasons. I loved how Harrison shows Jim never giving up instead of just telling the reader about it like most stories, but ultimately for me it’s complicated by clashing political values.

Rating: ☆☆☆✮✮


One thought on “The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! by Harry Harrison

  1. I’ve been a Stainless Steel Rat fan since a friend of mine recommended him (via Harry Harrison) to me in the early 1980’s. As far as the Japanese words go, it never even occurred to me that was their source. The name “Kaeru” struck me as unique so I named my fluffy, white Angora cat after the cook in the book. Shortly after reading my first SSR novel, I wrote to Mr. Harrison thanking him for such great stories and to my surprise he sent me a signed “thank you” note! Dean Koontz is my favorite writer so I contacted him to offer my thanks for his amazing stories and he sent me a handwritten note (I’m a published writer so I’d asked a few questions in my note to him) along with an autographed copy of his book “A Big Little Life” about his golden retriever Trixie. Talk about a pleasant surprise!

    Anyhow…I digress. You can’t beat the SSR series for laughs combined with good stories that are easy to re-read several times. Jim always gets help at the very last minute to extricate himself from a sure death but the help never seems silly (like the deus ex machina we saw in the movie “Contact” where another entire Machine had been “secretly” built.)

    Long Live the Stainless Steel Rat!

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