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Thursday, August 23, 2012

All You Need Is The Stainless Steel Rat

Yesterday, after perusing his biography, I mourned that I had not read more of Harry Harrison’s novels.  Today, a revelation lifted my spirits.  Even if I hadn’t read everything Harrison wrote, I had read enough to understand those issues closest to his heart.  Allow me to explain.

According to, in the critical journal Extrapolation, Steven R. Carter quotes Slippery Jim DiGriz as saying, “Cold-blooded killing is not my thing.”  Carter listed examples of how Harrison expressed his views in his books: the brutalizing effects of war (Bill, the Galactic Hero), the dangers of superstition and overreliance on authority figures (Captive Universe), and the need for international co-operation to solve the worldwide problems of overpopulation, poverty, and dwindling resources (as in Make Room! Make Room! and Skyfall).

As I mentioned in the last blog, with a few notable exceptions, I’ve mainly read The Stainless Steel Rat series.  Yet, after perusing Harrison’s biography a second time, several themes emerged: a love of Esperanto, a hatred of war and a loathing of the military, his distrust of religion and political figures, and his interest in world travel.  In several Rat novels, Jim works to prevent war on a global or interplanetary scale.  The website’s synopsis for The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted states that the same Sergeants (and underlying philosophy) portrayed in Bill, the Galactic Hero are present in this novel.  In The Stainless Steel Rat For President, Harrison parodies politicians and the election process.  The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell utilizes a villain who preys on people’s religious beliefs, and in The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (which I’m reading now), Jim lands on Floridora, where two religious societies view the other as evil.  While one initially seems Good and the other Evil, Jim soon realizes that both are equally intolerant.  

I’ve read Skyfall, and seen “Soylent Green” (the film adapted from Make Room! Make Room!).  My recollection is that both stories were bleak portrayals of human foibles.  Yes, world leaders may get together to solve problems, but only at the last minute.  Personally, I see more hope, and more application for our lives, in The Stainless Steel Rat series, where Jim is usually acting alone to solve a problem that threatens to tear society apart.  Another thread in his novels, which speaks to the desire to unite mankind, is Jim’s (and Harrison’s) love of Esperanto, the language created and promoted as a universal language.  Even if English has become the de facto language in most of the world, its creators had their hearts in the right places. 

Of course, there’s still Harrison’s love of travel to be addressed, but that’s clearly presented in The Stainless Steel Rat.  In each novel, Jim travels to another planet and learns about different cultures and societies.  This draws on Harrison’s life: he lived on both coasts of the United States, Mexico, England, Denmark, and Italy, until he and his wife eventually settled in Ireland.  Someday I’d like to read Vendetta For The Saint, a novel he ghost authored for Leslie Charteris early in his literary career.  The novel was set in Italy, and I can imagine that the time Harrison lived there added depth and interest to the story.  But for now, I’m satisfied.  For even though I haven’t read all of his novels, and even if I never had the honor of meeting him, I’m confident that everything I really need to know about Harry Harrison can be found in The Stainless Steel Rat series.  And for any of you out there who refuse to believe that humorous novels can contain significant meaning, I’ll leave you with this quote from the great man himself:

“I have found that an action story with two or three levels of intellectual content below the surface enables me to say what I want to say.  I have also found that humor—and black humor—can carry ideas that can be expressed in no other way.”

Remembering a literary icon,
Dragon Dave

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