Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Review: A/The* Stainless Steel Rat Is Born, by Harry Harrison

This is a sci-fi book, set in a futuristic universe and written a couple of decades ago. The protagonist is Jimmy diGriz, a highly intelligent and resourceful but also tremendously bored chap who attempts to make his life worth living by becoming a criminal genius.

He’s not vicious or nasty, just sly, and uses violence only when necessary (and not to kill). The world he lives in is Bit O’Heaven, and has all the charm and joie de vivre of a 9-5 office cubicle.

He ends up in prison, where he hopes to learn more about the more skilful elements of criminality. However, he soon discovers everyone else in prison is a moron or incredibly violent, and sets out to find a mentor.

The book’s pretty light-hearted, and does a good job of making the small cast (diGriz is ever present) realistic and, in a few cases, very likeable. The writing style is such that it’s easy to race through the book (as I did), and there are numerous twists and cliff-hangers throughout which help keep the reader on their toes.

There isn’t really an antagonist, beyond The Man/The Establishment, although there are a few vile individuals dotted here and there. I think a slightly stronger sense of direction, perhaps through a primary antagonist, would have helped somewhat. That’s not to say the plot isn’t fast-moving, eventful and exciting, just that there’s a slight lack of focus.

I liked the minor use of Esperanto. I didn’t recognise it at first, but was aware of its existence (Esperanto was an effort to create an artificial language that would be intuitive and easy to learn for almost everyone. The reason it never caught on was because English had already become the dominant global language, and nobody spoke it as a native).

Mr. Harrison blends the generally light-hearted nature of the book with the grimmer moments very well, and I’ll be buying more of the books in the series.

*On the title: it’s listed as ‘A’ on Amazon, but the cover says ‘The’.



  1. You write that Esperanto "never caught on". I beg to disagree. Esperanto has caught on. Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. Over recent years I have had guided tours of Berlin, Douala and Milan in this planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on. I recommend it, not just as an ideal but as a very practical way to overcome language barriers.

  2. Many ignorant people describe Esperanto as "failed" - other ignorant people say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.

    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.

    During a short period of 125 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Esperanto is a living language - see

    Their new online course has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can't be bad :)

  3. I must confess to being staggered to learn that. I thought, in error obviously, that it had limped to a sad and lonely death.

    It was interesting, actually, to understand some of it without having been taught any.

  4. Gosh, The Stainless Steel Rat series must be at least 40 years old - I can remember reading a couple of the books in the early seventies and they weren't new then. Have they been given a new lease of life by some clever marketing wallah or is Mr. Thaddeus just catching up on his reading list?

    I remember them as fun, and occasionally downright funny, pulp-science-fiction.

  5. Aye, I think the first book may've been written in the '60s. Mind you, given I've also reviewed Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War on this site this particularly book isn't *that* old.

    I went for it based on a recommendation I got on the Chrons forums, and agree with your description.

  6. Hurst - over 50, actually. "The Stainless Steel Rat" was published in 1961. The series was a feature of my teenage years, but it suffered from sequel decay as it went on and I think " born" was the first one I didn't bother reading. I was frankly astounded to see that Harrison is still churning them out, the most recent in the series being published in 2010.

    As for Esperanto - I tried learning that when I was 16 or so, it was very easy but there was a problem in that there was nobody to talk to and nothing except teach yourself Esperanto books to read. The claims of the gentlemen up thread are a tad optimistic BTW - wikipedia reports something like 10,000 - 2 million fluent speakers, and there'd need to be at least 5 million to break into the top 100 ahead of Hebrew or Finnish. As for wikipedia itself, rankings there can be artificially inflated by a small number of extremely committed activists - the idea that Esperanto is in any sense a more important or widely used language than Hindi (no. 40) for example is simply absurd.

  7. Interesting that you mention sequel decay. The back of the book has them listed in order of writing, so I might try the first written and see how to compares to this one.

  8. "I might try the first written and see how to compares to this one."

    I'd wager a decent bottle that you'll find the first in the series more lively and funnier than the later books. Sequel decay is a fact of life as I think is author decay - just look at the works of Terry Pratchett and Tom Sharpe.

  9. There's also the possibility that a character or world gets so thoroughly explored that genuinely new experiences are hard to come by, and over familiarity can make things seem predictable.

    I really love the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, and must have a score of them, but I've read so many I feel I've had my fill of that particular dish and want a more varied diet.

    [For Cornwell fans after non-Sharpe stuff, I can heartily recommend the Warlord Chronicles and the Starbuck Chronicles].