Sunday, October 17, 2010

Analyzing The Stainless Steel Rat - Part 3

Michael Salsbury
In the first two installments of this series, I looked at a statistical view of Harry Harrison's novel The Stainless Steel Rat.  In this installment, I want to examine how he developed the character James Bolivar "Slippery Jim" DiGriz, the aforementioned Stainless Steel Rat.

Jim DiGriz would not appear to be a sympathetic character at first glance.  He is a career criminal.  He makes his living stealing from others, eluding the police, and committing any number of other crimes.  Yet, almost from the first page, you find yourself liking Slippery Jim.  Why?

To be certain, Jim has a few imperfections aside from his chosen profession:

    • He's very smug and sure of himself. When he disables the police robot that tries to arrest him in the opening scene, we are told "He squashed very nicely, thank you."  Later, when the robot tries to grab him on the way out of the office, Jim says "I had been waiting for that and they [the robot fingers] closed about two inches short."  When he hears the police sirens outside, it's "a wonderful sound" and he tells us that "I accepted it as any artist accepts tribute."   At one point, he tells us "The very idea that someone could outthink me was odious."

    • He has little respect for authority or the police. When describing the reaction to his escape, he says "They were sure making a big fuss over a little larceny, but that's the way it goes on these overcivilized worlds. Crime is such a rarity now that the police really get carried away when they run across some. In a way I can't blame them, giving out traffic tickets must be an awful dull job.  I really believe they ought to thank me for putting a little excitement in their otherwise dull lives."  When he meets the leader of The Special Corps, the elite government unit that hunts down people like him, DiGriz describes him as "The old boy behind the desk".

    • He doesn't see his actions as harmful. In addition to thinking that the police should thank him for giving them some excitement, Jim also mentions that no one is really harmed by his crimes.  If he robs a bank or a business, for example, he figures they're reimbursed by their insurance company so no one really got hurt.  What about the insurance company?  They've lost money, and they're probably going to raise the victim's insurance rates, too.

Still, Jim DiGriz is a sympathetic and likable character.

Bestselling author Michael A. Stackpole says that there are seven traits that tend to make characters likable:

    • They are admirable.

    • They are "in control".

    • They are virtuous.

    • They are "human".

    • They exhibit courage.

    • They seem like "a force of nature".

    • Reading about them is a kind of "guilty pleasure".

How does Slippery Jim stack up to this list?

    • He is admirable in spite of himself. Jim is creative, telling us "One of the main reasons I have stayed out of the arms of the law for as long as I have, is that I have never repeated myself.  I have dreamed up some of the sweetest little rackets, run them off once, then stayed away from them forever after."  He becomes more admirable when he joins The Special Corps and agrees to take down the more dangerous, homicidal killers.

    • He is "in control" by virtue of being a skilled planner and sharp thinker. In the opening scene, he knew a police robot would come for him and had already prepared the large safe and explosive charge in the ceiling to drop onto its head, disabling the radio that would call for backup.  He had an escape panel in the wall, knew how long it would take to make it through various parts of his escape route, etc

    • The early scene where he's prepared his escape shows him to be in control.  The fact that his carefully considered plan to trap Pepe and Angelina worked, up until the point he let her escape (showing his "human" side), illustrates this.

      In most situations, in fact, Jim is a "take charge" guy who not only tends to bring others around to his way of thinking but also has a strong handle on his own emotions.  At various times he tells us "I stifled that train of thought before it started", and "Think first, then act." when he's feeling paralyzed with fear
    • He is virtuous, in his own way. Throughout all of his criminal exploits, Jim has never killed anyone.  This is confirmed during his "interview" with Inskipp.  Jim tells Inskipp that he hasn't killed anyone that he knows of.  Inskipp confirms this by saying "Well you haven't, if that will make you sleep any better tonight.  You're not a homicidal, I checked that on your record before I came out after you…"We see evidence of this non-violent nature throughout the book.  Jim's weapon of choice for incapacitating foes is a gas grenade.  He uses them on the occupants of the armored car he steals, on pursuers inside the department store, and elsewhere.  During the chase in the department store, he tells us that he "put an entire clip of slugs through the door, aiming high so I wouldn't hurt anyone."Even when he short-changes a cab drive "to break the monotony" he tells us "the tip I gave him more than made up the loss"… showing that he can't steal from individuals.

    • He is human. During the armored car scenes, we see Jim make his first mistake, failing to realize that the same trucks were going in and out of the parking lot. Later, when he finds himself in the office with Inskipp, he is asked "Don't tell me you thought it was an accident that you ended up here?"  His response is "I had, up until that moment, and the lack of intelligent reasoning on my part brought on a wave of shame that snapped me back to reality.  I had been outwitted and outfought, the least I could do was surrender graciously."Later, when he catches up to Angelina and Pepe, Angelina (the mastermind) pretends to be a victim of Pepe's evil schemes (when in reality the opposite is true).  When Pepe tells him that the whole plan was Angelina's and he's just let her get away, he says "The cold feeling was now a ball of ice that threatened to paralyze me.  'You're lying,' I said hoarsely, and even I didn't believe it."  This won't be the last time Angelina fools with Jim during the story.

    • He exhibits courage. Jim goes through several tense moments escaping from the police in the early scene, including walking across a plank between two tall buildings with no safety precautions.  He sets himself up as a potential victim for Pepe and Angelina, even though they shot a hole through a previous victim's shop.  In fact, Jim exhibits courage consistently throughout the story.

    • The book itself is a "guilty pleasure". There are many people who enjoy reading about criminal capers because they enjoy secretly imagining themselves to be the ones in the stories.  For example, they vicariously live the thrill of cracking a safe, robbing a bank, or running an elaborate con.  The Stainless Steel Rat books (there are at least 10) are told in first person perspective, making it even easier for a reader to imagine being Jim DiGriz.

So, by Stackpole's guidelines, Harrison has done a great job establishing Jim DiGriz as a likable, sympathetic character.  What might be equally interesting would be to see how Harrison turns Angelina from a psychotic, cold-hearted killer into a doting wife and mother.  However, that doesn't happen in this book.  It will have to be a topic for a later article.

In Part 4, I'm going to examine Harrison's use of Dialogue and Description in the novel to paint images of the characters, scenes, and action.

About the Author

Michael Salsbury / Author & Editor

In his day job, Michael Salsbury helps administer over 1,800 Windows desktop computers for a Central Ohio non-profit. When he's not working, he's writing, blogging, podcasting, home brewing, or playing "warm furniture" to his two Bengal cats.


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