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06 August 2010 @ 02:12 pm
The Stainless Steel Rat  
The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison is another book that cropped up in my grand-bookshelf-organisation-plan and which I thought I maybe ought to read. It's a lot of fun, I was quite happily carried along by its con-man/caper plot with added scifi trappings although, it has to be said, it's more a sequence of outrageous plans than anything particularly coherent but they are written with verve, and never lose sight of how basically ridiculous they all are.

The plot-hole spotting side of my brain was mildly caught up in observing that, for a society which has, apparently, eradicated crime in all but a few specialised cases, it was a society peculiarly rife with bribery and corruption. Slippery Jim DiGriz gets a long way by slipping people a few notes and by threatening to expose evidence of their corrupt practices.

But primarily I was struck by an odd kind of sexism in the world-building. A brief Google actually turns up very little by way of in-depth criticism of The Stainless Steel Rat. What little I found is inclined to attribute the sexism to Slippery Jim, rather than to the world he inhabits itself which is, in fact, the precise opposite of my impression. Slippery Jim makes an error early on (and I'm going to spoil this because, frankly, you could work it out from the back cover of my edition of the book) in mistaking his antagonist for the male company boss, as opposed to the female secretary. However, that mistake could easily have followed from ingrained notions of hierarchy, especially in this (or so we are frequently told though, I would argue, rarely shown) remarkably regulated society, than from assumptions based around gender roles. Thereafter, Slippery Jim never doubts the abilities or ruthlessness of his opponent. He underestimates her a couple of times, but there's no indication this is because of her gender as opposed to his own vast ego. He has a moment of possessive patriarchal sexism at one point, but again this takes place at a juncture when he has deliberately placed himself in a psychotic mind-set and is being pretty viciously misanthrophic in general. However, there is a stunning passage where he muses on his antagonist's thoughts and motivations and sympathises with the way her ambition must be thwarted in a society in which she must always be the secretary and never the boss, or (once she reaches her government toppling phase) always the consort and never the King.

I found it very odd. I didn't really detect any overt sexism in the protagonist or the author, beyond this completely unexamined assumption that women, while as capable as any man, could never acquire roles of authority in a well-regulated society. The book doesn't read as if it is trying to be a social critique or satire. It seems quite content as a well-written, tightly paced, caper novel so this contradiction between what women can do and what they are allowed to do seems like an odd failure of the imagination. And yes, obviously that is sexist, but in a different way to any explicit idea that women are incapable of acting in certain roles. However, Wikipedia tells me that The Stainless Steel Rat is the first in a sequence of novels and short stories and I wonder if the others reveal a more overtly sexist attitude.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/14559.html.
(Anonymous) on August 6th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
There are indeed several more and I won't spoil them for you by confirming or denying your hypothesis. I read these for the first time when I was about 14 and so was fairly easily borne along by the high-spiritedness of the whole thing.

I will however remark that you've some interesting moments ahead of you if you continue with the series. :)
firinfirin on August 6th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
That was me, sorry.
louisedennislouisedennis on August 6th, 2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
It was remarkably readable. I rather miss the days when a short length and good pacing were considered a virtue in a popular novel.

I don't know if I shall read the rest. I don't think they are on our bookshelves so they are going to fall into that awkward spot where I juggle my finances, the height of the "to read" pile, and the length of the Amazon wish list...
joereavesjoereaves on August 6th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Most of them are on my LJ in my eBook posts if you want them :D

Of course you have to bear in mind that the first one was written in 1961 so the assumptions about women not holding power were based on the real world the author was living in. Heck until 1979* a woman couldn't buy anything on HP without her husband or father cosigning and was expected to leave her job if not when she married then definitely when she became a mother, so an assumption that the women in the book will always be unable to hold power isn't that out of line. I'd be interested to see if that changes by the time the last one was published in 1999.

* Not sure exactly when that changed but I believe Margaret Thatcher was the catalyst as, as one commenter pointed out, she could launch a nuclear war but couldn't buy a sofa without her husband's permission.
louisedennis: bookslouisedennis on August 6th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
I suspect that the root cause is, as you say, the culture of 1961. But it seems an odd failure of the imagination, still, if you are imagining a far future well-regulated society and you recognise that the barriers to women are cultural rather than innate that you don't make that leap into assuming that the barriers will have been erased in this future.

All that said, I'm not sure his full attention was actually on the world-building, except as a hand-wave for more outrageous cons...
joereavesjoereaves on August 6th, 2010 04:56 pm (UTC)
He may also have been influenced by what he thought readers would want to see. Similarly to the way we lost the female first officer in TOS because the network didn't like it. or as you say he may not have been interested much in the world building :D
louisedennislouisedennis on August 6th, 2010 05:04 pm (UTC)
I certainly think we are expected to be surprised by the twist reveal that the villain is *gasp* the female secretary, rather than wondering, as the modern reader does, why Slippery Jim wasn't keeping a close eye on her as well! And I suspect that was in several ways meant to play to his perceived readership.
wellinghallwellinghall on August 6th, 2010 05:14 pm (UTC)
SF very often concentrates on projecting just a few changes, while leaving other aspects almost completely unchanged.
louisedennislouisedennis on August 6th, 2010 05:47 pm (UTC)
At their best, when they are actually interested in their world-building, I would say they do better than that, although I suspect all of them are instructive in terms of the changes they don't anticipate. But I think you do need to recognise that some SF books are not actually all that interested in the world-building for one reason or another, either because they are deliberately intended as critique or satire of current society, or because they are more interested in adventure/horror/detecting/whatever than they are in the world-building.
wellinghallwellinghall on August 6th, 2010 05:49 pm (UTC)
Everything you say is correct. And I did just say, "Very often."
Susanlil_shepherd on August 7th, 2010 05:57 am (UTC)
I'm not sure if Harry Harrison had moved to Ireland by then, but if you remember that, not only is this written in the 1960s, but it's written by a man who spent most of his life in two high patriarchal societies during the time he was living in them (the USA in the 50s and perhaps the 60s, and Ireland in perhaps the 60s, the 70s and the 80s) some of this is bound to come through. Of the people writing at this period, only James Schmitz seems to have embraced feminism in his societies. (But then, he almost never writes men as heroes.)

Personally, I think that, like most series, this one goes downhill. However, it is a bit of fluff, and has always been regarded as such, though a rather enduring bit of fluff.
louisedennislouisedennis on August 7th, 2010 06:26 am (UTC)
I think what maybe particularly struck me about the sexism here, as opposed to other books of the era is that the sexism isn't demonstrated via pronouncements about what women's weaknesses are, or what they are suitable for or just by female characters generally lacking agency and tending to do as they are told - quite the opposite in fact. So it felt surprisingly modern, in that sense. Maybe that is why I was particularly taken aback by this attitude of "such a shame they will never be allowed to achieve anything in their own right". In fact, if a little more had been made of that glass ceiling, I'd have suspected Harrison was in fact making a feminist point.
Susanlil_shepherd on August 7th, 2010 07:42 am (UTC)
It's a long time since I read Harrison, but most of his heroes, as far as I recall, hardly ever meet a woman, so Jim is a lucky man.

It's very complicated. You get people like Heinlein who really, really like women and try hard to create societies of equality but somehow end up having all their women turn into homemakers.

But then you get something like the Lensman books, where only males (because we are talking a large number of species) can wear and use a lens - and then, suddenly, the most powerful person ever to use a lens is a woman, Clarissa (and though she is in a traditional female profession - nurse - she is highly respected professionally), and four of the five Children of the Lens are women.

Or you get a female children's SF writer (Andre Norton) who never, in this period, writes a woman as the pov protagonist (and rarely has any female characters until the Witch World) as opposed to the aforementioned Schmitz, who very, very rarely writes a man as the pov protagonist (and whose heroines are horrifyingly competent, and generally tougher than any of the men in the stories - when I was in my teens I really, really wanted to be Telzey or Trigger or Danestar or Pagadan or Nile, none of whom can be accused of not having agency.)

And it's no use blaming Campbell, as he published Schmitz but not Norton...
king_pellinorking_pellinor on August 9th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC)
He tends to have quite a few rather capable women in his books. The Rat books have several, and the Deathworld series is full of them.
Susanlil_shepherd on August 9th, 2010 06:25 pm (UTC)
Only the later ones. If I remember it correctly, Deathworld itself does not, and the sequels were written many years later.
king_pellinorking_pellinor on August 9th, 2010 06:40 pm (UTC)
It seems you remember incorrectly :-) The ship's pilot is female, and is one of the major characters - although to be fair none of the characters other than the hero gets much screen time.
Susanlil_shepherd on August 9th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
I stand corrected - though, to be honest, I am remembering the original serialisation in ASF (now that dates me) and remember very little except the world building and said hero.