Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stealthy as Rats in the Wainscoting of their Society

I have written before about how my grandfather was a consummate storyteller, a real master of that oral art (leaving beside my own obvious bias).

His farm life in the Czech-belt of Central Texas during the Depression and his From Here to Eternity soldiering in pre-war Hawaii loomed large and evocatively in full technicolor for me. With undulating sweeps of his wrinkled hands he'd conjure up the rugged green ridges of Oahu, a sudden thrust of his fist would paint an instant picture of the boar breaking out of the brush that knocked him off the trail.

Quite a few of those stories featured what apparently was a commonplace in hard scrabble America before WWII: a hustle. Part mortality story, part grudging marvel at the gumption or moxie of the grifter, there were countless variations of these con-men tales.

My eternal suspicion about being approached on the street or a knock on the door—even the more obvious and sincere attempts--instantly sends off the imminent-hustle warning bells. Still I have carried with me alongside that guardedness a lifelong fascination with picaros, mountebanks and other rogues that rely on wit and keen insight into the manipulable sides of the human character.

Of course, that's why a Mountebank class not only exists in my campaign, but have leading PCs in the G+ group playing them. And that's why I tend to encourage and enjoy the antics of the players working their various hustles and other bits of what we call the life of an Eternal Scumbag (a play on Moorcock's Eternal Champion including a vague, “racial” memory for player-characters who come in as replacements for slain previous characters).

This is a long windup to the sad news I heard about Harry Harrison's passing this morning. The Stainless Steel Rat stories--while not on par in my tastes with the picaresque scalawags of Cervantes, Vance, and Fraser (Flashman)--were a solid entry in my speculative fiction outlet for that fascination. I enjoyed the elaborate heists of his anti-hero James Bolivar diGriz , his confidence tricks—and the occasional and inevitable comeuppance by the stern hand of the Special Corps. That it all took place on a Space Opera stage (one cited as a source on Classical Traveller I hasten to add), was just pure icing.

A blurb copy on the first edition of the Stainless Steel Rat stories states the Eternal Scumbag credo just so perfectly:

“We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment.”

So goodbye Slippery Jim. May the Colonel and Manzafrain the Mirthful do justice to your memory.


  1. Even that blurb hints at something far more than a gulped down read. A fine post too. I like when you mix it all up. You do insights at various magnifications.

  2. Sad to hear the news. I was a huge fan of the Rat books back in my youth; I'll have to pick one up for old time's sake.