“Rat” is a surprisingly complex short story, where I really benefited from multiple readings.
At one level it is a dark story of a drug mule and looking at his culpability in the drug trade.
On another it is a wonderfully sensory exploration of a very cyperpunky future world.
Then there is the central question of the story. Is the main character a man who is having a mind-altering experience on dust so he thinks he is a rat, has somehow begun transforming into a rat, or was actually a rat all along (who either imagined the human conversations or has an ability to communicate with them).
All of these parts I found to be effective individually and in combination. Kelly has a real way with words that drags you along on this very strange journey almost meaning you can miss how the descriptors become less human and more rodent as the tale goes on.
What is the truth? is there even one? I don’t know but it is a hell of a journey he takes us on.
I’ve read “Rat” a few times before and have never been able to totally wrap my head around it; that’s still the case with the latest reading, but I feel this is probably intentional. There are things we aren’t meant to understand. It’s both action-heavy (it’s basically one big chase sequence) and a shot out of hell, turning into pure nightmare at the end.
I’ve read a couple editorial introductions to this and they say Rat is a man whose body has been augmented severely, but this is never actually confirmed in-story unless I missed something between the lines. Personally I’m of the belief Rat is an actual rat that has been uplifted and grown abnormally large. It would explain his reverting to animal behavior towards the end and the fact that he keeps a “nest.” We find out nothing about his past or even if he used to have a different name, since its doubtful his name was always Rat. Or maybe it’s like a title.
It’s really an allegory about how murder will out. Rat is a drug runner, specifically of dust which kills anyone who tries withdrawal from it, and so Rat is indirectly responsible for killing quite a few people; that he gets accidentally high on his own supply and done in by the drug he’s been pushing is too fitting, as if God has pointed a finger (or rather a massive hand) at him and made the call.
It’s a nasty little fable that can be read totally divorced from the cyberpunk scene of the time. It has aged better than a great deal of its peers.