Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bill the Galactic Hero, by Harry Harrison

(pb; 1965)

From the back cover:

“It was the highest honor to defend the Empire against the dreaded Chingers, an enemy race of seven-foot tall lizards.

“But Bill, a Technical Fertilizer Operator from a planet of farmers, wasn’t interested in honor – he was only interested in two things: his chosen career, and the shapely curves of Inga-Maria Calyphigia. Then a recruiting robot shanghaied him with knock-out drops, and he came to in deep space, aboard the Empire warship Christine Keeler. And from there, things got even worse...

“From his loss of a Helior floor plan (a major criminal offense) and his search for sanctuary in the department of garbage management in Helior’s underground, to his exile and final redemption, Bill’s tale is a perfect change of pace for anyone who likes the best in modern science fiction.”


Harrison, in his introduction to the novel, mentions that three things inspired it: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Voltaire’s Candide, and the author’s own experiences in the military (which he instantly hated).

That makes sense, because Harrison’s action-packed, hilarious and often bloody lark about Bill the reluctant hero reads like the bastard of Catch-22 and Candide. It’s an anti-war novel that made this reader laugh even as he winced.

Ironies and absurdities abound in Bill, as personified the characters who populate it. Three characters come to mind: there’s the schizophrenic, gentle chaplain who’s also the demanding laundry clerk (he “turns” in the blink of an eye); drill instructor Deathwish Drang, who alternates between brutality and kindness, while sporting two facial tusks (to terrify the new recruits); Fuse Tender First Class Tembo, soldier and religion-pushing member of the First Reformed Voodoo Church. Most scenes with these characters had me figuratively rolling with laughter.

As ridiculous and frenetic as this story is, there’s an element of real-world truth to it, and that kept this reader believing in the story; not only that, the subliminal horror that lurks beneath the humor ably foreshadows the unfunny (and downright chilling) finish, one that made me feel like I’d smashed into a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour.

Anyone who’s thinking of going into the military should read this first. I’m echoing Harrison’s sentiments (as well as one of his other readers) in saying this. While it’s funny like M*A*S*H, it’s also deadly serious.

Followed by The Planet of the Robot Slaves.


megastein said...

I love Bill the Galactic Hero and it appears you did too. You might try the sequels Bill, the Galactic Hero ... On the Planet of Robot Slaves also written by Harrison with 5 additional books written by various scribes (and VERY apparent).

They are Bill, the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Bottled Brains (my favorite of the non-Harrison ones), Bill, the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Tasteless Pleasure (this one was also pretty funny, but it's message wasn't as strong as the previous books), Bill, the Galactic Hero on the Planet of the Zombie Vampires (obviously this one is unmemorable because, well, I cannot remember it), Bill, the Galactic Hero: The Final Incoherent Adventure (haven't read this one).

Steve said...

I'll keep an eye out for them. Thanks for the info, recommendations! :)

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