Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero is one of the funniest books
I've ever read, and one I return to again and again. Because of the wide and
varied publishing career of this comedic anti-establishment / anti-military
/ anti-dehumanization novel, it's more than likely that you could find a copy
of it in a used bookstore. But if you can't find a copy of Bill, the Galactic
Hero in your local bookstore, it's now available in an electronic format
from Amazon.com. I can't recommend enough this cynical and smart
SF satire that's also a damn good adventure story in its own right.
In that small subgenre of humorous SF/fantasy, Harry Harrison's the best. A
pioneer of this field, he has also written the hilarious Stainless Steel
Rat series, the uproarious Planet Story, and the laugh-out-loud-funny
Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers (those last two unfortunately out-of-print).
With the exception of Make Room! Make Room! (which was made into the
1973 film Soylent Green), I'm not much of a fan of Harrison's non-comedic
novels. But by the success and longevity of his "serious" SF, I acknowledge
that the man must know something about the genre. This is what helps his humorous
SF so much: he's very aware of the conventions and cliches he's spoofing. He's
not some snooty hipster day-tripper who feels that he can look down his nose
at the genre, who's "just visiting" long enough to cull together enough
details to mock but never understand. With impeccable comic timing, Harrison
spoofs the genre because he loves it, and he wants to change some of its stuffy
and narrow-minded conventions.
In Bill, the Galactic Hero, Harrison takes the standard "Space
Marine" storyline and puts a big spin on it. With a few changes, the plot,
Harrison admits, is almost the same as Starship Troopers (kid joins the
Space Marines, goes to boot camp, becomes hero, etc.), but the politics of Annapolis
graduate Robert Heinlein and Harrison the Esperanto-reading former Army sergeant
couldn't be more diametrically opposed. (About Heinlein's conceit in Starship
Troopers that a person was only a "citizen"—allowed to vote—after
serving in the military, Harrison once said, "I remember reading that and
thinking: I know a lot of veterans, and they're mostly all alcoholics or mad!")
Thankfully, the character of Bill isn't even in the heroic position to be a
front-line soldier: he's a Fuse Tender Third Class, stuck in the bowels of the
spaceship changing the 100-pound fuses when the battle-cruiser's laser cannons
burn them out. But he's not out of harm's way: when one of the fuses explodes,
Bill loses his left arm. Horribly wounded, our hero staggers into the gunroom
and passes out on the controls-pushing the "FIRE" button and successfully
destroying the enemy ship.
Because there's a shortage of left arms, the doctors sew on a black right one.
Although disconcerted about having mismatched skin colors and two right arms,
Bill optimistically muses, "At least I can now shake hands with myself."
A neat concept in itself, I can't help but wonder if Bill's ending up with two
right arms is a sly jab at the right-wing crypto-fascist tendencies found in
so many protagonists in military adventure books (SF or otherwise). The book
not only attacks the "Space Marine" sub-genre, but all jingoistic,
gung-ho, pro-war propaganda (be it novels or films). It's because of the longevity
of bloodthirsty and militaristic paperbacks, where government-sanctioned super-soldiers
(SF or otherwise) go on killing sprees, that reading Bill, the Galactic Hero,
originally published in 1965, is still fresh. Bill isn't just anti-Starship
Troopers, he's anti-Rambo.
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