Saturday 17 November 2012
Bill, the Galactic Hero, by Harry Harrison
Harry Harrison, who died this year, was one of the most popular SF writers of his generation with more than 50 novels published between 1960 and 2010. He specialised in light, fast-moving and entertaining adventure thrillers, generally flavoured with his satirical sense of humour. Bill, the Galactic Hero (published in 1965), one of his best-known stories, standards out as one of his most strongly satirical works. His targets were the military (especially as portrayed in Heinlein's Starship Troopers, to which this was presumably a riposte), aristocracy, space opera featuring giant space ships, and imperial planets entirely covered with buildings (a side-swipe at Asimov's Foundation trilogy), plus various other random SF cliches along the way.
At the start of the story, Bill is a young farm-hand on an agricultural planet, working towards his qualification as a Technical Fertilizer Operator, when a military recruiting fair marches into town. He is soon tricked into signing up and, much against his wishes, transported to a military boot camp for a period of training conspicuous for its stupidity and sadism, personified by the memorable figure of the recruits' nemesis, Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang. Despite various vicissitudes in which Bill, the perpetually hopeful innocent, is usually on the wrong end of, well, just about everything, he is hailed as a hero for accidentally saving his ship Fanny Hill during a space battle, and travels to the imperial capital Helior to be awarded his medal by the Emperor. As usual, he soon finds himself in trouble again and has some more colourful adventures before the story concludes by turning full circle.
Throughout, the military is portrayed as nasty and incompetent, the aristocracy as inbred and gormless, and life generally as grossly unfair, with everything turning out to be much worse than it first appears - especially for Bill. However, what might otherwise have been a grim tale is all recounted with a wicked sense of humour which has the reader grinning with acknowledgement at the points scored against multiple SF targets. A quick, fun read which is well worth the time.