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.


Bill Garthright said...

That's one book I've always meant to read, Tony. As you might imagine, I love the title. Heh, heh. But I just never came across it when I was haunting used bookstores, and I never cared that much to find it since.

It sounds like I should change my mind about that, although there's never enough time for everything as it is. Anyway, great review! It does sound like fun.

Anthony G Williams said...

I am surprised that you haven't read it, Bill - I expected it to have pride of place on your bookshelf!

Carl V. Anderson said...

I grew up with the Stainless Steel Rat books having such a strong hold over me that when I did try the first Bill book I just couldn't connect with it. I was thrown by the humor, and the satire, by comparison. I really should try it again now. I like this kind of humor and with some distance and the knowledge of knowing what kind of book it is I'm sure I'd enjoy it.

Anthony G Williams said...

I agree Carl, it certainly helps if you know what kind of story to expect.

I recall switching off a fantasy film recently because I thought it was so bad. Only afterwards did I learn that it was supposed to be a spoof. Perhaps I would have been more patient if I'd known that - or perhaps it was just a bad film anyway!