I was first enticed to read Bill, the Galactic Hero, Harry Harrison’s darkly humorous take on military SF and space opera, by the funny illustration on the cover of the book (see right). I was a teenager, late golden age, and had already learned that covers often made promises they couldn’t keep. I didn’t really expect it to be funny, I was just hoping. My reading diet up until then had been a steady stream of SF/F canon, mostly good stuff, but none of it particularly humorous. And then came Bill, my first dark comedy, a real eye opener full of satiric subversion and laughs. It joined that select group of cherished formative readings, the kind that become infused with an almost sacred quality.
Naturally, I approached re-reading it for this review with some trepidation, fearing the book would not live up to its memory. This anxiety was enhanced by the fact that the sequels, written decades later, were not particularly good. Was my memory of the original tainted by a youthful lack of discernment, or where the sequels simply worse due to their being written decades after Harrison’s original inspiration? After the re-read, I am glad to report that my prized memories remain intact.
The story opens with a strapping farm boy, Bill, whose sole ambition is to become a Technical Fertilizer Operator, plowing the family farm. He gets drugged and conned into joining the Space Troopers and before long finds himself in boot camp. Harrison then gives us a detailed portrait of life in this hellish training camp. If that sounds in any way familiar it is because Harrison is parodying Starship Troopers (something that does not go over well with Robert Heinlein, but more on that later). While training in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers may have been harsh, Harrison takes it to the extreme to great comic effect. In addition to heaps of abuse, the troopers are fed propaganda to help develop their hate of the enemy, seven-foot-tall saurians called Chingers, who are surely intent on doing horrific things to your sister. If the book cover isn’t enough of a hint, suffice to say that the propaganda overstates things a bit.
After training camp, Bill boards a ship powered by a Bloater Drive, itself a parody of the pseudo-scientific interstellar propulsion systems used in space operas. What follows is a series of cynical, carnage-filled misadventures. Along the way, Harrison lampoons many of the clichés of science fiction and satirizes other well-known SF classics like Asimov’s Foundation series.
Reaction in the SF community was divided when the book came out in 1965. In particular, Heinlein and others saw the book as a harsh criticism of Starship Troopers, a book that some had condemned as an elitist glorification of violence. Additional conflict may have arisen due to the book’s anti-war sentiment. Harrison loathed the military, having been drafted during WW II, and with violence in Vietnam a growing concern, this was an issue that would split the SF community as well as society at large. Later scenes in the book on a planet called Veneria distinctly bring to mind the jungles of Vietnam.
Despite that controversy, fans of Starship Troopers and military SF in general should not worry that they will dislike Bill, the Galactic Hero. In fact, I think that audience will appreciate the parody most. It is a funny, albeit biting, satire, not a preachy anti-war message. And you will find that underneath the humor is a rather engaging space adventure filled with interesting characters and action worthy of rousing military SF. Bill, the Galactic Hero is one of the all-time classics of SF comedy, a must read for any science fiction fan that enjoys dark humor.