(1965 / 2015) Harry Harrison, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 160pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20531-4
Bill lives on an agricultural world somewhere in the galactic outback of the Empire when a recruiting sergeant arrives in town giving out pep talks and beer in equal measure to entice recruits for the war against the reptilian chingers. All Bill wants to be someday is a Technical Fertilizer Operator, but beer, and a load of pharmaceuticals later soon see him signed up for the Space Troopers.
This is the beginning of a tour of duty that will see him not just do battle with the chingers, but also the military's fearsome administrative bureaucracy and, worse than that, the Empire's litigious civil service. 'Catch 22' is child's play compared to what is in store for hapless Bill as things get worse. Yes, 'worse', despite Bill being awarded a medal by the Emperor himself!
Bill's adventure will take him to the heart of the Empire to the planet Helior where it was so easy to get lost you had to have a guidebook. The planet was all multi-level city and as such had to import oxygen from the agricultural worlds and export carbon dioxide. At one stage he even becomes a G-Man which, those who were around in the 1960s might recall was then commonly a term for Government man or FBI agent but here refers to being a garbage man. Life was not being easy for Bill.
The late Harry Harrison is of course noted for his many SF adventure and thriller novels. But he is also noted for his comedy and arguably famously for The Stainless Steel Rat novels that in the early 1980's came to the attention of a new generation of Brits through their serialization in comic strip form in the weekly 2000AD. Now (2015), half a century on from its original publication a new cohort will become aware of the absurdly humorous adventures of Bill through the new 'student' film by director Alex (Repo Man) Cox (Iggy Pop soundtrack music video here): which is why Gollancz are republishing the novel.
Today, think of absurd humour in SF and the Hugo-nominated Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy probably springs to mind with its: destruction of Earth simply to make a hyperspace by-pass, improbability drive, and restaurant at the end of the universe where one pays for one's staggeringly expensive meal and time journey by depositing a single penny before you leave for the restaurant and letting the power of compound interest do the rest. Harrison's Bill the Galactic Hero too has a space drive that has a certain logic to it, despite its infeasibility. Yet Harrison's Bill preceded Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy by over a decade; Adams was a comparative latecomer to the party.
If anything the comedy of Bill the Galactic Hero is more satirical than humorous. Yes, it is funny, but there is an oh-so-dark edge to it: its inhabitants have miserable, tragic lives. As such the novel is more in the vein of Stanislaw Lem and Kurt Vonnegut (think Cyberiad (1965) and The Sirens of Titan (1959) respectively). Personally, after the laughs, I find a certain uneasiness follows as in the real world the dawning decade of this century has seen a war over non-existent weapons of mass destruction, a global economic recession due to self-highly paid bankers falsely pricing mortgages in North America and selling them to gullible bankers both there and elsewhere in the world (and then they went on to manipulate their internal exchange rate and while being convicted for that while, despite pleading that they were now reformed, were simultaneously fixing currency exchange rates! Indeed in Britain we have just had a general election in which independent (non-political) economic bodies announced that no party had provided the hard data to demonstrate that their respective policies might work. Meanwhile the global population continues to grow, biodiversity declines, soil eroded by intensive agriculture, and all against the backdrop of human-induced climate change… You could hardly make it up if you tried! Surely, the equally senseless world of Bill the Galactic Hero is but a hop skip and a jump away?
That we have had works like Catch 22 and similarly veined SFnal humour from Lem, Vonnegut and Harrison, through to Douglas Adams and, dare I say it even Grant and Naylor's Red Dwarf begins to touch on this daftness, that still speaks to us over the decades, surely does say something about the human condition? (Best not dwell on that thought too long.)
Fortunately, you can still laugh at it all. If you like literary satire then this short novel could well be just the tonic you need.
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