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Bill The Galactic Hero
Harry Harrison
Victor Gollancz/Millennium, 160 pages


blacksheep
Bill The Galactic Hero
Harry Harrison
Harry Harrison was born in 1925 in Stamford, Connecticut. Later his family moved to Brooklyn, then Queens, settling there. He graduated from Forest Hills High School in 1943 and was drafted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. Discharged in 1946, he began an art course at Hunter College in New York City and then attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. Work in comics and writing some fiction provided him a living for some years until the sale of Deathworld, the first part of which appeared in the January 1960 issue of Astounding. The Harrisons now reside in the Republic of Ireland.

Harry Harrison Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus

Past Feature Reviews
A review by A.L. Sirois

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Science fiction hasn't spawned many humorists, perhaps because most people don't think of science fiction as being very funny -- just silly. As a supposedly intellectual genre, SF seems to in the main feel itself to be largely above pratfalls and Wodehousian dottiness. As the stuffed-shirt of genre fiction, SF gets made fun of. People laugh at it, not with it.

There are, of course, exceptions. There have been a few genuinely funny writers of SF, perhaps most notably Robert Sheckley, Fredric Brown, and Henry Kuttner (Lewis Padgett). Quite a number of writers have taken successful turns at humour from time to time, including Sir Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov. And you'd be hard put to find an SF writer who didn't include a humorous passage or two in his or her books. (There's a clever passage in one of Samuel R. Delany's novels describing a weird meal of shaped vegetables and condiments -- it takes a few paragraphs to realize that his characters are eating french fries with ketchup.)

Many SF writers have ventured into satire -- Frederik Pohl being perhaps pre-eminent among them -- but satire isn't the same thing as humour. Kurt Vonnegut, probably better known himself as a satirist, ascended to the throne of reigning humorist sometime in the early 60s, although he -- and his publishers -- refused to allow himself to be labelled as a science fiction writer. He even went so far as to create Kilgore Trout, who actually was an SF writer, to use as a foil for more or less acerbic jibes at the genre. These days the crown is probably held by Douglas Adams, of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, whose wacky books contain some truly inspired moments, or perhaps by Terry Pratchett.

One possible reason that you don't find many genuinely funny works of science fiction is that it is damn hard to be funny -- at sustained lengths. The nation's funniest writers -- arguably James Thurber, H. Allen Smith, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley -- couldn't manage it, although all of them helmed widely read newspaper or magazine columns and were supremely funny on a daily or weekly basis. It is also hard to be funny while you're explicating the exigencies of plot and characterization, which the above authors generally didn't bother with. A quick scan of any of Benchley's books, for example, brings you into contact with a mind every bit as facile and mad as Monty Python. Likewise, and it would be hard to find an American interested in writing who hasn't read at least one volume of Thurber or who doesn't know who Walter Mitty is -- even though "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" isn't really funny at all -- it is poignant and sweet (unlike Thurber himself), but just not very funny.

Harry Harrison's name doesn't usually come up in discussions of SF humour, which is a little strange considering he's been around for quite a while and has been one of the few writers to have consistently included humorous works in his catalogue. As far as humour goes, Harrison's probably best known for his Stainless Steel Rat series, about an interstellar con man. Bill The Galactic Hero is more in the line of satire, however, in that it takes a number of more or less common SF clichés and puts some humorous spin on them.

This is not to say that the book is really all that funny, other than in a sort of "ouch -- that smarts" kind of way. Bill is a big, dumb farm boy, minding his business on a distant world when he is shanghaied by a passing recruiting officer and his band of gleaming robots. Before you know it, Bill finds himself in a Catch-22 world of rules and regulations, where it's almost impossible to get ahead and where the slightest infraction can earn you the enmity of your commanding officer. And if that officer happens to be Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang with his artificial two-inch canines, you might as well be dead.

But Bill is a regular Candide, and no matter how deep the doo-doo into which he falls, he somehow manages to come out smelling, if not exactly like a rose, than at least not quite bad as the doo-doo itself. Harrison manages some nice Flash-Gordonish SF riffs in the novel, which was originally published in 1965 and has worn better than some other books I can think of from that era. Bill The Galactic Hero has proved popular enough to have spawned half a dozen or so sequels, co-authored by the likes of the aforementioned Robert Sheckley, Dave Bischoff and others. It's an easy read, and if Bill himself is really not all that interesting as a character, the situations are clever -- Harrison is too good a writer to be boring. Bill The Galactic Hero is a good light read, interesting for those who want to see how the funny stuff was handled before Douglas Adams got hold of it.

Copyright © 2001 A.L. Sirois

A.L. Sirois walks the walk, too. He's a longtime member of SFWA and currently serves the organization as webmaster for the SFWA BULLETIN. His personal site is at http://www.w3pg.com/jazzpolice.


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