Bill, the Galactic Hero is a satirical science fiction novel by Harry Harrison, first published in 1965. It is a retelling of the famous WWI anti-war novel The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek, set in the future.Template:Fact
The overall plot is most similar to Hašek's workTemplate:Fact, with the protagonist tricked into joining the army, and then sent on a succession of badly-organised adventures. The details of these adventures obviously differ from Hašek's original, though constant drunkenness and petty pilfering run as a thread through both novels and most of the same characters such as the incompetent officers, immoral chaplain and sadistic sergeant occur in both books. Harrison makes the most of the opportunity to spoof the work of other authors including Isaac Asimov, "Doc" Smith, and Joseph Heller. It may also be seen as a response to Heinlein's controversially militaristic Starship Troopers, as Hašek's original was a response to the patriotic stories of his time. Harrison reports having been approached by a Vietnam veteran who described Bill as "the only book that's true about the military."
Bill is a farmboy who is shanghaied into the Space Troopers by an unscrupulous recruiting sergeant. After many drugged drinks, promises of medals, and fitting for uniforms on the spot, Bill and the rest of the recruits march off for basic training, aided by a hypno-coil the recruiter attaches to each of their boots. Basic training is at Camp Leon Trotsky with a fanged drill sergeant named Deathwish Drang and recruits such as Eager Beager, who has volunteered for permanent latrine duty and shines the shoes of the rest of the platoon.
Bill is introduced to the "enemy" - seven foot lizards called "Chingers" - via propaganda posters in the latrine. After weeks of grueling "training" (techniques include heating the concrete of the parade ground to ensure maximum numbers of fainting troops and electrified chairs which shock exhausted recruits awake if they drowse during the long boring training films) Bill and his fellow recruits finally receive a short-term pass to the local town. Between times this town is a basic agricultural settlement, but when the gates of the camp open it transforms into a red light district of cheap bars and brothels. After slaking their thirsts with embalming fluid (from a mortuary-cum-saloon) the recruits join a long queue outside a cheap brothel. But just as Bill is about to enter an alarm sounds calling the troops back to base. Training is cut short as a battle in the war against the Chingers goes horribly wrong and the entire staff of Leon Trotsky is called up to reinforce the warfighters. The recruits are issued ID-cards and shipped out sans armor or food, since the personnel who handled those matters had already deployed.
He is assigned to the ship Fanny Hill, along with Eager Beager, where they become Fuse Tenders Sixth Class. One of his comrades, FT6 "Reverend" Tembo, keeps trying to convert Bill to Voodoo from Zoroastrianism. The food on board, far from being better than the "plastic skinned sausages" of camp is in fact merely cups of water with all necessary nutrients dissolved in it.
FT1 Spleen, their boss, trains them on the job as fuse tenders, which he says normally takes a year. The process involves the relatively simple process of replacing burned out man-sized fuses with new ones. After the training Beager and Bill enter the shipboard defense room, where Bill sees Beager take pictures of the classified material and scurry off.
Bill decides to tell the chaplain what he saw. In the office is a gruff, overworked laundry officer, who informs Bill that the chaplain does not arrive for another fifteen minutes, and puts Bill to work sorting jockstraps. At 1300 the laundry officer flips a sign and his collar to become the chaplain. Bill tells him about Beager and the officer calls him a liar. After a steady berating, the laundry officer 'comes back on duty'. He says that he has learned what Bill told the chaplain and tells Bill to lead him to Beager.
When they find Beager he is shining shoes in his quarters. The Military Police grab him, and Beaver's head opens to reveal a 7-inch high lizard who escapes in a small flying saucer. This is the true height of the Chinger (their size had been exaggerated for propaganda purposes). With the threat gone, nobody bothers to move Beaver's body. Bill talks to it in lieu of friends.
While walking around the ship Bill runs into Deathwish Drang. He's scared, but Drang tells him that it's all an act, refined from many centuries of military training to ensure that recruits learned to fear the military before they learned to hate it. Drang laments that criminal acts and his connection to the old boy network didn't save him from deployment. Bill expresses surprise that Drang expected compassion from the army.
The Keeler is called to action. Bill is at first excited to do his part against the Chingers and eagerly mans his post, but the battle turns out to involve several hours of staring at fuses in a broiling hot room.
Further glimpses into shiplife are provided with Bill reading 3D horror comics and both he and Tembo receiving valuable mail from home. These take the form of postcards with tiny sections for writing, that are in fact various dehydrated products reconstituted by dunking them in a cup of 'dinner'. Tembo receives chocolate, Bill however gets simple cardboard in the form of a large phrase telling him to vote for a local politician.
The narrative leaves Bill for a brief passage to outline the possible way that the avarice of a senior officer's wife causes a new battle to be engaged before returning to the Keeler as it is called to arms once more. This time the battle is much more intense and Bill, Tembo and their fellow fusetenders are faced with genuine damage. Fuses explode constantly as the temperature and smoke increases until an entire rack explodes, killing almost everybody. This gives a suitable buildup for the classic line Hey, look at that vent in Spleen! Bill is mostly protected by the fuse he is holding and, shell-shocked, he drags himself from the room in search of somewhere cooler. He ends up back in the ship defense room to find that all the gunners are dead. He grabs a gun control joystick for support and unintentionally fires at the lead ship of the opposing fleet. His actions are witnessed by an officer at the door who calls him a fighting fool and slaps him on the back. This last shock to his system is too much and he passes out.
Bill comes to in the infirmary and there discovers that he will be traveling to the central Imperial planet, Helior (so called because it is supposedly one giant city of gold), in order to receive the Nebula Cluster for bravery. He is less happy to discover that his left arm was damaged beyond repair and has been replaced by the right arm of his friend Tembo who was killed, along with the other fusetenders, during the explosion. He does cheer up a bit however when he finds that he can now shake hands with himself, and falls asleep doing so.
On the shuttle to Helior, Bill meets two other soldiers also due to receive awards, one a grizzled army sergeant and the other a battle scarred cyborg. As they come in to land the window at the front of the shuttle shows a massively shiny planet, completely encased in the gold of the buildings that make up its entire surface. But a sudden flash reveals that this is merely a film projection on a screen and that it is actually night-time at their landing site on the planet-wide city (which is not made of gold at all), and also that it is raining. On arrival each soldier is issued with a map to the planet which is the size of a telephone book. They clip these to their belts and are advised the loss of a plan is a serious crime. They also bully the welcoming officer into giving them a robotic guide to show them the way to the awards ceremony.
They make it just in time and the ceremony is filmed for propaganda purposes. The Emperor and his staff appear with gem encrusted medals; Bill falls to his knees in awe but soon realizes it is all just a show and the others are actors. The three valuable medals are whisked away and replaced with pot-metal copies before the recipients are kicked out. They return to their quarters and although the other two are interested only in getting drunk and visiting the local brothel Bill is determined to see the sights. He journeys far to visit Helior's botanic gardens. At one point he takes a wrong turn and ends up on the very surface of the planet where he discovers that oxygen is brought in every day by massive ships as the city has covered the planet completely, destroying the plant life which made oxygen of its own.
The return journey takes so long Bill falls asleep and has his plan stolen. When he goes to report it to a police officer he is advised that losing his guidebook is punishable by death and Bill wisely leaves without pursuing the matter. He meets a stranger on a "see Helior and live" tour who is willing to let him copy down the route back to the barracks from his own plan for money. Bill makes it back, only to find that his ship has left port days ago, and the MPs (one of whom is Deathwish Drang) believe he has jumped ship. Bill falls in with a group of homeless that call themselves the 'Deplanned', and barely escapes the police (and the deplanned) during a food raid gone wrong.
He retreats further and deeper into the bowels of the city down to the earth under the city foundations. Here he meets up with a friendly sanitation worker who, along with his colleagues, is desperately trying to come up with various solutions to cope with the planet-wide amount of rubbish produced every day. After coming to the rescue of a number of sanitation workers in a fight with a group of astronomical scientists (who have just discovered that the latest plan of teleporting rubbish into a nearby star has made it go supernova) the man hires Bill and lets him pick a new ID-card from the hundreds that have made it here through the garbage.
Bill is given an office and while inspecting the drawers discovers what he at first takes to be a dead body but which opens its eyes and tries to recruit Bill into a revolutionary army, an offer Bill fearfully rejects. The mysterious figure leaves and Bill gets to work, quickly coming up with a plan to flood the universe with dirty food trays by a massive tax-funded postal scheme. After telling his boss and receiving a bonus he returns to his office. There another person is waiting for Bill and reveals himself to be a government agent employed to defeat the revolution. Bill is threatened into acting as a double agent and joining the revolutionary army when he is approached again. He attends the revolutionary army meetings while continuing to work in the sanitation industry. His peace is shattered one day however when the first battle of the revolution is signaled. During the planning of the battle, Bill discovers to his surprise that the revolutionary army is almost completely made up of spies from various government and law enforcement departments. Bill is arrested for desertion as the battle disintegrates.
Through the creative legal defense of a crooked lawyer Bill's charge is lessened from desertion (which is punishable by death) to sleeping on duty and he is shipped off to a military prison. There he befriends a prisoner, Blackey, who has (he claims) years of experience in the military. Bill acts as Blackey's bodyguard and for a while lives a luxurious life of smuggled food and liquor courtesy of Blackey's connections and bribes. However the prison is only a holding stockade and when it gets too hot for the two of them Blackey draws up fake orders and issues Bill a forged driver's license. The pair find themselves being shipped to the planet Veneria in the Hernian System.
Bill is put into a road-building chain gang. A prison officer informs him that the entire planet is hostile to human life. Both the prisoners and the guards alike are desperate to get off the planet and a semi-official mutiny committee has been set up. Bill and his fellow prisoners are to build wooden paths out from the base to advance the human lines. This is a hopeless endeavor as the prisoners are under attack constantly by hordes of native amphibians ("Venians"), which dismantle at night what the humans have constructed during the day.
During a midnight attack on the base Bill flees into the swamp with a laser gun he has taken from a dead Venian. He climbs a tree and meets a Chinger that turns out to be Eager Beager. Eager tries to find out why humans have waged war on the Chingers, until a giant snake devours him. Bill spots Venians leading a column of prisoners into the swamp. He attacks and kills all the Venians, but also wounds some of the soldiers, including Deathwish Drang. Bill forges a letter from Drang leaving his tusks to Bill, after Drang dies. He leads the prisoners back to base and then blows his foot off to secure a medivac from the planet.
The novel ends with Bill, now promoted to the rank of Recruiting Sergeant, shanghaiing a young farm boy. As they march off, the boy's mother runs towards them, crying that they mustn't take her son. It turns out that she is Bill's mother and the boy is his brother. She pleads with Bill to leave his brother behind, but Bill thinks of the recruiting bonus he gets in the form of years reduced from obligatory service and marches off with the lad in tow.
Six sequels were published, from 1989 to 1992:
- The first, Bill, the Galactic Hero On the Planet of Robot Slaves (1989), is by Harry Harrison.
After this, the sequels were penned by other writers and edited by Harrison. Harry Harrison expressed his own disappointment in the series in an interview with Brian Ireland, quoted on his official website:
"They have a thing in the States called 'share cropping' where you have a series or character, and you have other writers do work with it [...] I never wanted to do it, I'm not interested. But one of the packagers said, coming back to this thing I said about the pornography of violence: Harry, why don't we do a Bill, the Galactic Hero series and actually do some anti-war propaganda instead of all pro war. So they eventually talked me into it.
"The second one — Bill, the Galactic Hero on the planet of Robot Slaves — I did myself, that was a lot of fun. If they could all be like that. But no, no. We all make mistakes. I'm a professional writer. I earn a living at it. These are the only ones where I did it wrong."
- The second, Bill the Galactic Hero On the Planet of Bottled Brains (1990), is by Robert Sheckley and Harry Harrison
- The third, Bill the Galactic Hero On the Planet of Tasteless Pleasure (1991), is by David Bischoff and Harry Harrison
- The fourth, Bill the Galactic Hero On the Planet of Zombie Vampires (1991), is by Jack C. Haldeman and Harry Harrison
- The fifth, Bill the Galactic Hero On the Planet of Ten Thousand Bars (1991), is by David Bischoff and Harry Harrison (Was also published under the title: "Bill, the Galactic Hero on the Planet of the Hippies from Hell")
- The sixth, Bill the Galactic Hero: The Final Incoherent Adventure (1991), is by David Harris and Harry Harrison
Bill, the Galactic Hero's Happy Holiday appeared as a short story in Galactic Dreams (1994) by Harry Harrison
The Bloater DriveEdit
The standard ways of circumventing relativity in 1950s and 1960s science fiction were hyperspace, subspace and spacewarp. Harrison's contribution was the "Bloater Drive". This enlarges the gaps between the atoms of the ship until it spans the distance to the destination, whereupon the atoms are moved back together again, reconstituting the ship at its previous size but in the new location. An occasional side-effect is that the occupants see a planet drifting, in miniature, through the hull. ("No-no! Don't touch it!")