Harry Harrison was a genius. The way he managed to use absurdity, satire and slapstick humour to talk about some pretty grim subjects is nothing short of remarkable. Way before Pratchett, Holt, Adams and Naylor, Harrison was creating some of the funniest books on the planet.
Bill, the Galactic Hero was first written fifty years ago (God that makes me feel old) and has been described by Terry Pratchett as:
Simply the funniest Science Fiction book ever written
Thankfully Gollancz has seen fit to re-publish the book and until now I hadn't realised that there has been a Bill, the Galactic Hero film made late last year by students and directed by Alex Cox (Director of classic 80's film Repo Man).
The book tells the tale of simple farmhand (Technical Fertilizer Operator) Bill being tricked into joining the army by an unscrupulous recruiting robot - to fight a war against the seven foot alien lizards known as "Chingers". In essence It's a retelling of the famous anti World War One novel "The Good Soldier Švejk" (written by Jaroslav Hašek) but set in the future, and with even more satire and absurdity.
The war is as badly run as the First World War was too with similar great strategies — although the WW1 strategy of "walk slowly toward the enemy in a straight line" takes some beating. This theme of incompetence is continued throughout the book (and continues through the series) as is the idea that everyone is out for themselves with mention made that every week is Bowb your Buddy week. It has been said that a Vietnam Veteran described the book as being "the only book that's true about the military". Among other things, the book provides an accurate summary as to why "Military Intelligence" is an oxymoron.
Bill, the reluctant hero of the adventure begins his military career as fuse tender (6th class) onboard the flagship of the fleet and becomes an accidental hero following a fierce space battle with enemy ships. One of the running jokes is about how soldiers are fixed up following injury and sent straight back into the front line — in Bobs case this means that when he loses his left arm he wakes up to find he now has two right arms (there being a shortage of spare left ones). His life gets ever more absurd as the story develops.
It's a short read at only 160 pages and it feels even shorter with the brisk pace, friendly dialogue and stand-out humour. I first read this book back in the late 1980's and have probably read it more times since than pretty much any other book. It is insanely laugh out loud funny and never seems to get less so with re-reads.
It hasn't aged as much as many 50 year old books either, there wasn't any moment when it didn't still seem relevant — not sure what that says about our progress over the last half century.
There is far too little humour in science fiction, even less so now we've lost Pratchett, and so each of these stories are priceless in their own way. I have to agree with the late Sir Terry - after all this time Bill, the Galactic Hero is still one of the funniest science fiction books ever written.
Written on 8th May 2015 by Ant.
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