Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison

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Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Ignore the claims of this being the funniest sci-fi book ever, and get over some clunky elements, and you will find some sterling writing, pitching this as a genre Catch-22.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Gollancz
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781473205314

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Meet Bill. He's a simple farmer – well, he is taking a correspondence course in being a Technical Fertiliser Operator – but fate has something else in store. And so does the mechanised, technological, industrial military, which needs several billion grunts to fight the Chingers, in mankind's first inter-galactic war. Still, at least he gets medals just for signing up. After that it's all downhill, and the likes of Petty Chief Officer Deathwish Drang can only make that a straight line down. Really, what hope is there?

This book takes a firm place in the output of Harry Harrison, being his second ever novel. Like his other much-loved franchise, that of the Stainless Steel Rat, many sequels were to follow over the decades, and I guess your taste will define how many you can take. For me, these books only got better – especially in the light of this, which starts well but definitely fills the scuppers in deflating the mood and craft. Reading Harry's autobiography recently only made it clear how much books like these are based on the author's own experiences of the military, and you can't read this without seeing the animosity and the venom on the page.

It's very humorous venom, however – there is an ascerbic look at the soldier's life, a fine build-up to a joke referring to another superior's name, and a whole mood that acts as some of the spirit of Catch-22 with genre trappings. But after the first chunk of this things go downhill, as Bill sort-of deserts on a huge city-planet, finding himself rock bottom in more ways than one, and struggling with the vagaries that fate and Harrison had in store for him. Those vagaries seem to be more often than not because Harrison didn't know what to do with his invention – and again, the sequels, often written with a collaborator, do take Bill in a different direction, in a quite knock-about fashion.

Before then, however, there are some tricksy bits of writing – so often do we get a call-back to a character we'd forgotten, left behind, and I think some of these work and some just get too obvious or clunky – and at least there's the expected old-school sci-fi elements for everyone to enjoy. The acronym RUR becomes something different here, showing Harrison had absorbed the genre for decades, even if, to repeat, he hadn't written a lot before this. He must have read a lot – titles such as the Heinlein Starship Troopers, from the late 1950s – and comparisons with books like that show this to be as flawed as I suggest, but for the first 40% it hardly gets better.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For another blast of militaristic, old-school sci-fi, you may enjoy The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin.

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