PHIGERINADON II, a quiet little backwater agricultural planet where interesting events come along no more than twice in every four years. Bill is labouring hard behind his robomule, ploughing a field. Bill has big plans: he’s taking a correspondence course in his chosen career as a Technical Fertilizer Operator and all that is on his mind as he ploughs the field is to make sure that his furrows are straight. Well, that and the sight of the lovely young but amply proportioned Inga-Maria Calyphigia bathing in a nearby stream. Bill is then further distracted by a marching military band, and soon abandons his robomule to investigate something which may well fall into the "interesting events" category mentioned earlier. The recruitment sergeant, seeing potential in Bill as a fit, healthy, physically perfect young man, uses all of his powers of persuasion (to say nothing of bribery, drink, drugs, propaganda, hypnosis, etc) and before he realises what he has done Bill has signed on the dotted line and is marched off, along with his fellow recruits in the Empire Space Corps, to Camp Leon Trotsky.
THESE are the opening events in Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison. The troopers at Camp Leon Trotsky are soon called to arms and Bill and his comrades, Eager Beager, Bowb Brown, Reverend Tembo and Petty Officer Chief Deathwish Drang are soon spacebound and heading for conflict in the Human-Chinger war. For what happens next and to find out how these events lead Bill to become an official Galactic Hero please read the book. It is an excellent Science Fiction story and is also very funny. I don’t think it’ll spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book if I reveal that by the end of the story Bill ends up with two right arms (useful for shaking hands with yourself!) and the first in a long line of bizarre replacement feet.
THE first Bill novel was originally published in 1965, so imagine the surprise when in 1989 a sequel appeared. This (first) sequel was Bill, the Galactic Hero … On the Planet of Robot Slaves, again expertly written by classic SF author Harry Harrison. This book whilst being an excellent follow-up, is perhaps not quite as good as the original; it is certainly hard to believe that the two books were written about 24 years apart. Harrison recaptures the style and humour of the original perfectly and introduces some fine comedy-SF concepts along the way. This tale begins on the planet Grundgy, a barren and worthless world with only two seasons: frigid winter and tropical summer; the perfect planet on which to site a military base. Having persuaded some new recruits that it’d be in their best interest to part with a little money, Bill is able to afford to have the second of a pair of tusks bequeathed to him by Deathwish Drang surgically implanted, and so visits mad Doctor Mel Praktis. Following this short and painful operation, Bill urges the Doctor to do something about his foot. For some reason he is unhappy with the giant mutant chicken claw that presently passes as his right foot. Before Bill can argue any more the roof of the hospital is blown off as the base is attacked by giant flying dragons, which, as Bill and Praktis soon learn, are of the metal, Chinger-controlled variety. Bill, Praktis and a somewhat motley crew are dispatched into space aboard the only available ship: a garbage tug, commanded by the permanently stoned Captain Bly. Their mission is to trace the planet that is the source of the Chinger-controlled dragons. When one of the crew, an electronic technician known as Cy Berpunk gets to tell his story it marks the start of a tradition that continues throughout the Bill novels, that is the parodying of other SF concepts and styles (guess which genre of SF is parodied here). Fans of the original book will be pleased to find out that it’s not too long before Bill meets up with a certain Chinger spy. This is the delightfully named Bgr, who is to become a regular character in the Bill series of books.
IT wasn’t long before another book in the series appeared: Bill, the Galactic Hero … On the Planet of Bottled Brains this time written jointly by Harry Harrison and Robert Sheckley. Yet another military base on yet another miserable planet: here we find Bill having just unveiled yet another new foot. But that’s the least of his worries when he is unwillingly volunteered for a suicide mission to Tsuris, the Mystery Planet (a kind of Bermuda Triangle in space). Crash landing on Tsuris, Bill soon meets up with the Tsurians: a race of disembodied intelligences, some housed in robot bodies or the appropriated bodies of other life forms, but most lying dormant in bottles awaiting re-birth. Bill suddenly finds himself, or rather his body, very much in demand. Oh dear! So what went wrong? How much of this book did Harrison himself actually write? The story is, at best, confusing, at worst, incomprehensible – I kept wondering if the pages were in the right order in my copy; the plot (what plot?) is full of holes; there are loose ends that are simply not tied up (How did Bill actually regain his physical body? What happened to his original body?) and continuity is poor (Chingers are described as being Earth’s deadliest enemies; Bill claims that he always thought Captain Dirk was a famous hero but he had never heard of him before Chapter 4). Attempts are made to parody characters from Star Wars (Ham Duo and Chewgumma) and Star Trek (Captain Dirk and Mister Splock), but these characters are either badly researched or badly written as they bear little resemblance to the film/TV characters they are parodying.
BILL is kidnapped by a satyr – a mythical creature (half human, half goat) – and a transvestite satyr at that, in Bill, the Galactic Hero … On the Planet of Tasteless Pleasure by Harry Harrison and David Bischoff. Wisely ignoring the Bottled Brains fiasco, the story apparently continues from where Robot Slaves left off. Anyway, Bill finds himself in the paradisical Fields of Ozymandias, a place where mythological creatures run rampant and generally have a good time. Bill meets, and falls in love with, the indescribably beautiful Irma Feritayl (a girl with a serious cat fixation), but his plans of seduction fail when Irma is abducted by a frightening avian ghetto blaster mutation! Now, from here on things start getting a little bit complicated. For reasons that you don’t need to know right now, Bill ends up with a dead and mouldering dove around his neck. He can only have the offending dove removed on the completion of two tasks: the rescue of Irma, and the achievement of a truce with the Chingers. With its rapidly moving plot, this story can be a little confusing at times; while it isn’t up to the standards of the first two books, it is a definite improvement on the third. Watch out for some crazy surreal moments such as the wild west shootout at the No-Go Corral against outlaw spermatozoa!
RELIEVED from duty on board a supply station – where the strategic ramifications of toilet paper are the Commander’s main concern – Bill is assigned a post as Military Policeman on board The Bounty in Bill, the Galactic Hero … On the Planet of Zombie Vampires by Harry Harrison and Jack C Haldeman II. The Bounty, captained by Captain Blight and crewed by a gang of hardened criminals, is a salvage ship heading for the Beta Draconis region to pick up the pieces after yet another battle in the Chinger war. The Captain amuses himself growing okra plants, which, after having been badly cooked, are repeatedly served up to the crew at mealtimes – while the Captain stuffs himself with many a gourmand’s delights. When Captain Blight heavily rations the water supply, so that his precious okra plants may benefit, he and his first officer, Christianson, have a case of mutiny on their hands. The crew find a suitably desolate planet on which to abandon the officers, but on docking and entering the communications station they find its personnel all dead. Bill and the mutineers then all experience the same compelling urge to wander off alone and do incredible things in the face of danger. On his wanderings Bill discovers a large cavern beneath the base, filled with strange alien pods… Guess which certain series of SF films starring Sigourney Weaver this story is spoofing? One of the joys with this book is playing Spot the Cliché – it is excellently researched and I should imagine that the authors had a lot of fun writing it. This is my favourite in the Bill series after the original novel. Recommended.
ON loan to the GBI, Bill is sent on a special mission to the ultimate trooper’s paradise – Barworld, in Bill, the Galactic Hero … On the Planet of The Hippies from Hell (published in the US as: Bill, the Galactic Hero … On the Planet of Ten Thousand Bars) by Harry Harrison and David Bischoff. Along with fellow agent Elliot Methadrine (a G-man – he says “Gee” a lot and reminds Bill of his old buddy Eager Beager – and look what happened to him), Bill’s mission is to investigate a series of Time/Space disturbances emanating from Barworld and to stop the Chingers, believed to be at the bottom of the problem, achieving time travel. But who is the wild eyed and hairy hippie hitman who nearly assassinates Bill and how does he vanish into thin air? Who is the equally hairy man who offers to tell Bill the meaning of life itself before he also vanishes? And to what lengths will Bill go to get a drink? Will he really put on a frock to get into an establishment like Uncle Nancy’s Cross-Dressing Emporium? All these questions are answered (and complicated even further) in this highly enjoyable and improbable tale. Absolutely ridiculous but fun – and recommended.
SOLE survivor of a commando suicide mission against the Chingers, Bill is rescued by General Weissearse and is assigned a new role as “God’s own tailgunner” aboard the Heavenly Peace, a space spider shaped spaceship, in Bill, the Galactic Hero … The Final Incoherent Adventure by Harry Harrison and David Harris. At his tailgunner post Bill spends all his time seemingly playing a combat computer game, although his joystick japers have some quite devastating results on the planet of Eyerack below, a planet rebelling against the Empire. As so often happens in these stories, Bill survives when his ship is shot down, but is soon captured by the Eyerackians (ouch!) who, having not previously taken any prisoners of war, treat Bill as something of a celebrity. Bill assures his captors (Sid, Sam, etc) – who have very little experience with war – that the proper treatment of prisoners involves luxury hotels with well stocked bars, maid service, room service, real food, etc. As a celebrity POW, Bill is taken out on tour signing autographs and opening supermarkets, etc, but when he visits the neutron mines things start to go awry. Bill faces a dilemma: where do his loyalties lie? With the Empire Space Corps or with the Rebel Eyerackians? How can he choose between them? And what of Bgr the Chinger who has been most conspicuous by his absence during these proceedings? Despite its title, this story is probably the most coherent in this series of books and, like the original Bill, the Galactic Hero, it depicts the futility, horror and obscenity of war effectively through the use of comedy and satire.
ANOTHER book I’d like to mention is Galactic Dreams by Harry Harrison, a splendid collection of SF short stories – some comic, some serious, some thought-provoking. This anthology includes the previously unpublished Bill, the Galactic Hero’s Happy Holiday in which Bill becomes unwittingly involved in a plot of Bgr’s.
THE closing lines of Bill, the Galactic Hero … The Final Incoherent Adventure state that "The timeless saga of Bill, the Galactic Hero, was drawing to a reluctant end. The saga of Bill, the Recruiting Sergeant, was about to begin." I asked Harry if this meant that there would be a new series of Bill, the Recruiting Sergeant books, and was answered with a simple "No." "So, no more Bill books then?" I asked. "Well... I might write another one... but on my own!" came the reply.
IF you enjoy this particular brand of SF, then also recommended are Harry Harrison’s Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers and The Technicolor Time Machine, not to mention Harrison’s most famous creation The Stainless Steel Rat, although the many books featuring Slippery Jim DiGriz really deserve closer inspection in their own book review.
Harry Harrison’s Bill, The Galactic Hero books are available in the UK in Victor Gollancz Ltd’s VGSF imprint.