I once met a woman in a bookstore who was in the process of buying Harry Harrison’s 1965 classic Bill, the Galactic Hero. She told me that she’d read it many times already, and that it was the funniest book ever. Well, I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and had long been meaning to ascertain whether or not this woman was right. It took me almost 20 years to get around to this book, but having just finished Bill, the Galactic Hero, I must say that it is very amusing indeed.
In it, we meet Bill (no last name is ever provided), a simple farm lad on Phigerinadon II, who is shanghaied into the galactic emperor’s army to fight in the war against the lizardlike Chingers. And what a grueling odyssey Bill goes through before all is said and done! He experiences a boot camp from hell, serves aboard the starship Christine Keeler and is almost killed, gets lost on the planetwide city of Helior, becomes a sanitation man, a revolutionary, a spy, fights on a swamp planet that’s almost as nasty as Harrison’s original Deathworld, and on and on.
Harrison keeps this short novel moving along furiously, and the level of invention is very high throughout. It is most impressive how just about every page features some amusing incident, laff-out-loud line (and I am not an easy person to make laugh out loud), or imaginative detail. The story is a very violent one, a scathing commentary on the madness that is war and the crazy institution that is the military, and part of the story’s humor comes from the joking, nonchalant manner in which horrible proceedings are described. But there is much that is just inherently flat-out funny: The characters drink Heroin Cola and eat chlora-fillies (part chlorophyll, part horse wieners). There’s a rock band called The Coleoptera (beetles). The combatants use flintlock ray guns. There is a Robot Underground Resistance (RUR!), and some characters are named Schmutzig von Dreck (I guess it helps if you know some Yiddish), Gill O’Teen and Eager Beager. Still, as I said, this is a brutal tale, and the reader would be well advised not to grow too attached to any character, as at least half the cast gets offed before the book is through. And that brutalization extends to our main man Bill, who becomes less naive and more animal-like as the novel proceeds.
This is a tale told with almost Alfred Bester-like panache and marvelous satiric detail, but at times the detail is a bit sketchy; I’m referring to details of geography here, and background history and character. With so many incidents to cram into the book’s short length, many of them seem a bit rushed, and characters come and go without leaving much of an impression. I suppose what I’m saying is that Harrison might have expanded his book a bit, that it’s almost too concise and to the point. Still, the story certainly does entertain. But getting back to that woman in the bookstore… is this the funniest book that I’ve ever read? Well, I must admit that no book has ever made me laugh more than John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), and that Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan (1959) may be a worthier sci-fi comedy than this one, but Bill, the Galactic Hero certainly does hold its own in that august company. After all, any book that provides big laffs and a positive message isn’t to be sneezed at…