Bill the Galactic Hero


Here we have a case not only of art imitating life, but attempting to nudge it back on course by making us smile a little bit. That makes the case in question, Harry Harrison's novel, Bill the Galactic Hero, a fine satire that, unlike the author's better-known Make Room! Make Room! (filmed as "People are Soylent Green!"), hasn't yet been made into a movie. And that's a shame, because I laughed at the stupidity that was mocked on almost every page.

F. H. Buckley, in his article about another satirist, Evelyn Waugh, wrote, "Laughter assumes a normative order from which the butt of the joke has deviated. In laughing we identify a comic vice, and since this entails a comparison with a superior life, comic vices assume comic virtues. He who laughs must be a moralist, and this is particularly true of the satirist. In the preface to Absalom and Achitophel, Dryden announced that 'the true end of Satyre is the amendment of Vices by correction.'"

Harrison saw a lot to correct about the comic vice known as military life, a life that he saw from the inside and obviously ran away from once his hitch was up. I suppose this novel is his revenge. I know it would be mine if I wrote it.

I found the whole book very funny, to the point I was envious of the author's ability to make me laugh. Some, I suppose, won't find it so funny. Buckley had some comments about such people:

"[There is a] link between satire and conservatism: The conservative accepts the norms of comedy, while the lifestyle liberal rejects them and the laughter that goes with them. 'That's not funny,' he says. And from his perspective he is right. The ACLU machine lawyer, the dour feminist, and the modern artist all know that whenever they hear laughter, their most cherished ideas are under attack."

In other words, when you run across someone who can't take a joke . . . needle them. And after that, needle them still more. Harrison does an awful lot of needling in this book. Indeed, he does it on every page. I'd say he's a natural-born needler.

Bill, our titular hero, is a bumbling mountain of good-natured peasant muscle whose brain-power is in direct inverse proportion to his neck size. Thus begins his troubles of our dim-witted, soon-to-be Galactic Hero.

The novel starts off with poor innocent Bill, who lives on the planet Phigerinadon II, taking time off from his correspondence course for his career as a Technical Fertilizer Operator to plow some farmland. He doesn't get very far in either his correspondence course or his plowing.

Next thing he knows, he's entranced by a passing parade, which, unknown to him, is actually a con to get lunks like Bill to join the war effort, which seems to have been going on for, well, forever. One Sergeant Grue sets his eye on Bill, seeing him as a "broad-shouldered, square-chinned, curly-haired chunk of electronic cannon fodder." He regales Bill with tales of glorious battles with the evil Chingers, alien scourge of the human race (or so he tells Bill), in which the Chingers die by the millions while homo sapien troopers "only suffered neat little wounds in their extremities which could be covered easily by small bandages."

Bill falls for Grue's spiel, helped along by the fact Grue spikes his drink. Soon--very soon--Bill and the rest of the befuddled recruits are shanghaied to Camp Leon Trotsky, where they fall into the hands of Chief Petty Officer Deathwish Drang ("chief demon in this particular hell," writes Harrison), who has fangs and immense fists "scarred from the breaking of thousands of teeth."

"You will call me 'sir' or 'm'lord,'" Drang snarls at the terrified recruits. "I am your father and mother and your whole universe and your dedicated enemy, and very soon I will have you regretting the day you were born. I will crush your will. When I say frog you will jump. My job is to turn you into troopers, and troopers have discipline. Discipline means unthinking subservience, loss of free will, absolute obedience. That is all I ask . . . ."

Things don't get any better for Bill. He has a lot of adventures (in the loosest sense of the word), and what finally makes him a Galactic Hero is when he accidentally blows up a Chinger warship that is about ready to vaporize the spaceship he is stationed on. He shoots at the red dot on the screen instead of the green dot, vaguely remembering shooting at green dots, which are full of humans instead of Chingers like the red dots, is a courts-martial offense. Vaporizing the red dot does the trick, and in an instant he goes from zero to hero. And in Harrison 's mind, being a hero ain't such a great thing, considering what happens to Bill afterward. None of which I will give away.

Harrison , like all satirists, is a moralist. He sees what happens to a society that has become militarized, and is in engaged in eternal wars for eternal peace, and to the men dragooned into being permanent soldiers. He understands there is an eternal war between civilization and chaos, and the main cause of chaos is unrelenting war.

"The satirist's gift is a special sensitivity to vice," said Buckley. "[He] is a man without a skin . . . [he] does not discover new vices but uncovers old ones to which we have become inured. He provides no new information, only reminding us that we already know enough to be shocked . . . ."

Bill the Galactic Hero contains lessons for today, lessons to which the human race rarely pays attention, and has to painfully relearn every generation: that in war, the first casualty is the truth, there is no such thing as glory, the State always lies to you, and there is no such thing as a hero, only cannon fodder.

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Bob Wallace's picture
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