Military science fiction has been a major part of the science fiction genre since the publication of Robert A. Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers in 1959. For the most part, military science fiction is not thought of as humorous, but one exception to this rule is Harry Harrison’s hilarious satirical novel Bill the Galactic Hero. The story of a cowardly, naïve, and none-too-bright young man who becomes an unwitting enlistee in a deadly, galaxy-spanning war, Harrison’s novel is filled with deadpan humor, bizarre situations, and satire of the conventions of military science fiction.
Unlike much of the military science fiction genre--which tends to take a patriotic and pro-war tone, Bill the Galactic Hero is dominated by a skeptical and cynical view of the military, government, and society itself. Helior is not the “shining golden world” that it is advertised as, but a confusing dystopia dominated by thieves, political schemers, and vending robots advertising horrible restaurants and wretched alcoholic drinks. In a pointed jab at the pan-religious chaplains in Starship Troopers, the chaplain aboard the Christine Keeler is a scheming huckster who purports to represent every religion in the galaxy and also serves as the laundry officer. Almost every detail of military intelligence (and all the promises made to Bill by bureaucrats and senior officers!) end up being blatant lies--the revelation of the Chingers’ true form perhaps being the most surprising. The book is notably pessimistic about the reasoning behind war and whether conflict can achieve a positive outcome. None of the characters in the book can come up with a satisfying reason for why the Empire needs to fight the Chingers, other than Bill’s final rationale that humans simply enjoy fighting.
With its cynical, quirking humor and pointed satire of the military science fiction genre, Bill the Galactic Hero is rather unique in the military science fiction genre. However, plenty of comparable fiction about the military exists in other genres. The bizarre logic and endless bureaucratic machinations Bill’s superiors use to continually place him in dangerous situations recall Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22. Bill’s cowardly nature and his accidental “heroism” bear a resemblance to those of Harry Flashman, the main character from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, which details the adventures of a similar coward hero in the nineteenth century British Empire. Fans of these works, and military science fiction fans looking for a good genre satire, will enjoy Bill the Galactic Hero. It should also be noted that an independent film adaptation of Bill the Galactic Hero has recently been green lit via Kickstarter, to be directed by cult film director Alex Cox.