Bill, the Galactic Hero

STARSHIP TROOPERS was first published in 1959. According to Robert Heinlein, he wrote the book because he was offended at a newspaper ad proposing the suspension of nuclear weapons testing. His epic tale of space-suited infantry fighting alien arachnids with atomic sidearms won him science fiction’s top literary award, the Hugo. He later complained about the bad reviews the book received, but his militarist fantasy never went out of print, inspired a major Hollywood movie and two sequels, and influenced diverse other writers, filmmakers, and game designers.

One of the science fiction writers affected by Heinlein’s book was Harry Harrison. Harry hated it. Having served in the army, he considered Troopers a bogus fantasy. He decided to set the record straight, in the tradition of Candide and Catch-22, with a science fiction fantasy of total war: all humanity united in the quest to exterminate a race of intelligent lizards six inches long (that’s Harry in the portrait above, indicating a picture of Eager Beager Chinger shedding his disguise).

Harry’s intention was to piss Heinlein off. He succeeded. BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO, published in Britain in 1965, and in the US in 1966, annoyed the great man so much that he never spoke to Harry again. Not that he needed to take offence: despite his extreme politics, Heinlein became an incongruous hippie icon with Stranger in a Strange Land. BILL was published by Penguin as part of their great sixties science fiction series: that was the edition I read, as a teenager, and wished someone would make into a film!

Harry’s overpopulation thriller Make Room! Make Room! – remarkably written in the same 12-month period as BILL – was optioned by a studio and made into a film, SOYLENT GREEN. In 1983, having just shot Repo Man, I optioned BILL but could get no traction with it. Financiers felt it “too expensive” and “too anti-war.” Until I went to Hollywood I didn’t know that it was possible to be “too anti-war”. Like, war has a positive side? In the shady bowers of Tinseltown, apparently it does. Harry’s first attempts at getting BILL published were similarly thwarted: the famous sf editor Damon Knight reminded him he was just an action writer and told him he should take all the jokes out. (Fortunately, Harry didn’t agree.)

The prolific Harry wrote one sequel to BILL and co-authored five sequels to the sequel, much as he did with his other popular science fiction novels Deathworld and The Stainless Steel Rat. We worked together on adaptations of Deathworld and West of Eden, for Russian investors: for a while, he was the most popular sf writer in Russia, where he was known as “Gary Garrison”. Harry’s name was borrowed by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for internet dating purposes, and one of his titles- The Stainless Steel Rat – was similarly appropriated for an Australian play about Assange: perhaps an early instance of the coordinated campaign against the journalist/publisher.

Harry described his inspiration for writing BILL in in greater detail in an introduction to the 2000 edition:

Only minutes after I was drafted into the Army of the United States did I realize that I hated it. The mixture of sadism, unquestioned authority, brutality, racism, intolerance, vulgarity, to name but a few, was the antithesis of everything that I believed in. But there was no going back to civilian life, so I determined to soldier on – literally – and come out of the war alive.

Not that this was easy since the Army was doing its best to destroy me. Oh, yes, they were. Just look at it from their simplistic, fascist point of view. (Fascism defending a democracy; a quote.) You take a draftee and train him to be a soldier. Supplying months, perhaps years, of expensive education. He learns to shoot weapons, drive vehicles, operate costly equipment. This takes time and money. Then the first chance he has to experience combat, he has a breakdown and shoots himself, or gets shot through military incompetence. What a waste of time and money! Better to make Basic Training so horrendous that he breaks down early on. Logical. From the Army’s point of view.

But how about the draftee who does break down in Basic? It he had been left alone as a civilian he would have avoided the military stresses and could have lived a useful and productive life. Instead we now have an emotional wreck. Or a corpse.

Lesson One: The military mind cares only about the Big Picture, not the individual. The Normandy landings were a great success; the generals were not particularly bothered when they waded ashore through the hundreds of GI corpses bobbing in the surf.

Lesson Two: The better you are as a soldier, the worse you are as a human being. Unthinking obedience, rote learning, intolerance to others, nasty death to the enemy, vulgarity and alcoholism – dope now substituted for drink in the new Army – the individual sublimated to the mass mind.

I hated it. I did it. The only alternative was going under and I wasn’t about to do that. After a number of years the war was over. I packed away my uniform, with its sergeant’s stripes and mickeymouse medals, and returned to civilian life.

Some years pass and I am now a successful novelist writing, for the most part, adventure science fiction. But something is scratching at my subconscious. The war. It just won’t go away. Then I read Catch-22 and it was lo, as though a light had been turned on to reveal what must be written. I had read, and greatly enjoyed, Voltaire’s Candide. A splendid romp. Fast-paced, wickedly funny, vulgar, anti-war. All the good things that a novel should be. As was Catch-22. These two novels gave me the clue that I needed to write my own personal anti-war novel. Be funny. Black humor. This would be the way I could bring out all my heartfelt feelings about the obscenity that is war and the military mind that makes war possible.

It was not an easy book to sell; the editor who had commissioned the book, Damon Knight, bounced it back to me, saying that I was an action writer and that this was a future-war novel. If I went through it and took out all the jokes he would see that it was published. I declined. Then two magazine editors, Mike Moorcock in Britain, and Fred Pohl in the United States, serialized it at about the same time. When Doubleday published it, there was no looking back. Since then it has appeared in numerous editions in 13 languages.

I was once told by a Green Beret sergeant that this is the only book he had ever read that is truthful about war. He read pieces of it to his squad every night. oh, how they must have enjoyed that.

A science fiction fan I met at a convention said that this novel may have saved his life. He was at loose ends when he graduated high school, so he enlisted in the army. The night before he was due to report he read this book. He tore up his enlistment papers.

These are observations after the fact. The fact is that you hold this novel in your hand. Please read on and, hopefully, enjoy it. And if you are thinking of enlisting in the army – it may even save your life.

Harry Harrison, Dublin, 2000