I have a long history with Bill the Galactic Hero, but it took me two decades to read it. Stick with me; this is relevant to the review.
I first saw Bill the Galactic Hero in my local Waldenbooks as a teen in the '80s. I had spiked hair and wore parachute pants. I laughed out loud after flipping through some of the chapters and decided that I would buy it. When I went to purchase it, I suddenly realized I didn't have enough money. So I put it back, determined to buy it later.
When I walked past the shop clerk, I was accosted. He asked me to empty my pockets. He thought I was stealing books (STEALING BOOKS!). I was horrified and furious. And no, I didn't steal anything. But I sure as heck wasn't going to give that store my money.
Two decades passed and I forgot just about everything about the book, including the title. I just knew the character had a generic name and was really messed up--something was wrong with his arms. Then one day, while browsing Amazon.com, I stumbled across Bill the Galactic Hero. I put it on my wish list and one year later Bill and I were reacquainted.
What's even more interesting is that I live in Harry Harrison's place of birth, Stamford, CT. I'm not sure if I should be proud or if Harry should be concerned.
Anyway, I learned a few things right away about Bill the Galactic Hero, just by judging the book by its cover. None of the artists commissioned to create the covers actually read the book. How do I know this? Because I read the frickin' thing. Take a look: http://www.iol.ie/~carrollm/hh/n06-1-thumbs.htm
The cover I have shows Chingers (the "bad" guys) as seven-inch tall lizards with ray guns. Only in the book, they have four arms, not two. Poor Bill does end up with two right arms, but they are NOT on the same side (one cover gives Bill two left arms AND puts them on the wrong side). We know this because of one of the funniest lines in the entire book. I'll let you decide for yourself when you read it.
But I'm getting ahead. The plot takes place in a far future where robots are plentiful and people use a fake curse word for everything ("bowb"). Basically, Bill is a naive farm boy on a rural planet who gets forcibly pressed into military service. He ends up being a "fusetender," trained to change out fuses on a gigantic spaceship that he has never actually seen the outside of. In fact, Bill doesn't know anything about ship-to-ship combat and instead has to interpret what's going on by temperature changes in the room. When the shields go up, it stops everything from going in and out--including heat--such that the fuestenders strip down just to survive the sweltering temperatures. That slight rumble in the deck plates? That's a torpedo firing. You get the picture.
This is probably the most interesting part of the book, as we see war as it truly is…boring, interspersed by horrifying moments of sheer terror. Despite the fact that Bill isn't on the front lines (and in a space war, where ARE the front lines?), he's still at risk of dying. Which leads up to how Bill loses his left arm and gains an additional right arm. It's a lot funnier than it sounds.
The plot spirals from there. Unfortunately, the book's not as engaging when Bill is away from the military. Harrison is at his excoriating best when he's blasting the jaded, backstabbing, monotonous culture that is military bureaucracy. Bill learns fast and we learn with him: War is hell, and then you lose a limb. And get it replaced with one that doesn't fit right.
That said, the book is harsh on its characters. Just about everyone Bill meets, even those characters that seem to have an actual plot significance, die at the drop of a hat. They get blown up, immolated, shot, beaten to death, or eaten by a snake. Bill's world is brutal, but it moves so fast that you might have difficulty caring about who is who.
There's quite a bit of real science interspersed throughout the humor, especially the ridiculous problems of waste disposal on planet Helior. When I described the problems to my wife (an environmental studies major), she pointed out that the book must have been written in the '60s. It never occurred to me that the book was that old, but sure enough, checking the originally copyright confirmed that Bill the Galatic Hero was written at a time when the draft was in full effect and most people couldn't conceive of any possible future that didn't end in a natural or man-made holocaust. Bill the Galactic Hero is truly a product of its times.
But it's still pretty funny.
Ultimately, the book ends on an extremely sour, angry note. By then, Bill's transformation is complete. The number of sequels that came afterwards surprised me. Bill the Galactic Hero was written with a point in mind: that the military is a horrible place. Once Harrison got that point across (and believe you me, he gets it across), you have to wonder where he will take Bill next.
I imagine I would have appreciated this book much more if I was in the military or a teenager. In either case, it was certainly an educational experience for my inner writer. For anyone who wants to glorify war (Harrison's looking at you, Heinlein) in word, song or deed, Bill the Galactic Hero will shamelessly mock them until they change their mind.
And if not, well they were stupid bowbs anyway.