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Literature / Bill the Galactic Hero

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In the distant future, when mankind has spread out to the stars, a farmboy named Bill from a backwater planet makes a split-second decision that changes his life, along with the course of the galactic empire, by sort of technically volunteering to enlist in the military, right on the cusp of a war with alien space lizards called the Chingers. As an enlisted man, Bill (or Bil, since only officers are allowed have two L's) goes through a Training from Hell under Drill Sergeant Deathwish Drang, known for his temper and his pair of enormous surgically implanted fangs.

It's during training Bill first meets Bgr, the former Chinger ambassador to the empire, at the time hiding inside a very obvious Mobile-Suit Human, under the name of Private "Eager" Beager. Bill has little time to ponder that his best friend was an alien spy as he is soon sent into battle against the Chingers, along with Deathwish Drang and new bunkmate Tembo who Bill ultimately gets much closer to than he would wish.

As one of the few survivors of the battle that ensues, Bill inherits his late drill sergeant's fangs and has his left arm, which was lost in the chaos, replaced with the right arm of Tembo, making him the only soldier able to salute with both hands at once.

Touted as a hero of the Empire, Bill is rewarded by the Emperor. That is, until he loses his pants and accidentally joins The Resistance, causing him to be punished by being deployed to a Death World in order to heroically die in combat. Knowing that the front is short on certain spare body parts, Bill escapes death by blowing off his own right foot and being sent offworld to be patched up. The replacement foot is less than satisfactory.

Such is the origin of Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison, of whose exploits are the stuff of legend.

The books in the series are as follows:

  • Bill the Galactic Hero: The original, in which the above events occur.
  • Bill the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Robot Slaves: In which Bill travels to the planet Usa and battles robots, Martians, and rednecks in retaliation for the destruction of his outpost by a giant space dragon.
  • Bill the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Bottled Brains: Bill is sent to investigate the planet Tsuris, from which nobody has ever returned, and learns the horrible secret that the inhabitants of Tsuris are nothing more than bottled brains who steal the bodies of interplanetary travellers for their own purposes. Can Bill get his body back and return from a world known as the Planet of No Return?
  • Bill the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Tasteless Pleasure: While on R&R, Bill follows a satyr into an alternate dimension based on human sexual desires and battles to save the libidos of all mankind from the machinations of a mad scientist.
  • Bill the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Zombie Vampires: The prison transport aboard which Bill is assigned receives a distress call, leading them to a hellish world on which live parasitic bloodsucking alien creatures that look oddly familiar.
  • Bill the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Ten Thousand Bars: Bill is sent to his dream assignment: Barworld, consisting entirely of booze establishments. That is until a time travelling Hippy from Hell eliminates alcohol from the entire Empire. Now Bill must retrace the Hippy's steps in order to bring vice and drink-induced violence back to the galaxy.
  • Bill the Galactic Hero: The Final Incoherent Adventure: Known for its ample supply of neutrons, the planet Eyerack has seceded from the Empire, thereby cutting off the supply of fuel for the military's neutron bombs. Bill is sent to take back Eyerack and is promptly captured, to become an instant celebrity as their one and only prisoner of war.

This series provides examples of:

  • Action Prologue
  • Affectionate Parody: See entry for Shout-Out.
  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: In The Planet of Ten Thousand Bars, Bill is arrested and put aboard a prison transport, where he spends several years. Previously, he nearly dies, and a doctor cleans up his liver but warning him that he needs to stop drinking. While aboard the ship, Bill's implanted AI chip notes that his IQ is skyrocketing due to the lack of alcohol. It starts teaching Bill science and mathematics to pass the time. By the end of the journey, Bill is a genius who comes up with a mathematical formula for the meaning of life. He then writes on the bulkhead it in Layman's Terms: "Life = Shit". At the end of the novel, he wants to explain this truth to his friends. Then he takes a sip of a beer... and immediately forgets all that he learned.
  • Confessional: Bill goes to see the ship's chaplain (who also doubles as the laundry officer, as there's not much call for a chaplain on a warship). Bill says that he thinks one of his crewmates is a spy. The chaplain downplays Bill's suspicions and promises to keep the confession a secret, but as soon as it's time to become the laundry officer again he calls the MPs.
  • Covers Always Lie: Most covers that show Bill's feet tend to forget the right one is a giant chicken foot.
  • Crapsack World: More like a crapsack galaxy. The military system in the series seems to be specifically designed to make the enlisted men's short lives as hellish and unpleasant as possible.
  • Crossdresser: At the beginning of Tasteless Pleasure, Bill follows what looks like a female satyr who continues the charade until a woman points out that all satyr are male. At that point, he removes his fake boobs saying that he just wanted to see how the other half lives.
    • And then there's Uncle Nancy's Cross-Dressing Emporium, an establishment on Barworld where patrons are required to put on women's clothing because it will all ultimately make sense the morning after.
  • Cult Colony: The generation ship visited by Bill in Ten Thousand Bars consists of people who worship the Holy Cows who provide them with holy dairy products. Because of Godwin's Law of Time Travel, the cows are also Nazis.
  • Death World: The planet that Bill is sent to at the end of the first novel. They don't sugar coat it either, specifically calling it such.
  • Distant Finale: The first novel ends with one, showing grizzled veteran Bill visiting his long-forgotten homeworld as a recruiting sergeant and tricking his own brother into enlisting the same way he was despite his mother begging him not to.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Deathwish Drang who, despite being such, is still looked up to by Bill as a father figure. Not that the other officers are any nicer.
  • Duct Tape for Everything: Zombie Vampires uses duct tape for any and every engineering challenge from sealing up hull breaches to making a flame thrower out of the toilet.
  • Evil Hand: Well, not strictly speaking evil, but Tembo's right arm (Bill's replacement for his lost left arm) seems to have a mind of its own sometimes. When Bill encounters an officer, who knew Tembo, the arm forms a fist and clocks the officer in the jaw, much to Bill's horror. However, the officer simply gets up and laughs, saying that it used to be their standard greeting to one another. Later on, when Bill tries to run away, the same officer tells Tembo to hold him. The arm grabs onto the desk and refuses to let go, preventing Bill from running.
  • Expy: At least one in every book.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Several methods are mentioned, especially in the first novel, when Tembo explain why Subspace or Hyperspace are not used (the ships attempting to enter them shake themselves apart). The current method used by the fleet is called the "Bloater Drive." It makes the ship expand to ridiculously huge proportions, to the point where a planet looks like a palm-sized spheroid. When the ship's nose grows enough to reach the destination, it shrinks back to normal size, which, due to the "rubber band effect", causes it to end up at the destination. (Just be sure you don't poke any of those palm-sized planets with your finger while the ship's expanding. You can cause unintentional tsunamis and hurricanes.)
  • Father to His Men: Deathwish Drang, at least as far as Bill is concerned.
  • Flock of Wolves: Bill gets recruited by an insurgency and then by military intelligence; eventually a bust occurs and every insurgent turns out to be (or at least says they're) working for the military.
  • Foregone Conclusion: As depicted in the Distant Finale in the original novel, at the end of The Final Incoherent Adventure Bill becomes a recruiting sergeant.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: Soldiers are fed with a thin soup that contains all the nutrients needed to keep them healthy, but tastes like drek. Some soldiers get cards from home that can be rehydrated into chocolate bars or other, actual foodstuffs. Our Hero, Bill, gets a card from home that rehydrates into ... a larger card that plays tinny, annoying, "inspiring", military tunes and slogans.
    • The dehydrated water, though, takes the cake. You just add water and you get... water! Except it tastes a lot worse.
  • Generation Ships: Briefly visited in Ten Thousand Bars as Bill attempted to pinpoint where the Hippy from Hell changed history.
  • God-Emperor: According to the official religion of the Empire, the Emperor is officially recognized as God. This does make Bill, who is a Zen Zoroastrian, a heretic, though.
  • Godwin's Law of Time Travel: When the Hippy from Hell changes the timestream to eliminate alcohol in Ten Thousand Bars, he also manages to bring about the Third Reich which ultimately spreads through the entire galaxy.
  • Heavyworlder: The Chingers are lizardoids only seven inches high, but as they come from a 10G world, they're able to throw the Space Trooper protagonist easily. Government propaganda portrays them as being seven feet tall so morale won't be affected.
  • Hideous Hangover Cure
  • Humans Kill Wantonly: The galactic empire constantly seeks alien races to make contact with and/or uplift so that they can ultimately fight them in order to support their war-based economy. The Chingers are only the latest victims of this policy.
  • Humans Are Cthulhu: It turns out, in Tasteless Pleasure, that humans have within their bodies a link to another dimension which dictates their sexual drives.
  • Informed Obscenity: "Bowb" is human society's multi-purpose word of choice.
  • Kangaroo Court: In the first book, Bill is put on trial for going AWOL (he got lost on the Planetville capital of The Empire after his map is stolen (losing one is a capital crime). The jury consists of 12 robots programmed to only give one verdict. Subverted in that they end up declaring him not guilty, to the shock of everyone in the room, but only because they received a signal overriding their programming. Bill is actually supposed to go on a Suicide Mission.
  • Lampshade Hanging: Bill often questions the logic behind his orders, and even several plot points, over the course of the books.
  • Lizard Folk: Bgr's people, the Chingers, are a race of peaceful four-armed seven-inch-tall space lizards from a ten-G planet.
  • Louis Cypher: In the first book, Bgr the alien disguises his identity as a human named Beager.
  • Mechanical Lifeforms: The robot faction in Robot Slaves have their own natural history, starting with their humble origins in the primordial oil pools.
    • When Bill is meeting their leader, he asks for a drink of water, causing the horrified leader to immediately call for guards, thinking that Bill is an assassin seeking to poison him with rust.
  • Mobile-Suit Human: Stranded among the enemy, Bgr must survive by building himself a robotic human to hide in while he tries to figure out how to return to his people.
  • Most Definitely Not an Alien: Despite his Mobile-Suit Human being made from spare parts and looking very artificial, Beager is not questioned by his fellow soldiers since the Chingers are always portrayed by the Propaganda Machine as being seven feet tall rather than seven inches tall and able to fit inside a human-like skull cavity.
    • Bgr reveals that his first Mobile-Suit Human was even more obvious. However, no one noticed, as the war against the Chingers has just started, and most people still didn't know about them.
  • Organ Autonomy: Tembo's arm seems to still retain the memories of its former owner and will sometimes clench its fist when in the presence of an old rival.
    • Not just clench. At least once, the arm punched an officer to Bill's horror, only for the officer to get up and comment on Tembo still having quite a punch, despite being dead. Another time, the arm actually worked against Bill by grabbing a desk, preventing Bill from escaping.
  • Our Time Machine Is Different: The Space/Time Nexus in Ten Thousand Bars is a toilet that speaks in a British accent.
  • Pardon My Klingon: The series uses "bowb" as the expletive of choice in this universe.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: The Chingers used to be this until an Imperial ship landed on their planet and started shooting at any Chinger nearby. Bgr learned their language and convinced humans that Chingers mean them no harm. Shortly after that, the Empire declares war on the Chingers, and the tiny lizards learn to fight awfully quick. They get much better than humans, since they lack the Idiot Ball that most of the Empire's higher-ups are required to hold.
  • Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Bottled Brains includes a Space Pirate who doesn't really do much piracy. Though he does dress and act like one and even has a talking parrot. The parrot winds up outranking Bill.
  • Planet of Hats: The Planet of Bottled Brains where all one billion inhabitants are... well... bottled brains. Also the Planet of Ten Thousand Bars which is known only for its huge number of drinking establishments.
  • Powered Armor: Bill notes a soldier wearing one fall into a swamp and drown. The suit is too heavy to even walk, so soldiers wearing them just hop around on booster jets. The one that falls in then swamp had its fuel line damaged by an enemy shot. The soldier is begging for help, but not one is willing to get dragged down by the swamp, so they just stand and watch, although some are shouting for him to get out of the armor. The soldier screams that it takes an hour under normal conditions.
  • Prison Ship: Bill ends up getting trapped on one for several years in Bill the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Ten Thousand Bars. As soon as his regular drinking stops, his IQ jumps a few hundred points and he spends the time onboard figuring out the meaning of life.
  • Propaganda Machine: The Empire goes all out in attempting to demonize the Chingers and using every propaganda trope, whether it makes sense or not. This includes a poster showing a stylized Chinger with the caption, "Would you want your sister to marry this?" This causes even the dimwitted Bill to remark that he has no sister and that she wouldn't want to marry something like that anyway.
  • Recycled In Space: The final novel is essentially a fantastic retelling of Operation Desert Storm. In case the name "Eyerack" didn't ring any bells.
  • Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory: Bill's proximity to the Space/Time Nexus in Ten Thousand Bars is what allows him to remember what the universe was like before the Hippy from Hell went and muddled about with the timestream.
  • Running Gag: Along with Spell My Name with an S, there is Bill's constant search for a proper foot to replace the one that he lost on the Death World. Notable are the mood foot that grows into cloven hooves and the Swiss Army Foot which Bill is finally satisfied with in the final novel.
  • Shout-Out: Most notable are Robot Slaves which takes place in the world of John Carter of Mars, Zombie Vampires which liberally takes from Alien, and Bottled Brains which includes a lot of referrences to both Star Trek and Star Wars. And the whole novel is a parody of Starship Troopers.
  • Smarter Than You Look: Despite Bill acting and being treated like a basic grunt, Bgr is able to see the glimmers of enlightened intelligence that are hidden within his alcohol and sex-addled mind. Bill often questions the logic of his orders and even his own thoughts, without realizing that this proves Bgr's point.
    • In Bill the Galactic Hero on the Planet of Ten Thousand Bars, Bill spends several years without alcohol and women thanks to being stuck on a Prison Ship. His IQ jumps to genius-level, and he figures out the meaning of life. As soon as he takes a sip of alcohol after that, he forgets everything he learned.
  • Space Opera
  • Space Pirates: See entry for Pirates Who Don't Do Anything.
  • Spell My Name with an LL: Whenever Bill interacts with someone of higher rank (which is often), they insist on calling him Bil because only officers get two L's. Which is nothing compared to the two-headed space janitor named Bill and Billl (no, that's not a typo).
  • Standard Sci-Fi Army: If you haven't figure it out yet, Bill is in one.
  • Strange Salute: Much to the joy of the officers, Bill's two right arms allow him to salute with both hands at once.
  • Take That!: Harry Harrison mentioned more than once the book was directly inspired by both more "serious" military science fiction, his own experiences in the Army in World War II and the gap he saw between the former and the latter.
  • Take That, Audience!: At one point, Bill encounters a stereotypical science fiction fan who, when Bill introduces himself, derides him in the dorkiest way possible.
  • Training from Hell: Exactly what Bill and all other enlisted men go through when they join the Space Troopers.