When Harry Harrison graduated from high school in 1943, his was the 'no hope' class: it was the middle of the Second World War, and the only future for an eighteen year old male graduate was to be drafted into the armed services.

"You picked the service of your choice, there wasn't much else you could do. I didn't really want to drown, so I stayed out of the navy; I didn't want to be shot, so I stayed out of the infantry..."

Although it wasn't a simple a matter of choosing your favourite armed service, Harrison managed to end up in the US Army Air Corps two months after he graduated. He achieved that by attending Eastern Aircraft Instrument School in New Jersey, where he became a certified aircraft instrument mechanic.

"Before I was drafted I went to an aircraft instrument school to learn to repair aircraft instruments. I wanted to get into the airforce, I'd always liked 'planes. Of course I never saw an aircraft instrument again! But I had good mechanical aptitude - in fact the best mark I ever had in my life, which meant I ended up at the technical school."

The Air Corps sent him to Lowry Field in Denver, Colorado, where he was trained to be a power-operated and computing-gunsight specialist. He learned computer theory and how to repair the computer itself: it was a mechanical computer, and work on the tiny rods and cogs had to be carried out under clean-room conditions.

In 1944 Harrison was sent to the Air Corps base in Laredo, Texas, where he was to maintain the computer which controlled the aim of two fifty-calibre machine guns which were mounted on turrets on a truck, which gunners were trained to use. His duties soon came to include that of armourer, truck driver, and then gunnery instructor - "teaching kids to shoot machine guns", as the holder of each of these posts was called away to combat duty.

In 1945 he was transferred to a gunnery school in Panama City, Florida, which was soon to close down. He was then assigned to M.P. duty and promoted to sergeant. His job now was to ride shotgun on a garbage truck, guarding the black prisoners who worked it. Despite the fact that he was armed with a loaded repeating shotgun, his charges didn't really need much supervision. They had been punished for some misdemeanour, and now wanted to serve their time on best behaviour and gain an honorary discharge, as the war was coming to an end. Harrison knew how the prisoners felt: he used to drink with them in the black servicemen's bar.

Sergeant Harry Harrison was discharged on 14th February 1946.

"The war did many good things for me, though I certainly did not appreciate them at the time. First, and most important, it kicked into existence a strong sense of survival that has been of great service since. It also terminated my childhood, a fact that I was certainly not grateful for at the time since growing up can be a painful process. I also learned to drink and curse, the universal coin of military life, but, more important, I was robbed of three years of my life without satisfactory return. At least I believed so for a long time, which is the same thing, and this gave me that singular capacity for solitary work, the drive to get it done, without which the freelance cannot survive."

The army had also given him a knowledge of, and interest in, computers, a subject which continues to interest him today: the Harrison household is filled with computers, from 'toy computers' which Harrison has used to help develop the computer games based on his novels, to the latest and most powerful lap-top computer.

"Coming out of the army was a traumatic experience and years passed before I could understand why. It seems very obvious now... Though I loathed the army I was completely adjusted to it. I could not return to the only role I knew in civilian life, that of being a child."

After training as a commercial artist, working in magazine and comic book illustration, and then editing and packaging magazines, Harrison turned to writing. He wrote in a genre which he had loved since his childhood, and sold several science fiction short stories. Under the guidance of editor John W.Campbell, he wrote his first full-length novel, Deathworld, which was first serialised in Campbell's magazine.

"I did Deathworld about seven or eight times in various ways," Harrison admitted to Charles Platt in 1982. "Once I got the formula right, I disguised it with different kinds of titles. Deathworld had worked. I knew I could make money off that formula."

"The world was quite happy with my work; I wasn't... I wanted to write better and I wanted to write different material," Harrison revealed in Hell's Cartographers. "Salvation came through the good offices of Joseph Heller and Brian Aldiss. I read Catch- 22 which crystallised my thinking, and I had met Brian Aldiss a few years earlier. In addition to his friendship, which I value above all others, I appreciate his literary and critical skills. Brian is a prose stylist, and certainly the best in science fiction... It was a little late, but my literary education had begun."

Harrison had written several experimental short stories previously: 'Captain Honario Harpplayer, R.N.,' was a parody of the Hornblower tales of C.S. Forester, which Harrison enjoyed in his youth; 'The Streets of Ashkelon' tackled the then taboo subject of religion; and even the original Stainless Steel Rat short stories were a gamble because "you couldn't sell humour unless you were an accepted humour writer... I had to disguise them as adventure stories and slip in any lightness and humour."

"All of my experimentation so far had been in the short story, since the time investment there is obviously much less than the novel. This was both good and bad because the 'experimental' did not do very well, not in these dark days of the early sixties. The quotes are around experimental there because my stories were nothing of the kind. They just fell outside the classic pulp taboos that still dominated the field."

Harrison admits to being "hesitant to put the time into an entire novel that might not sell. At that period a novel a year was the most I could do and the thought of losing a year's income was not to be considered."

"Eventually the artist triumphed over the businessman, ears became numb to the sound of hungry children crying in the background, and I contacted Damon Knight. Damon was acting as an sf literary scout for Berkley Books and I was sure he would be simpatico to my needs. I sent him the first (and only) chapter I had written of an experimental novel titled If You Can Read This You Are Too Damned Close. With it were some one page character sketches and a few words about the kind of novel I wanted to attempt."

Damon Knight liked what he saw, and persuaded Berkley to give Harrison a $1,500 advance, $750 on signing, with $750 to come when the book was completed. Harrison went to work.

"I wanted to get my feelings about the army and the military into a novel," Harrison wrote in his notes for authors of the new series of BILL books. He explained that the original book was founded on "a deep-seated suspicion of the military, and a profound hatred of war and the people who like and want war."

Harrison cites Heller and Voltaire as inspirations for BILL: "I got the clues I needed from Candide and Catch-22: do it as black comedy. Some things are so awful they can only be faced by bitter laughter. To this I added parody of other sf." [From the notes for the authors of Bill sequels.]

Two of the sf writers parodied in BILL are Isaac Asimov, whose metal-plated planet Trantor from the FOUNDATION series appears as the gold-plated planet Helior (which turns out to be anodised aluminium in reality), and Robert Heinlein, whose controversial Starship Troopers is openly attacked. Starship Troopers is, according to Aldiss' Trillion Year Spree, "a sentimental view of what it is like to train and fight as an infantry man in a future war." While Brian Ash's The Visual Encyclopedia of SF said of it: "It was the presentation of an extreme elitist society, coupled with the glorification of violence, which made the book distasteful to many readers."

Isaac Asimov, it is said, took Harrison's parody in good humour, and might even have been pleased to be parodied. Robert Heinlein, apparently was not pleased.

In his book Robert Heinlein, Leon Stover describes Bill as a "dramatic summary" of all the criticisms levelled against Heinlein's Starship Troopers. "Hailed by critics as a work of comic genius, it divided Harrison's fellow writers and troubled his fans; both of whom reserved the right to award him his due for later works equally brilliant, but less nervy in touching upon Heinlein's good name. The critics, however, continue to favour this one Harrison title above all, simply because they read it as a digest of everything they despise in Starship Troopers."

Ash's book describes Bill, the Galactic Hero as "a savagely funny satire which tilts at several sacred cows of sf warfare, as well as religion. It contrives to satirise the clichés of interstellar war and space opera... The public are told that the alien race with which man is waging an all-out war are seven-feet-tall intelligent lizards of hideous appearance - they actually turn out to be only seven inches long. The cruel military training of new recruits is precisely documented, on a par with Heinlein's book, but Harrison's interpretation of military ideology is the very opposite of that in Starship Troopers. The grotesque violence of Bill, while presented as farce, is revealed as a crime against humanity, or any other species, and unjustifiable under any circumstances."

The writing of Bill was a "shaking experience" for the author. "I was doing less than half my normal wordage everyday and greatly enjoying myself - at the time. Laughter all day at the typewriter - how I do enjoy my own jokes - instant depression when I came down for dinner. Upon rereading, the stuff seemed awful. Or awfully way out; there had never been anything like it in SF before. Then back the next day for some more chuckling and suffering."

Harrison was encouraged by his wife, Joan, who was "reading the copy and laughing out loud and saying it was great and get on with it and stop muttering to yourself. I got on with it, finished it, had it typed and mailed it off to Damon."

Damon Knight rejected the novel. The reason he gave was that "what I had here was an adventure story loused up with bad jokes. Take the jokes out and it would be okay."

Berkley's editor-in-chief, Tom Dardis, liked the novel as it was, but didn't want to appear to contradict his paid sf advisor. Fortunately Doubleday sf editor Tim Seldes picked up the US hardback rights, encouraging Berkley to take it in paperback. Frederik Pohl published a shortened version of the novel in Galaxy, under the title The Starsloggers, and Michael Moorcock published the whole novel in three parts in New Worlds in the UK.

"Here was a message of some kind. SF was growing and contained within its once pulp boundaries new and different markets. Bill was positively not an Analog serial and had not even been submitted there. (In later years I discovered that my judgement had been correct in this at least. One day John Campbell asked me why I had written this book. I said I would tell him if he told me why he had asked. His answer was that he had seen my name on the paperback and bought it - as if he did not have enough sf to read! - and had hated it. I made some sort of waffling answer and worked hard to change the subject.)"

Harrison was encouraged by the success of Bill, the Galactic Hero: "I felt that there must be a bigger market out there than I had imagined and perhaps I could now write for myself and please the readers at the same time. This was a momentous discovery and marked a new period in my writing. Not that I didn't do the familiar to stay alive. Deathworld 3 and a number of Stainless Steel Rat books were still in the future, but I found I could experiment with new ideas and still hope to sell them as well."

Harrison has continued to alternate between the familiar - with a series of Stainless Steel Rat books; Invasion: Earth; and more recently a series of BILL sequels - and the more experimental / serious - A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!; Make Room! Make Room!; and the West of Eden and Stars & Stripes trilogies.

Bill, the Galactic Hero, meanwhile, has been read on BBC Radio (and the reading released on LP and cassette) and adapted into a series of comic books. A series of 'shared world' or 'share crop' sequels have also been produced.

© Paul Tomlinson 1995 & 1999