Like it or not, the publishing industry seems to have decided that books are 'product' which should be packaged and marketed just like any other product, with the bottom line profits being the major consideration at all stages of the production process. To that end we now have the 'shared world' or the 'share-cropped' novel, where the work put into creating the background (and possibly characters) for a story are not simply 'wasted' on a single novel, but spun out into a whole series of novels written by different writers. It's not a million miles from the old days of pulp novels...
Which brings us, in roundabout fashion, to the Bill, the Galactic Hero series. Where the original novel parodied pulp fiction, the new series has become part of the pulp new wave, if you like.
If you're a writer with a ready-created background for a share-crop project, you've got a licence to print money. Most writers like money almost as much as they like seeing their name on the cover of books: share-cropping offers them both. Arthur C. Clarke has done it with the 'Venus Prime' series. Isaac Asimov did it with the 'Robot City' series. And while I don't blame Harry Harrison for the new 'Bill' series, I have to admit to being a little disappointed by the series...
The idea for the Bill series came from a US book packager, whose proposal was for six novels based on the original Bill 'characters and situations'. Harry Harrison would write the first in the series, and have 'editorial' control over the remainder, for which he would provide a minimum of 500 words of outline for each novel.
Harrison edited each manuscript as it was completed by its respective author. "I'm just going through ***'s manuscript," he said to me at one point. "And putting some jokes in!" He might have been joking, but he did express some disappointment that the authors involved hadn't taken the humour of the stories into the deeper, darker satire which characterised the original novel. Most of them seemed to have missed the point about making the novels anti-military too.
All of the stories in the series take place between Bill, the Galactic Hero Part 3 (E=mc2 ... or bust) Chapter 4 and the Envoi.
Where the original was a satirical novel which also parodied SF novels which were sympathetic to military life and military thinking, the novels in the new series are parodies of SF only - particularly attacking the space opera sub-genre - which means they are more like continuations of Starsmashers of the Galaxy Rangers than extensions of Bill, the Galactic Hero.
Harry Harrison expressed his own disappointment in the series in an interview with Brian Ireland:
"They have a thing in the States called 'share cropping' where you have a series or character, and you have other writers do work with it. Isaac Asimov used to do it with his Robot City thing. I never wanted to do it, I'm not interested. But one of the packagers said, coming back to this thing I said about the pornography of violence: Harry, why don't we do a Bill, the Galactic Hero series and actually do some anti-war propaganda instead of all pro war. So they eventually talked me into it.
"The second one - Bill, the Galactic Hero on the planet of Robot Slaves - I did myself, that was a lot of fun. If they could all be like that. But no, no… We all make mistakes. I'm a professional writer. I earn a living at it. These are the only ones where I did it wrong."
The novels were first published in paperback by Avon in the US, and each book had a number of black and white illustrations ('combat sketches') by Michael W. Kaluta. In the UK the books were published in hardback and paperback by Gollancz, but without combat sketches. The cover paintings (by Michael W. Kaluta, Steve Fastner and Mark Pacella) were the same for all editions: the scans below are taken from the US editions.
Here, then, is a brief run down of the series (click here for bibliographic details):
1. The Planet of Robot Slaves
It would spoil the fun to reveal the names of many of the characters, spaceships, planets etc., they're all puns. Suffice to say that there's a character called Cy Berpunk, whose story allows Harrison to poke fun at the style and subject of the likes of William Gibson; and a character called Jonkarta, which allows an affectionate attack on Edgar Rice Burrough's Barsoom novels.
The plot is basically an excuse for some fun at SF's expense: Bill's task is to locate the source of the Chinger-controlled robot dragons which are making life hell for the allies. The novel, also introduces the running gag of Bill's right foot - he just can't seem to get a decent replacement for the one he shot off in the original novel.
2. The Planet of Bottled Brains
(with Robert Sheckley)
Still seeking a suitable right foot, Bill finds himself mis-directed by a doctor and ends up as a volunteer on a suicide mission. He's sent to the planet Tsuris, which has a secret weapon Bill must find. It also has a race of Tsurians who seem to have a lot of brains, but not many bodies to put them in. And since Bill has a lot of body but very little brain...
3. The Planet of Tasteless Pleasure
(with David Bischoff)
Bill now has a satyr's foot, and is in a military hospital seeking a replacement. Then he's attacked by a real female satyr, who pulls him under the sea and introduces him to a "world of unspeakable and endless pleasures!"
4. The Planet of Zombie Vampires
(with Jack C. Haldeman II)
Bill is on a spaceship called the Bounty with a bunch of homicidal misfits and maniacs who have been released from a penitentiary/asylum and sent to confront the most hideous/dangerous life form Bill has encountered to date. Imagine a mix of Mutiny on the Bounty and Aliens, and you'll realise why this is one of the best titles in the series.
5. The Planet of Ten Thousand Bars
(with David Bischoff)
This one became The Planet Of Hippies From Hell on its UK release. Bill is sent to Barworld, source of the universe's finest beverages, the perfect place for a bloke with two right arms. His task is to find the Time/Space Resonation Nexus and stop an evil conspiracy (but you guessed that already, right?), and on route he must face Uncle Nancy's Cross-Dressing Emporium and the assassination hippies...
6. The Final Incoherent Adventure
(with David Harris)
Bill has been recruited by Captain Kadaffi - aka Captain Kadaver - for (another!) suicide mission. He's been ordered to die trying, but he's not exactly sure what he's supposed to be trying (it says here). You might be pleased to learn that this book doesn't quite take you up to the Envoi of the original Bill, the Galactic Hero, leaving room for the series to be continued. Then again, you might not.