Month: January 2016

Hospital Station

Hospital Station - James White; Del Rey; 1979

Hospital Station – James White; Del Rey; 1979

I just managed to squeeze in one more read for January. Remember, January is Vintage Science Fiction Month as proclaimed by Little Red Reviewer! My final review for January, then, is Hospital Station by James White (1928 – 1999).  It is a “collected/fix-up” book featuring five stories that describe some early incidents at Galactic Sector Twelve General Hospital.   Originally, this was published in 1962, but it collects stories that were published in New Worlds between 1957 and 1960.  Hospital Station is also the first book in White’s Sector General series, which has twelve books in total (the last released in 1999).

The stories in this collection are very obviously “collected” stories and do not follow a specific timeline. In fact, as one reads the stories, there is a lot of obvious shifting with the elements of the stories.  By this I mean that White seems to have really enjoyed creating the “landscape” for these stories and he definitely worked hard on the extra-terrestrial/alien lifeforms, however, he does not really seem to know exactly where to write from or who to write about.  I did not rate the individual “stories” separately.

Please do look at the cover, which has a scene presumably from one of the stories contained within (Trouble With Emily).  The cover art here was done by H. R. Van Dongen (1920 – 2010).  Dongen is a pretty interesting character who died not too long ago. Anyway, this is never going to be one of my favorite science fiction covers, but there are not that many, I would think, with levitating/flying brontosaurus…… thunder lizard!

The five stories contained in Hospital Station and their original publication dates:

  • Medic (variant of O’Mara’s Orphan) – 1960
  • Sector General – 1957
  • Trouble With Emily – 1958
  • Visitor at Large – 1959
  • Out-Patient – 1960

The first two stories in the book did not win me over. The first, Medic, begins in media res, is choppy and caustic. Until I got a sense of how White was writing these stories, this one seemed kind of messy. Frankly, I would not be too surprised if this was one of those stories that one hears about – vintage stories with ugly publications because of cheap payment, mean publishers/editors, and a necessity to put food on the table and fill pages in a pulp magazine. The main character is O’Mara who seems all over the place. But we learn he is a really well-built muscular fellow who also is nearly brilliant. So, immediately, he is off-putting because in current novels, readers expect flawed and damaged loser-types characters.

vintage-sf-badge

My third review for 2016

Maybe the most annoying facet of this story is that White does not seem to know what he wants O’Mara to be or to do. That sort of uncertainly just makes the choppy story even more so.  However, straightaway the best part of the story is the alien.  Somehow White created some fairly awesome alien beings throughout these stories and maybe it was easier for me to continue reading because this alien was so unexpectedly interesting.

The second story, Sector General, threw me a bit because the main character is not O’Mara, but Dr. Conway.  And while I found O’Mara a little over-the-top, Conway is downright aggravating.  He’s a newer member of the medical team at this superb medical station.  This is where White’s uncertainly enters again:  we are led to believe that this Hospital Station is supposed to be state-of-the-art, brand new, high-tech and so if one is assigned here, or hired on here, this is proof of that person’s elite status within the medical community.  But in so many ways, as I read this story, Conway seems tentative, perplexed, and naive. It almost seems like he got hired on at the station totally oblivious to what he would be dealing with.

Oh, well, and the notable thing with Conway is that he is a big pacifist. Totally anti-war, anti-killing, anti-military. In fact, throughout the story he displays an immature and silly attitude toward the “Monitors” (military) at the station.  All of this is fine, well, and good, but why IS the military at the station?  Not to make it seem like I am siding with Conway (in this story) with all his confusion and puzzlement regarding the military, but it seems like White just has the Monitors crewing the station to provide a contrast to pacifist Conway.  Also, I suppose it (military presence, and therefore activity) provides “patients” for the hospital.  Forward to 1993 – 1998, and this turns into (I bet….) Babylon 5 on Warner Bros. TV.

I enjoyed the third, fourth, and fifth stories a whole lot more than the first two.  The point of view settles on Dr. Conway.  We learn a lot more about the station and the stories are a lot less choppy and whiny.  In these, White’s work with creating alien beings and posing medical challenges is brought to the forefront, which, honestly, is probably the main reason why readers would seek out these stories.  Hospital in space – admit it, there’s potential for interesting fun there!  Hospital dramas on TV have always flourished. I think the soap opera General Hospital first aired in 1963:  only one year after this collection is released.

There is not an extreme amount of medical science, however.  That may or may not be a dealbreaker for many readers. For me, it was fine. Other readers may complain that the lack of detailed medical knowledge makes the stories lighter or sketchier than they could be.  There is something to that sort of complaint, but I think White makes up for it by focusing on the necessity for diagnostics.  The team of diagnosticians at Sector General play a major, vital role at the station and when these characters enter the story, it really fleshes out the story and pushes it beyond the views/actions of Dr. Conway.  Focusing less on the doctoring and highlighting the role of diagnosticians is fairly interesting.  May I also provide the date for the FOX TV show House, M.D. (2004 – 2012) that was entirely centered on the activities of a crack-diagnostics team.

White borrowed the alien species “classification system” from writer E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This system uses a four-letter code which designates the type and needs of the aliens that are encountered. This is explained briefly in one of the stories, but I did not care enough to learn it or make sure it was internally consistent.  White has these future space-doctors have access to “educator tapes” which are like the knowledge plug-ins in the Matrix movies. Except in White’s stories, these tapes are practically “taped” educators of another species.  Doctors can “plug-in” these tapes (for a limited time) and have a very essential (i.e. they psychologically become) understanding of the species they are seeking to learn about and treat.  This is pretty neat, I think.  I like watching authors present and solve and wrestle with epistemological scenarios like this.

Overall, O’Mara and Conway are aggravating and tedious.  However, I really like all of the alien creatures we meet. In a couple of stories, Conway is forced to work alongside aliens and these are the high points of those stories, in my opinion.  Naturally, White advances some alien species to include elements of telepathy/empathy, but its not as goofy as Counselor Troi in Star Trek.  Frankly, with all these ideas, floating around in this book, it is surprising some other authors have not really taken to such scenarios and made shared-worlds or other series with some of these concepts.

There is a lot to like here.  Ideas and concepts and aliens are fun.  The main characters, though, are a bit tedious to read about.  And there are some gaps and challenges, if the reader wants to pick through and point such things out. I was entertained and I would gladly read on in the Sector General series. I kind of expect the series to improve because I am hoping White got a handle on what he wanted to do with the series after these stories. The three star rating is for the choppiness and uncertainty.

3 stars

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds – K. Laumer; ACE 1973

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer (1925 – 1993) is the first book in the Retief series. It is also the first item by Laumer that I have read. This collection was published in 1963, but I read the ACE 1973 edition. The cover of my edition is not credited and I find it particularly hideous. Or, it could have been decent, but instead is wretched. The posture or stance or something is totally off. The figure appears to be leaning away…. except his toes are flat on the ground. So its actually that his pants are pulled up over his belly. Its probably just an illusion based on the two colors of green on his legs. In any case, I really hate looking at this cover.

It is, more or less, common knowledge in the vintage science fiction community that Keith Laumer’s Retief series is heavily influenced by Laumer’s time in the United States Foreign Service. I have not researched Laumer to find out what his position was, nor his years of service, etc. In fact, I know very little about the US Foreign Service. I believe they are a department that is in charge of the ground-level interactions in USA foreign policy.

Well, whatever Laumer’s rôle in the Foreign Service, he must have had some diverse and outrageous experiences. He probably had a near limitless supply of stories to tell. The stories collected in Envoy to New Worlds are chock full of sardonic, satirical humor. Clearly, Laumer saw the ridiculousness of many of the situations and scenarios he witnessed/experienced as a member of the Foreign Service.

vintage-sf-badgeThe first story, Protocol, is actually a variant of The Yillian Way, which was a short story originally published in IF magazine in January 1962.  As with all of the stories in this collection, the story is super fast moving.  There is no pondersome droning, no languishing in existential crises, no lengthy blocks of text detailing out the background and history of every aspect of the story.  So, in a way, the only real criticism a reader can have of the writing is that it lacks a certain depth.

On the second page of the book, we are introduced to Jame Retief, Third Secretary in the Corps Diplomatique. We immediately discern that he is just this side of disobedient/insubordinate. Through the rest of the stories, we learn he is a tall, stocky fellow who is great in hand to hand combat and skilled in weapons.  Overall, he is really a space-age James Bond. He is super fun because he comes with loads of initiative, diligence, and wit. My only complaint about this character is that it just is unclear what his motives are. He clearly dislikes the methods and people of the Corps Diplomatique.  Retief is one of those characters that would succeed no matter his career or field. So, really, I want to ask:  why do you do this diplomat stuff?

Introducing himself in the style of the alien culture: (pg. 32)

“Well, let us dine,” the mighty Flapjack said at last, “we can resolve these matters later.  I am called Hoshick of the Mosaic of the Two Dawns.”

“I’m Retief.” Hoshick waited expectantly. “. . . of the Mountain of Red Tape,” Retief added.

I suppose Retief must be, at heart, a good-hearted fellow with the common good truly as his goal, so to speak. In the pursuit of the safety and sanity of the galaxy, he fights both the generally villainous and corrupt people of the galaxy, but also the bureaucratic, ignorant, self-satisfied members of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission.  In other words, he’s a hero who has to work alone, getting no credit, resolving galactic disputes into tidy packages of diplomatic prettiness. He does the dirty work and gets all the blame, none of the credit.

“It’s time you knew,” Retief said. “There’s no phonier business in the galaxy than diplomacy.” – pg. 126

Along the way, Retief meets all kinds of Laumer’s creative – really creative – aliens and alien worlds. (Anyone ever wanting to expand on Retief’s galaxy has a virtual infinite sandbox of awesome ideas waiting for them to play with and develop.)  Each culture is particular and individual and of course their self-interest shows through. Overall, Retief’s resolutions are amicable to all parties – and he generally shows due respect and acceptance for the variety of cultures.

“You are not like other Terrestrials, you are a mad dog.”

“We’ll work out a character sketch of me later. Are they fueled up? You know the procedures here. Did those shuttles just get in, or is that the ready line?”

Retief does seem to have a sort of omniscience. Sometimes, as a reader, you have to just chalk it up to Retief being a diligent worker, a good researcher, having a good memory, or whatever. Maybe its just “off screen” when he has the time to ferret out various scenarios. Nevertheless, this keeps the stories super-fast paced and very lively.  In a lot of ways, these stories are just like reading Dr. No etc., just not Fleming’s writing. And, let me say this:  I like Bond. So, of course, I really enjoyed this collection.

I also like how Retief recognizes the absurdity and corruption of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission and, more often than not, the people involved in it. Nevertheless, he does not really display any aggressive bitterness, jealousy, or vindictiveness. I mean, even I was vexed by the character Miss Meuhl in the story Policy. (I kept thinking, “Boy, if only Retief had a Miss Lemon, he would rule the galaxy!”)

The humor and ridiculousness of the stories is priceless. It is somewhat “expected,” but that does not lessen its funny-level. This is entertaining stuff and anyone who does not appreciate it probably is stuck in an existential crisis with R. W. Emerson or something.  I liked every minute I was reading these stories. Obviously recommended for people who like fun and James Bond, but also fans of Babylon 5.

4 stars

Space Opera

Space Opera

Space Opera – Jack Vance; Pyramid Books, 1965

Space Opera by Jack Vance (1916 – 2013) was published in 1965. I read it this December and it is the sixth Vance novel I have read. I am also pleased that the first review of the year (and for Vintage Science Fiction Month) is a work by Vance.  I really like starting off the new year with the Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Science Fiction not-a-challenge.  Usually, I only get two or three reviews posted; maybe this year I’ll do better?

Sadly, I cannot give this novel a glowing five-star big hearts sort of rating. Trust me, it pains me to give a Vance novel such a low rating. Nevertheless, in the vein of one of the main characters of this novel, we must not allow mere sentimentality to get in the way of our overarching efforts and goals.

I read the Pyramid Books 1965 edition. The cover art is by John Schoenherr and I think it is the best of the editions of this book. I love the dark red background.  Anyway, the title is a play on words.  ‘Space opera’ being one of those not clear or distinct subcategories of science fiction literature.  The term has a long and varied history full of opinions and redefining. It is a fluid concept that is, really, in existence mainly to give people something to endlessly discuss over coffee. Vance uses the term as the title of this novel in a more literal manner. He rather does mean space opera, i.e. off-planet musical performance.

vintage-sf-badgeVance was an intelligent fellow. It was not possible for him to keep his intelligence out of his novels – and we would not have wanted him to do that. However, this means that sometimes his novels lose an ounce of fun and entertainment as a sacrifice on the altar of wisdom and intelligence. I am totally okay with this. Some readers dislike this.  For example, The Languages of Pao (1958) is really good; I gave it five stars. Many readers found it to be a slog, which I understand – linguistics/language can be very, very boring. (Yeah, Kripke and Salmon, we are lookin’ at you fellas!)

For Space Opera, Vance has come up with an awesome idea. I am really impressed and enthused and tickled by this.  The writing skill is also there – this is intelligently written with generally well-moving mechanics and structure.  There is also an unstated, but obvious, perspective on imperialism.  For this, too, Vance deserves praise because he did not succumb to a violent, aggressive, bitter tone about the dark evils of imperialism.  Instead, he just leaves it almost unstated and lets the reader have a laugh at the expense of the frustrated imperialist.  Tactful and witty, Jack.

Basically, a very wealthy older woman, Dame Isabel Grayce, has decided to gather up the best musicians (singers, orchestra, etc.) and pack everyone into a spaceship and go forth into the galaxies on a musical tour. Her motives are, mainly, arrogant and obnoxious. However, some mitigation is due her because she is quite honest. She is absolutely ignorant of her arrogance and her imperialism.  Her goals – in her mind – are to undertake a musical tour, bringing the expert performances of the human race upon earth to a variety of lesser-equipped, unfortunate, and less-advanced cultures/species.  This, in essence, for Dame Isabel, is a magnanimous gift which will enhance the lives of the foreign species and, minimally, open the channels of diplomacy and public relations to other planets/cultures.

Of course, in her mind, the other cultures/species cannot fail to be awed by the greatness and expertise of the opera company she has assembled. She admits, due to the backwardness of some of these cultures, they may not be able to fully appreciate the performances. Yet, she fully expects this tour to be a massive success. To her credit, she is neither quitter, nor lazy.

Naturally, the reader is generally repulsed by such blatant imperialism. They are supposed to be – but this is not a serious book, at heart. There is no debate that sort of imperialism is horrible. The reader should understand that Vance is setting it up not so he can knock it down (which would be too obvious and heavy-handed), but rather to amuse the reader endlessly with this operatic farce.  The fact that Dame Isabel takes the whole thing so seriously is part of the laugh – because it is that absurd!

It is important to share here that Vance knows his stuff, too. He does not fudge and fluff the details of this novel. He actually has Dame Isabel select specific operas and her company debate the best selection for their audience, etc.  And Vance is not just rattling off the titles of operas – he actually has put valid reasoning into the pieces mentioned or performed. Indeed, every time, I considered the proposed options and debated with myself about the pieces. Vance was intelligent and thank God for that! Needless to say, the reader familiar with operas is going to get more out of these details than the reader who cannot name a Wagnerian piece.

So,why did I give this novel such a low rating?  Execution.  There are a number of aggravating “side threads” that instead of enhancing the overall plot, actually compete with it.  For example, Gondar’s motives, or anything involving the girl Roswyn. Further, while Vance had opportunity to really make for some colorful and outlandish silliness (as would be expected in a farce) whenever the Tour meets a new culture, he drops the ball. The actual scenes are a bit stagnant and dull. This really sucks because these are the moments for the humor and the morality and the absurdity and the creativity to flourish. Finally, the novel ends without much resolution, with the plot having become somewhat stalled and repetitive, and the characters really just flatlining. Dame Isabel is as ignorant as when the tour began. The last chapter is stupidly focused on the very minor romantic subplot.

Overall, I can only give this two stars. I truly appreciate Vance’s intelligence and effort, but in order to make this work, it needed to be far more vibrant and creative.  It stalls out and gets boring in places. I wish it were better executed, because the idea is awesome.

2 stars