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.
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.