Alien Emergencies was my introduction to the Sector General series. It contained books 6 through 8, so I could have opted to read Book 9 next but instead decided to go back to the beginning, Hospital Station. Although several of the stories do reference each other, Hospital Station is basically an anthology containing five short stories, so I'll be reviewing it as one.
All in all this was...okay. “Medic” and “Out-patient” were good, but the other stories all disappointed me a bit, for various reasons. I'm kind of glad that this wasn't my first experience with the Sector General series. I missed getting to see the full cast of characters I'd gotten to know in Alien Emergencies.
This story introduces O'Mara, the man who later becomes Sector General's Chief Psychologist. Sector General is still in the process of being built, and O'Mara is one of the people helping to put it together. Although he's well-educated in both psychology and electronics, he hasn't yet found an employer willing to look past his craggy face and tough build. Everyone figures that manual labor is all he's good for.
After a Hudlar couple is killed in an accident at the construction site, O'Mara is forced to take care of their baby until an investigation is completed and someone comes to take the baby away. Unfortunately O'Mara knows next to nothing about Hudlarian childcare, and his boss and coworkers, who blame him for the accident, aren't willing to provide much help.
It was kind of weird, considering how they all felt about him, that everyone was okay with O'Mara being solely in charge of a possibly traumatized infant. Yes, there were a few “if anything happens to that child” threats, but why not remove the possibility of anything happening to the baby by putting it in the care of someone people actually trusted?
Anyway, aside from that and some issues I had with the way a stuttering human character was handled, I thought this was one of the two best stories in the collection. I really enjoyed reading about O'Mara's efforts to provide the best Hudlarian childcare he could. All his information came from a book, he didn't have anywhere near the strength of an adult Hudlar, and the baby was too young to give him much feedback. Even so, he did pretty well.
Sector General is now a functioning hospital. Here we have Dr. Conway's introduction, as well as the introduction of Educator tapes. Dr. Conway has to use an Educator tape for the first time in order to treat Telfi patients. The Telfi are a radiation-eating group-mind, and the Educator tape wreaks all kinds of havoc with Conway's thoughts. Unfortunately, his biases and assumptions about Monitors (space police officers, sort of) keep him from getting help until it's almost too late. This continues to be an issue after a ship crash lands into Sector General and a possibly confused and injured alien causes serious problems with the gravity all over the hospital.
I wonder if this was originally published as two stories? The part with the Educator tape and the part with the crash definitely worked nicely together, but they were distinct enough from each other to confuse me a little. I kept expecting the Telfi and/or the Educator tapes to come up again during the crash portion.
This story was a bit of a mess, to be honest. It felt like White was trying to say something complicated about pacifism and violence, but then it just sort of petered out. I also felt like White took the easy way out with the way he handled the details surrounding Conway's actions at the end.
Conway, a pacifist, was faced with a terrible decision. He tried to go for a middle ground option and ended up doing more than he'd intended. Instead of dealing with the repercussions of this decision, White scaled things back until it turned out that none of it was really all that bad after all. Except that it should have been, because no matter how things turned out in the end, at the time Conway thought he'd done something that went against everything he'd believed and had been taught. There should have been more emotional fallout.
I could sort of see what White was trying to say about Monitors and their work, but it felt like he just tossed a few things out there without properly trying to connect most of it. It was disappointing.
“Trouble with Emily”
In this story, Conway acts as an assistant and guide for a VUXG doctor (the letters refer to the series' being classification system – humans are DBDG). Dr. Arretapec has psi abilities (telepathy, telekinesis, a bit of precognition) and has for some reason chosen a seemingly healthy dinosaur as its patient.
This was the story that inspired the book's cover art, which was actually pretty accurate. The dinosaur did indeed look like a brontosaurus with a spiky tail (one thing I didn't quite understand at first: although it looked similar to Earth's brontosaurus, it was actually a being from a completely different planet). Also, if you look closely you can see a little ball strapped to the man's shoulder. The man is Conway and the little ball is Dr. Arretapec.
Dinosaur lover that I am, I was looking forward to this one. Sadly, it wasn't quite as good as I had hoped. Watching Conway try to deal with Dr. Arretapec's condescending attitude was fun, but Dr. Arretapec's goal turned out to be a bit too big and lofty for my tastes. I also wondered about the ethics of it. On the one hand, the final goal was admirable. On the other hand, those were some pretty major changes Dr. Arretapec and its people were trying to bring about.
“Visitor at Large”
Dr. Conway gains a new assistant, the physically fragile and empathic Dr. Prilicla. Their tour of Sector General becomes more complicated when a young and frightened shapeshifting visitor runs loose through the hospital.
Dr. Prilicla is my favorite Sector General character, so I was really looking forward to this story. I enjoyed seeing Conway gradually adjust to his new assistant, who looked likely to get squashed at any minute but was actually very capable. Unfortunately, although Prilicla did get a chance to show off a little of what it could do, I felt that the character's appeal wasn't as apparent here as it was in the later stories I'd read. Its personality didn't really get a chance to shine.
As far as the visitor went, I had issues with the way that played out. It was during this story that I realized that White has a tendency to present problems with a psychological basis as something patients can get over just by really wanting to do so, or by having the proper motivation to do so. It came up in the first story, in the way O'Mara treated the stuttering human character, and it was the primary justification for Conway's incredibly cruel treatment of the young hospital visitor. It worked out in the end, but it made me very uncomfortable.
Conway is now a Senior Physician, which means he has a great deal more responsibility on his shoulders. In this story, he has to treat an unknown being rescued from a wrecked spaceship. He has to use clues from the wreck to try to figure out the being's atmospheric and gravity requirements, and the information doesn't make sense. The patient doesn't have long, either. Although it appears to be relatively uninjured, its whole body is gradually being covered by a tough malignant growth of some sort.
Like “Medic,” this was one of the better stories in the book. It was an intriguing medical mystery that tested Conway's trust in his own judgment and his willingness to make unpopular decisions.
I really enjoyed the medical mystery aspect of it, but I was a bit put off by Conway's behavior. He had only just become a Senior Physician, so his lack of willingness to talk to anyone seemed like an overreaction to his newly increased level of responsibility. I (and the characters) worried that he was so determined to prove himself that he'd accidentally kill his patient because he was afraid to ask for help. Just like in the previous story, it all worked out in the end. The only reason it worked for me this time around was because I felt that Conway had slightly better justifications for his actions here than he did in the previous story, but it still made for harrowing reading.
Just like in the Alien Emergencies omnibus, when O'Mara told Murchison that she couldn't use an Educator tape because female minds can't handle them, I was annoyed with the way female medical staff were written about in this book. For one thing, there was really only one confirmed female character, Murchison. For another, at the end of “Trouble with Emily” there was this exchange:
“O'Mara had paused then, shook his head wonderingly and went on, 'Not only do you get on exceptionally well with e-ts, but I don't hear a single whisper on the grapevine of you chasing the females of our species...'This conversation made me raise my eyebrows for multiple reasons. Sector General is a place with extremely diverse patients and staff members - even unconscious biases could get a staff member transferred elsewhere. O'Mara is one of the primary people who'd be evaluating staff members and their ability to work well with others. And yet he thinks “misogyny is an allowable neurosis”? Also, Conway's statement didn't strike me as being particularly misogynistic. Unless that was supposed to be a bad joke?
'I don't have the time,' said Conway seriously. 'I doubt if I ever will.'
'Oh, well, misogyny is an allowable neurosis,' O'Mara had replied, then had gone on to discuss the new assistant.” (112)
This stuff seems to happen most often with O'Mara, so maybe it's just a part of his character. The problem is that, at least in what I've read so far, not one male character calls him out for it, or even thinks about doing so.
All right, there was one last thing I wanted to bring up: the editing. This book's editing was terrible, with typos and misused words everywhere. It became particularly noticeable in the second half. Dr. Mannon's relationship with his beloved dog was viewed by aliens as a possibly “symbolic relationship” (53) or “symbiotic reassuringly” (103) rather than as a “symbiotic relationship,” Conway “talkeed” (134), plus a few other embarrassing mistakes.