Sunday, April 30, 2017

REVIEW: Star Surgeon (book) by James White

Star Surgeon is medical science fiction, the second book and first full novel in the Sector General series. I picked up a used copy during a particularly successful used book shopping trip.

Review:

Star Surgeon starts off with Conway treating an alien of a sort he’s never seen or heard of before. It turns out that his newest patient’s species is seen as somewhat godlike by those aliens that know of them. They’re purported to be immortal, and they have a habit of gradually making themselves the supreme ruler of a world, solving its problems (I was left with so many questions), and then leaving. They are always accompanied by a companion of a different species.

Conway’s efforts to treat his patient, Lonvellin, impress it so much that it later insists he help it and the Monitor Corps with a problem it’s having on the planet Etla, which is part of a larger Empire made up of several planets. Etla used to have a thriving population before it was hit by one horrible illness after another. To make matters worse, Etla’s natives are deeply suspicious of beings that look different from them, so they refuse to accept help from anyone except the Empire’s Imperial Representative, who rarely stops by. Earth humans and Etlans just happen to look very much alike, so Conway and the Monitor Corpsmen are able to sneak in, assess the situation, and try to help. Unfortunately, the situation is much worse than anyone realizes and deteriorates to such a degree that Sector General finds itself caught up in an interstellar war.

I think this is my second full-length Sector General novel, although I’ve read a bunch of Sector General short stories. So far it looks like one of the nice things about the full-length novels is that they gave the author the time and space to show readers things that weren’t directly related to solving medical mysteries. Star Surgeon shows readers one of Sector General’s recreational areas (as Conway tries to convince Murchison to take their relationship from “friends, sort of” to “dating and maybe even having sex”), and I learned that there are apparently 218 human (or at least DBDG) women at Sector General, not that we ever learn the names of any of them besides Murchison.

Unfortunately, Star Surgeon turned out to be less focused on medical mysteries and more of a war book. Lonvellin’s medical issues were dealt with fairly quickly, and Etla’s problems were revealed to be less medical and more political (and absolutely horrifying). That left the interstellar war, with Sector General at its heart.

This book’s tone and message reminded me strongly of the story “Accident,” available in the Sector General omnibus Alien Emergencies. The specifics of how Sector General was evacuated were fascinating - in addition to concerns about moving sick or injured patients, every species’ general physical needs (gravity, atmosphere, temperature, and more) also had to be taken into account.

Unfortunately, Sector General’s evacuation and the events that happened afterward were also a bit emotionally draining. Sector General was intended to be a hospital capable of catering to any and every alien species. The evacuation and Sector General’s transformation into “what amounted to a heavily armed military base” (104) were both painful.

Once again, I can’t help but wonder about the economics of the Sector General universe. Money still seems to exist and be necessary, because it took great gobs of money to build Sector General in the first place. The damage Sector General sustained during the battle and the hospital’s evacuation and repurposing should probably have financially wrecked it. And yet it apparently recovered just fine, because there are many Sector General stories and books that come after this one.

As much as I like the idea behind the Sector General series, the books and stories have several recurring problems. One of those problems kept rearing its ugly head in Star Surgeon: sexism. Since the series is usually careful not to assign a gender to any of its aliens, except in one instance where a particular alien species cycles through genders during the course of its life, that means that most of the more blatant sexism involves Murchison, the series’ only named human woman (that I know of).

If Murchison ever appeared on-page without some mention of her appealing physical form or features, it was rare. Also, just like in Star Healer, Murchison requested to be allowed to use an educator tape, only to be shot down by O’Mara.
“‘As for the girls [he means the nurses],’ [O’Mara] went on, a sardonic edge in his voice, ‘you have noticed by this time that the female Earth-human DBDG has a rather peculiar mind. One of its peculiarities is a deep, sex-based mental fastidiousness. No matter what they say they will not, repeat not, allow alien beings to apparently take over their pretty little brains. If such should happen, severe mental damage would result.’”  (132)
And then there was this, said by Murchison to Conway:
“‘I...I asked him to give me [an educator tape], earlier, to help you out. But he said no because…’ She hesitated, and looked away. ‘...because he said girls are very choosey who they let take possession of them. Their minds, I mean…’” (141)
Am I the only one who thinks that explanation sounds uncomfortably sexual? At any rate, while I’m thankful that at least one Sector General fix fic exists, it doesn’t stop the burst of anger I feel whenever I come across things like this in the original books and stories.

Well, even though I hate the series’ sexism, I love its “doctors in space” focus. Unfortunately, this particular book was grimmer and had less in the way of medical mysteries than I preferred. It wasn’t a bad entry in the series, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for when I started reading.

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