Thursday, 4 April 2002

James White: Hospital Station (1962)

Edition: Del Rey, 1980
Review number: 1077

This is the earliest of White's long running Sector General series about a hospital in space and, though billed by Del Rey as a Sector General novel, it is in reality a collection of closely linked novelettes with a more distantly related prologue. This is set during the construction of the hospital, designed to serve as the principal medical research centre in galactic Sector Twelve, home to many alien races each with their own peculiarities, psychological as well as physiological. It is a particularly unlikely story, even by the standards of the series, as a massively intelligent member of the construction crew has to take care of a juvenile alien with no training and virtually no information - surely a big building site would have a better set of medical procedures.

More general problems are caused by the vast disparity between the alien races depicted by White. This surely makes it prohibitively difficult to train doctors to treat across species, and also makes the research benefit low, which means that the massively expensive hospital has little rationale. The different environments needed by the patients are not very sensibly constructed, which makes dramatic leakages of (say) chlorine into oxygen breather's wards a staple of the series, but would never get past even a cursory health and safety inspection. The hospital is in outer space - why not make the different environments self contained modules with no physical connection at all?

The rest of the stories feature Dr Conway, who would remain the central character of the whole series. He is really a latter day Dr Kildare, given to flashes of brilliance which he is hardly ever able to share with others, afraid that his revolutionary ideas which end up saving the day would be misunderstood by other, more senior medics. He is less interesting than O'Mara, who is the main character in the first story but is likeable enough.

The whole series is a light hospital drama set in space, and any fans of (say) ER who like science fiction should find much to enjoy in any of White's books. To general science fiction fans, the main interest is likely to be the details of the alien beings portrayed in the stories, which are more detailed and varied than would usually be the case. This particular edition of Hospital Station suffers from poor proof reading, a common but still annoying problem in genre fiction.

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