Hospital Station

Author: James White
Copyright Date: 1962

As I've gotten older, I've gotten more particular about the books I read; probably because I no longer have convenient access to a high school library stuffed full of sci-fi/fantasy books during lunch hour. If I hated a book, I'd just return it. Now that I tend to pay for these books myself I'm more likely to choose an author I'm familiar with than to blindly pick something because it looks interesting. (Yes, there is a public library about fifteen minutes away, but the selection has never been good and trying to get a hold of a "new" title means getting stuck on a waiting list.) Also, I got burned once figuring that there's no way a book I bought based on subject matter could be so bad that about the only good thing I could say about it is that at least the author had a decent command of grammer. Since then, I've been very shy about buying unfamiliar works no matter what the recommendation. (That ugly book is very highly rated on Amazon.com, though I completely fail to understand how. So obviously the author caters to a much different crowd than me.)

So... That brings me to Hospital Station by James White. This is the first blind recommendation I picked up since the horrible incident with Alice Borchardt's The Silver Wolf (no, I'm not afraid to name names), but this time I felt the recommendation came from a better place--the Speculation's Rumor Mill, which is a writer message board. Figuring that writers are generally less forgiving of other writers' mistakes and are generally better read readers than fangirls and fanboys, when two writers started talking about James White's Sector General books I decided to pay attention. Two things became apparent. Mr. White wrote what amounted to far future medical SF (ER meets Star Trek from the sound of it) and also that his Sector General books were considered classics of their kind. That sounded good enough for me, and I like the idea of medical SF.

Hospital Station is the first book of what eventually amounts to a twelve book series, but like many older sf novels it actually started out as a series of short stories published in magazines. Though the book's copyright date is 1962, it's quite likely the stories that comprise the novel were originally written in the late 1950s. (Oddly enough, the original titles and publication dates of the shorts are not given. I thought that was standard practice, but perhaps not.) Because of the book's origin as a series of shorts, there is little in the way of an overarching plotline, but knowing that, it's easy to read the book as a serial rather than a single cohesive story.

There are five stories marked as chapters in Hospital Station. Though I do not know what order they were written in, the introduction at the start of the book mentions that the first story "Medic" was written later as a framing story to set up for the rest of those to come. I'm not sure if that was necessary, really.

"Medic" takes place while the massive hospital to be know as Sector Twelve General Hospital is still under construction. Though it deals with a grave issue, caring for the young alien child whose parents were killed in a construction accident, the story itself has multiple comedic moments, such as those that can only happen when a human man is forced to play mommy to an alien baby whose species he knows next to nothing about. This story introduces us to O'Mara, a construction worker who is completely disliked by his boss and coworkers because of the fact he picks on his disabled coworker Waring. As it happens, the alien baby's parents died on O'Mara's watch, and only Waring's testimony can prove that it was not O'Mara's neglience that caused the parents' death. So in addition to being saddled with the alien baby as a perverted sort of penance, O'Mara has to worry if Waring will tell the truth. In what I've found typical of James White's style of storytelling (in Hospital Station anyway), getting the whole story out of the narration takes time. The circumstances of what exactly happened to the parents and what O'Mara's actions had been at the time, only come out near the very end. Why O'Mara, who is actually a decent guy, picks on Waring is added in almost as a afterthough. By the time he explains his actions, the alien baby's new caretakers have arrived and the baby is well on its way to being taken care of properly. Still, as an introductory story it's very nice and very humorous; courtesy of the alien baby's outbursts.

However, why I dislike it as an intro story is because even though it's a fine piece on its own, the humorous tone is different from that in the other four. Also, while O'Mara continues on as a regular cast member, I can't identify the "new" O'Mara with the "old" O'Mara. The O'Mara in "Medic" was the sort of man who educated himself because he wanted to. He was a very nice guy and insightful about others. Enter Chief Psychologist O'Mara and he's a very stiff guy who seems to like giving the willies to Conway, the real main character of Hospital Station. Also, most of the humor is gone. Being that it's a hospital, most of the remaining stories are unsurprisingly about life and death, but without the humor of "Medic." There are still funny moments, such as when Conway becomes disgusted by the eating habits of his insectial assistant (who is also an empath and therefore shortly aware of just how disgusted he is), but they are fewer and far between.

Conway also takes some getting used to. When I can see him as a character, he's pretty good. He's human, he makes mistakes, but when he gets his flashes of insight it's very difficult to follow him. Because of the author's tendency to hide information from the reader, Conway will often realize something and then leak barely a clue about it to the reader, leaving the reader trying to figure out what Conway is trying to accomplish based on his actions. Granted, this happens in TV shows all the time because the audience is not privy to the thoughts in a character's head, it's harder to take in a book where the reader is often allowed to hear particular portions of the protagonist's thoughts, making it annoying when he stops sharing.

I'm inclined to let it pass as a sign of the times, since I know that sort of narration was more common in years past than it is in modern writing, but the reader in me likes to try solving the mysteries at the same time as the protagonist. Instead these stories read more like a Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes suddenly pulls out the solution that the reader had no chance of ever guessing (involving clues that Holmes might have even gathered while completely "off camera"). Three of the four remaining stories involve Conway and his flashes of insight and in only one case was I able to guess what was really going on and why Conway was taking the actions he did, and most of it was intuition. Given that I was right though, I think Conway was a moron for taking his actions in secret, but I can at least see why he did way he did, and he does make a very good point about how a hospital works.

Picture this:

An unknown alien winds up in the hospital emergency room. It's a survivor of an accident that ripped its ship in two and is the only living being found in the half that you found. It's shaped roughly like a caterpillar, except with ten tentacles instead of multiple legs. For some reason known only to itself, it appears to be swallowing its tail (so it now looks like a doughnut). Worse, there is a rapidly (in medical time) expanding growth that has completely covered the front part of its head and the end of its tail, fusing them together. The alien has lost any sense of feeling where the growth has covered it, and the growth should completely cover and penetrate its body in a couple of weeks. Touching the alien in the uncovered part of the body results in an involuntary reaction that causes it to lash at the source with its tentacles. Because the alien's mouth appears to be the way it communicates, it is unable to talk, but it can still hear words said through the universal translator. When the alien is reassured that the doctors will do their best to free its mouth and restore it to the way it was before, it flies into a frenzy and the empath among the doctors reports waves of hatred and fear. The patient is gradually getting weaker (can't eat with its mouth like that), fading in and out of consciousness, and to top things off, x-rays are barely getting a reading on what's beneath the growth. So what's a doctor to do?

I'm not entirely sure how I did it, but given that information I had the suspicion that the alien was undergoing metamorphosis. It was a caterpillar about to turn into a butterfly. The key thing was not that it looked like a caterpillar, but that it didn't want to be restored to the way it was before, which implied that it was undergoing a transformation. The growth was its chrysalis.

All the doctors in the hospital wanted to treat the alien. They thought it might have been sick in the head to refuse treatment. Though freeing it from the growth might take drastic measures, it would be worth it if it saved the alien's life, right? That's what hospital staff are for. And it's because of that unspoken mandate that when Conway takes charge of the alien's recovery that he tells absolutely no one what he's doing. He picks up on the metamorphosis possibility and realizes that operating on an alien undergoing that kind of transformation would be tantamont to killing it. But if he was wrong, and the growth was malignant, then the alien would die without treatment. What's a doctor to do?

Conway decides that if he ever shared his suspicions with the other doctors, with no concrete proof that he was right, they might not believe him, and their treatments would result in the killing of his patient. So Conway does nothing. He lets the patient's condition continue to the point that it appears to be dying and tries very hard to keep everyone else uninvolved, but of course the hospital isn't about to let its mystery patient "die" and Conway comes very close to being thrown out on his ear. When everything comes to a head, he manages to distract O'Mara during the crucial moment when the alien has to break out of its chrysalis. Given that Conway ends up having to crudely cut open the chrysalis to help the new being out of it, he quitely rightly decides that O'Mara shouldn't see it because without knowing better O'Mara might assume he was trying to kill it. Of course, once the new being is okay, all is forgiven, and Conway explains why he coudln't afford to tell anybody, but I still think someone would have believed him if he'd given them the chance.

Part of the issue with reading older SF is always the risk that the technology and science on which it was based may become horribly outdated. Hospital Station is no exception. It's not so bad it's turned into camp, but characters still use big, bulky tape recorders and use tapes in place of floppy disks, which are becoming outdated even in our modern world. Some of the medical practices would never be allowed today (such as reusing needles for shots) and there's one story that loses some of itself due the scientific renaming of the dinosaur who'd been used as a namesake for one of the aliens. Other than that, it's survived quite well. I do have to wonder though how the author handled the technology as the series aged. The last Sector General book came out in 1999, by which time the modern day world had largely ceased using tape for anything other than VCRs and perhaps audio recorders (and computer tapes had already given way to floppies a couple decades earlier).

Despite being a product of its era, I like what I've seen set up in the Sector General universe. The serial format gives nice little episodic bites (though it makes it looks like Conway got promoted to Senior Physician after being there less than a year, and given that he's twenty-three at the start of the story, that makes him a very young Senior Physician) and neatly sets up how the hospital operates. I would've liked more detail on the four letter alien classification system, but otherwise it was very well thought out. A hospital set up to accomodate any of hundreds of known alien races (and even a few unknown!) would to have to be mammoth and able to handle multiple gravity and atmospheric types. It handles aliens that thrive on radioactivity, aquatic aliens, aliens that breathe chlorine instead of oxygen, aliens that are extremely huge or very small, aliens so hardy and dense that they can survive in open space without spacesuits, etc. In short, given that alien life out there could quite rightly be anything, the hospital is equiped to serve whatever lands on its doorstep as best it can. The creativity in how such a hospital operates is the good part and I imagine that if we ever go have an interstellar hospital serving multiple alien races it probably will look something like Sector General, with tons of compartments ready to simulate the correct pressure and atmosphere necessary for the patient to survive.

Also, I like White's aliens. They are sufficiently human enough that we can imagine them cooperating with a human doctor and think of them as characters, but at the same time sufficiently alien enough that we don't necessarily know what they're thinking. Unlike most stories that use universal translators in science fiction, the ones in White's work do not translate emotion, so it's sometimes possible for one's intent to be lost in translation. One of the characters in "Outpatient" is from a race incapable of tact because their body language is so obvious to another member of their species that their true intent would come out anyway. However, Conway doesn't know this character's body language so while all its emoting is duly noted, it's completely incomprehensible to him. Despite that, he's able to make some understanding of his nurse's state of mind. He might not know what the emotions are, but he can at least tell if it's reacting at all.