Star Surgeon

Author: James White
Copyright Date: 1963

Star Surgeon is the second book in the Sector General series, and like its predecessor, it is also composed of material previously published in magazines before being compiled into a book. Because of that, it's designed to be accessible to those who have never read a Sector General story before. However, since Star Surgeon is only composed of two stories this time, a novelette and a novella, and the situation in one leads into the other, they work fairly well as a single novel.

I say "fairly" because there is something of an awkward transition between the cores of the two plots that makes me wonder if the author had retroactively added additional material or if the novella (the second story and the vast majority of the novel) had always started out in that meandering way.

Unlike Hospital Station, Star Surgeon does not make a point to show where the two stories split (nor are their original titles given), but the observant reader should not have any problem identifying the transition at all. The novelette is pretty much run of the mill material like that found in Hospital Station. The Monitor Corps, essentially the Federation's military (though they are supposed to be more like a police force), discover a ship containing a comotose, possibly dying, alien of an unknown species and bring it back to Sector Twelve General Hospital. Naturally, Dr. Conway gets this unusual patient dumped on him and he has to do some unorthodox thinking in order to save the patient's life as well as unravel a secondary mystery involving the disappearance of the alien's doctor (who had been traveling with the alien on its ship).

He does so in his usual style (an epiphany) that brings Chief Psychologist O'Mara bearing down on him again, but everything works out. The alien is cured, the fate of the doctor revealed, and Conway can go back to life as normal, or so he thinks. It turns out that Lonvellin, the formerly unknown alien patient, was impressed by Conway's medical skills and wants him to help out with a certain project it has. (All aliens are referred to as "it" since they're understandably alien enough to humans that gender often can't be identified. Also, some aliens just don't have genders.) Lonvellin comes from a race of aliens so long-lived as to be considered immortal by inhabitants of some of the planets they've visited, and bringing up the standard of living of intelligent species less fortunate than themselves is something of a hobby. After all, when one is near immortal, spending a few centuries developing a civilized society is no big deal and is probably as good a way as any to pass the time. (Obviously, this is not Star Trek and nobody cares about any Prime Directive.)

Star Surgeon stumbles a bit between when Conway is notified of Lonvellin's request and when Conway finally embarks. For some reason James White felt obligated to show off Sector General and how it works for three chapters before Conway sets foot on board the ship to Etla, the planet that is Lonvellin's new project. Some of it is necessary. Aside from looking at it as the start of the novella portion of the story, the reader needs to know certain things about how Sector General works in order to appreciate the magnitude of what happens later on, but there are other portions that I thought could have been condensed. Conway is supposed to leave in six hours, but rather than getting ready for most of those six hours, he takes a bunch of new arrivals (all junior doctors and interns) on a tour of Sector General! Even though that was part of what had been scheduled as his duties for the day, I'm rather surprised he wasn't able to get someone to cover for him, especially since he's been given six hours' notice that he'll have to go on a trip that will take him away from the hospital for two or three months.

After the interns, he then goes to meet his sort-of girlfriend who he quite obviously has a huge infatuation with (but who I can barely stand since she's something of a flighty bimbo). While in the Hospital Station I didn't mind much that everyone is referred to by their last name, because all the humans had been men acting in a professional manner. However, Conway's girlfriend, Murchison, is also referred to by her last name. I mean, geez, what happens if they get in a serious relationship? They can't keep calling each other by their last names forever. >_< (I guess I'll find out in book three.) Also I'm a little annoyed because Hospital Station established that Conway was an odd duck who did not seem to exhibit much interest in the opposite sex because he was so involved with his work. Granted six years have passed since the start of Hospital Station and Conway's interests may have changed, it would have been nice if the author had at least made a nod towards his earlier observation.

Murchison also annoys me because she seems more window dressing than a real extension of the plot. The only thing Conway really seems to admire about her is that she's pretty. Is it any wonder I think he'd be better off dating Dr. Prilicla who is an alien described as a large, fragile insect? Prilicia might look like a giant bug, but it's a good, dependable friend and a doctor as well. Also, Prilicia is possibly the closest thing Conway has to a best friend. Too bad it's also described as being genderless. So much for interspecies romance.

Star Surgeon did several things that I consider a marked improvement over its predecessor. The first one is that many of the alien species have now been named, or at least have their names used more commonly now, instead of solely the physiological classification. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a DBLF and a DBDG when the race is only referred to by its scientific identifier and it breaks the rhythm of the story if the reader has to sit there and think about it. Now the DBLFs (the only species of that designation) are often referred to colloquially as the Kelgians and the DBDGs as either Nidian or Earth-type humans, depending on which the species is (humans share a lot of the same basic features as the teddy bear-like Nidians; warm-blooded, oxygen breathers, etc). Prilicia is no longer just a GLNO, but also a Cinrusskin. It's not that the species went completely without names before, but now they're much more promenant and that makes it easier to call a particular image to mind when reading.

Also, Conway has far fewer epiphanies that save the day in Star Surgeon. He has one in the novelette, and also one in the novella, but the novella epiphany comes midway through the story and serves mainly to allow Conway and companions to escape and prepare for the big conflict that absorbs most of the rest of the novel. Basically, Lonvellin's project planet belongs to an Empire that the Federation has never encountered before. This Empire is "only" forty-odd worlds and isn't nearly as powerful as it thinks it is. The human-like aliens who inhabit it though are xenophobic, and worse, there is a government conspiracy involving the particular planet, Etla, Lonvellin has expressed an interest in. Before too long, Lonvellin is killed, the Etlans are infected with a disease, and the Federation is blamed for the new disease. The Empire claims that the Federation had infected the Etlans under the guise of helping them. Of course this is completely not true, but the hostile action by the Empire forces Conway and the Monitor Corps to retreat back into Federation space. Initially the Monitor Corps think that they're safe, because the only Federation envoy the Empire has is a doctor with no knowledge of navigation coordinates to Federation space, but Conway drops a bomb when he tells the Colonel that even if a doctor doesn't even remember the coordinates to his own home world, there is one set of coordinates he will know: those belonging to Sector General.

With that, the rest of the book launches into action and the story moves much faster than anything before. A hospital is not meant to be a battleground, but they have no choice. The Monitor Corps surround the hospital, turning it into a base even as patients are being evacuated as quickly as possible. Conway, to his credit, admits that given the choice he would rather run away than try to be a hero, but because he can't run away and leave his friends behind (who are staying), he remains with everybody. The author is fabulous at throwing punch after punch at Conway. Just when you think things can't get any worse, with the battle wounded replacing the hospital patients as Sector General falls under siege, something else happens.

The Sector General books predate Star Trek, but also make use of a universal translator. But what happens when you're managing a hospital with patients of several different species who don't speak each others' language and the computer that operates the translator is utterly destroyed in the middle of the battle? Suddenly patients can't talk to their doctors, doctors can't talk to each other, and the nurses are simply confused. How do you operate a hospital in that kind of condition?

And yet Conway perseveres, even when he discovers to his dismay so many people have been incapacitated that he's now the highest ranking doctor left on Sector General.

One of the things I particularly enjoyed is the way that the author chose to handle the siege when it came to casualties. As a doctor, Conway feels obligated to help everybody; if they bring in any alien wounded by accident, they're treated all the same. Besides, with so many patients and not enough doctors, there isn't the time to diagnosis who is Federation or Empire. By that time it might be too late. But this is brought up as a security concern by Dermod, the Monitor officer in charge of the hospital's defense. At first the reader might be tempted to side with Conway, but Dermod makes some valid concerns that convalescing Empire soldiers could possibly try to sabotage the hospital. And then when Conway challenges Dermod for not trying hard enough to avoid the bloodshed, Dermod gives Conway the big picture in a way that utterly humanizes the Monitor Corps and shows how they are trying to limit the loss of life. Not only does Dermod explain what he's doing, but he explains the actions he could have taken if he just wanted to get the conflict over with instead of saving as many people as possible.

The story hurtles along until it looks like "There's no way they can wrap this up in time!" and yet it manages to wrap itself up without any Conway's epiphanies this time, and was much more satisfying as a result. It might be a bit disappointing if this was any other book that Conway wasn't directly involved this time, but he was the linchpin that enabled the ending to happen and for the truce to be drawn between the Monitor Corps. and the Empire's military, now freed from the deception they'd been under and ready to set about fixing the corruption in the Empire.