- A collection of five stories
- Published by Corgi
- Published in 1977
- Science Fiction with a medical flair
- 189 pages
Certain professions crop up more often in science fiction than others. From the earliest days of the genre, almost by definition, scientists have played a leading role. Without them, it would just be fiction, after all. Pick up an anthology from the 40s or 50s and there’s bound to be at least one story about a scientist making an unusual discovery. When you get to the more action-oriented parts of the genre, you’ll run into a large number of soldiers. Infantrymen, marines, pilots, the lot. I can even think of two separate series that are essentially the coast guard in space. But amid all this, there’s one career that crops up frequently in a supporting role, but rarely takes the lead. I refer, of course, to the medic.
Doctors, nurses, medicae of all kinds. Call them what you will. They’ll appear in a lot of books and TV shows, but usually in scenes where the real hero is recuperating from wounds. Maybe they’ll give some life advice while they’re there. Maybe not. But those in the medical professional rarely go on adventures of their own. The one exception to this that I’ve discovered so far is Star Trek, in which chief medical officers will frequently have a story to themselves. In such cases, the trouble is largely moral rather than medical, and arguably the stronger for that. As someone recently said to me, a tricorder is every medic’s dream. If you have sufficiently advanced medicine, I suppose there’s not much room left for drama.
Monsters & Medics, as the name suggests, addresses this lack. Right there in the opening story. ‘Second Ending’ is by modern standards a novella at best, but back in the day it counted as a full novel. It even ran against Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land for the Hugo Award. Having read both, I think White would have been a worthier winner. But you can’t change the past. Maybe you can change the future though. ‘Second Ending’ opens in a hospital, with a patient awakening to the wonderful news that he is no longer as sick as he once was. Unfortunately, the time taken to bring him back to reasonable health is so great that he is now the last human on Earth. In this story, the role of medic falls to machines. In the absence of human doctors and nurses, robots have taken their place. That’s right, we’re dealing with artificial intelligence and medical ethics. The core dilemma is this: If you have to protect life, but there is only one life left, what is the cost of preserving it? I shan’t go into spoilers, but it’s a brilliant piece of fiction that also hits on one of my favourite tropes – telling stories that span centuries. In some ways, ‘Second Ending’ is a puzzle narrative, and the solution offered at the end is an innovative and thought-provoking one.
Artificial intelligence turns up in ‘Dogfight’ too. This is one of the more interesting stories of automated warfare I’ve come across lately, with one of my favourite AI origins. Though it is admittedly, somewhat given away by White’s foreword to the collection. The other stories in the collection don’t quite reach the same heights as these two offerings, but there’s nothing offensively bad in here.
All in all, it’s a great introduction to White’s work, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for more in the future.