In the far future, it’s a new frontier for medicine. Humans and aliens work alongside in each in great hospitals, facing every emergency with an open mind. Even when that danger is rooted in the mistakes of the past . . .
A short while ago, my significant other and I were bemoaning the lack of doctor-driven science fiction. So it’s only natural that she be the one to put a copy of Ambulance Ship in my hands. It’s the fourth book in the Sector General series, a series of which I have been dimly aware for a while, but never really got round to reading. Last year I read a collection of James White’s unrelated fiction, Medics & Monsters, and was sufficiently entertained to be enthusiastic about reading this one. Yes, it’s not the first in a series, but that’s never stopped me before. Even better, it’s a standalone tale in a larger universe. The question, however, remains. Is it any good?
The short answer is yes. The thing about books of this length is that, even when they’re not very good, they rarely leave a bad taste in my mouth. Ambulance Ship is one hundred and eighty four pages long, consisting of three parts that essentially serve as linked novelettes, each taking up an even third of the book. I’m unsure of the exact history, but I’d wager they were published individually in magazines before being gathered here, as was often the trend back in the day. They’re not standalone stories, however. There are natural breaks in the story, and each one leads naturally into the next. You need all three to get the full story.
The tone of the book is a bit of a weird one for me. White’s stated intention was to create a world in which war and violence were not driving the plot. Sector General is essentially a TV medical drama in space. Think Grey’s Anatomy or ER. The thing is, unlike seemingly everyone else on the planet, I’ve never been into medical dramas. My TV medical knowledge begins and ends with Scrubs, which was a much better comedy than it was a drama. Like these TV shows, Ambulance Ship balances immediate medical drama with the personal lives of the medics themselves. For most, that would be a winning combination. For myself, I found I wasn’t all that interested in the personal lives aspect. This could have been different had I read previous novels and known the characters better, but I work with what I’m given.
The medical aspect is very strong. It’s a classic plague ship scenario, with a little bit of exploration thrown in for good measure. It really does feel like these medics are working in the middle of nowhere. The discussion of interspecies illnesses are realistic, and easy for my layman brain to understand. I particularly enjoyed the historical origins of the illness in question, with it’s tangent leading into some more history of the setting.
On the strength of this book alone, I wouldn’t rush out and buy more Sector General novels. But I would definitely read more if I happened across them. James White has an interesting little niche carved out. If you’re after something a little quieter, you could do a lot worse.
Deeper Dive: Is there a Doctor in the House?
The most famous doctor in science fiction is not a medical doctor. At best, Doctor Who is a doctor of science. But the simple fact that there are no medics close to him in fame says a lot about science fiction. Of course, each Star Trek incarnation has a doctor, from McCoy through to Culber. These doctors often get their own episodes, usually with some medical ethics at the core. Outside of that, though? There’s not a whole lot. Babylon 5 and Stargate have doctors, true. But what about literary doctors?
Well, there’s Sector General. In the Star Wars Expanded Universe there was the MedStar duology. The Expanse had a doctor, but promptly killed him off. Beyond that, I can think of precious few medical experts in science fiction novels. If anyone can think of some, I’m all ears.
- Sector General (#4)
- Published in 1979
- Published by Del Rey
- Space Opera
- 184 pages
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