This is the first volume of a
multi-volume collection of White’s "Sector General" stories.
These stories deal with a vast interstellar hospital that handles a wide range
of intelligent species with incredibly diverse physiologies and environmental
needs. The concept behind these stories is not merely medical challenges
involving alien beings, but also an inter-species galactic society based on
equality and a minimum of violence.
Most of the stories
have medical mysteries involving alien beings. In some cases, alien
beings of previously unknown species. Usually, for one reason or another,
the patient is unable to give the doctor information to help clarify what the
problem is. In some cases, the alien species is known, but some factor
makes the illness mysterious. Sometimes, when the patient is of a known
alien species, the doctor will download the persona of an alien doctor into his
mind to help treat the patient.
I like a number to types of
mysteries, including SF mysteries. Medical mysteries are probably not the
top of my list. I like the TV show House, but a significant part of that
is aspects other than the medical puzzles themselves. So perhaps that is
the reason why this book did not really satisfy my mystery tastes.
Perhaps part of this is that a mystery dealing with humans should stay true to
known human motivations, human susceptibility to various weapons, plausible
human behavior, etc. In a mystery with purely fictional aliens there
isn’t such a clear sense whether the story stays within such boundaries.
There is also a relatively
long story about a space war fought around the hospital. (The hospital is
the only human installation the enemy knows the location of.) This seemed
somewhat out of place with the rest of the volume, but that is because this is
a collection which has put previously separate stories together.
The SF was OK. I don’t
regret having read the book, but I’m not planning on getting other volumes in
There is a lot of description
of various alien body formats and their various foods, atmospheres, gravities,
etc. This should certainly appeal to those who like an alien
menagerie. It’s hard to say which are truly realistic possibilities for
evolution on other worlds. Is it really feasible that an intelligent
being would be composed of a group of small insect-like animals? What are
the chances of an animal evolved on a planet that doesn’t breathe any kind of
gas or liquid and therefore can survive in vacuum? Would the evolutionary
forces that gave an animal a caterpillar-like form be able to simultaneously
shape it into an intelligent tool-user? Is a prune-sized body large
enough to house a highly intelligent being? Are shape-shifters capable of
imitating widely diverse species really plausible? Not all of it was
convincing to me, but it’s hard to give definitive answers to these kinds of
This is a tricky
business. It seems foolish to expect extraterrestrials to be medically
similar. On the other hand, it's difficult to conceive aliens that are
both essentially non-humanoid and also consistently plausible. By making
an effort to meet the "non-humanoid" criteria, he may have fallen short
on the "plausible" criteria. I can't entirely blame him, but by
discussing the question we may help others struggling with this difficult task.