Quantity and quality of ideas over cohesiveness (3/5)
I’m no stranger to the works of James White. Star Healer is the thirteenth White book that I’ve picked up and the sixth of the Sector General series, a series of which I have been reading in a very random order (books #2, #3, #5, #10, and #11 having already been read). This sixth installment to the series reflects White’s knack for building exotic species of aliens and his attention to detail in regards to the bureaucracy of the Sector Twelve General Hospital station. Of the six books that I’ve read in the series, this ranks in the middle partly because of his inventive and detail... but it’s inventive and detailed to a fault, too meticulous for a light read.
Rear cover synopsis:
“Sector Twelve General Hospital had a staff of thousands divided among the sixty or so intelligent species. Every day it treated alien illnesses of baffling complexity.
Of all the hospital’s very capable staff, Senior Physician Conway, the human doctor in charge of the Ambulance Ship Rhabwar, was thought by many to be the most promising.
So when he was replaced—without notice—by the birdlike alien Prilicla, Dr. Conway was surprised, to say the least. But that was noting compared to his shock when we was offered a promotion to a challenging new position. It was his for the taking. If he had the nerve…”
DBDG Human/Senior Physician Conway is escorting a group of advanced training candidates around the Station when he seems to miscount the number of each of the alien species present. He quickly assumes the presence of a TOBS alien, one Doctor Danalta, an amoebic xenomorph with limited empathic abilities which can adapt its physiology to match in likeness any reasonably-sized alien.
During a lunch with the students and the TOBS Doctor Danalta, Conway is approached by the GLNO Cinrusskin empath named Prilicla who informs him of a recent promotion which she can’t go into detail about. The curious Conway visits Chief Psychologist Major O’Mara. The Major informs Conway that his position as medical charge of the ambulance ship Rhabwar has been granted to Prilicla. Considering Conway to be in a rut, the Major suggests Conway take “a period of mental reappraisal” (25) on the recently discovered planet of Goglesk, after which he may be considered for the envious position of Diagnostician.
On the planet of Goglesk, the physiologically classified “warm-blooded oxygen-breathers” (37) of FOKT are fascinating yet stubborn when allowing examination of their individuality. The Gogleskan taboo of physical touching or even physical proximity defies the efforts of researchers to more closely understand the natives’ culture or physical composition. The local Healer Khone discusses their culture with Conway, but the conversation is cut short when a collapsed building urges their medical attention. One victim is pinned beneath the rubble and can only be saved when Conway shrugs off the taboo and drags the alien free from the pinning. The same being emits a piercing shriek where upon all the Gogleskans coalesce to form an impenetrable mound of venomous spikes.
The empathic abilities of the Gogleskans become apparent when Conway allows himself to be examined by Healer Khone. An unfortunate coincidence frightens the alien into its natural defensive mode and releases its venomous lances and communicative tendrils, which lie upon Conway’s forehead. The insight into the alien’s mode of communication allows Conway to be imbued with the entirety of the Gogleskan history and transfer’s Conway’s memories into Healer Khone. Nearly dead, Conway is saved by his old ambulance ship and transferred to Sector General for observation.
Feeling fit, Conway assumes the role of acting Diagnostician and subsumes the Educator Tapes for the Hudlar, Melf, and Kelgian species. Given a heavy patient-load, Conway is in charge of a recent disaster where massive Hudlar workers have been exposed to vacuum and crushed when their mining orbital explosively decompressed. His oversight soon gives way to his participation in the delicate operation and offers him insight into the problem of geriatric Hudlar deaths.
At the same time, a Protector is brought aboard the station. The species is extremely violent and cannot stop the perpetual aggression lest it dies. The non-sentient adult harbors in its womb a sentient empathic child who, when birthed, also becomes a raging perpetual animal. It’s Conway’s task to ensure the safe birth of the Unborn child so that the species can one day start from a noble sentient beginning.
The 217 pages of the novel are distinctly divided into four parts though the chapter numbering doesn’t reflect this: Conway’s introduction to the xenomorphic Danalta, Conway’s time spent on the planet Goglesk, Conway’s involvement with the Hudlar decompression victims, and Conway’s assistance with the Protector/Unborn dilemma. It certainly feels like a stitch-up novel because of all the separate threads White has tried to pull together into once cohesive plot. White doesn’t clearly establish the relevance of Danalta because the alien only crops up in the following plot once or twice, each time only peripherally, not involving its talent of amoebic morphing not its ability of empathy.
The limited empathic ability which Healer Khone accidentally bestows upon Conway is beneficial to Conway because of its disposition for physical isolation, which Conway implements which confounded by the barrage of opinion and reaction from the Educator Tapes. This is a clever device in the plot, but then the Gogleskan is largely forgotten. Half of the novel is devoted to the detailed operations (but logistically and medically) of the Hudlar and Protector/Unborn.
Each section in itself is interesting and could easily spur a full-length novel on its own, but the mishmash of the four threads into one loose glop of a plot is sloppy; there’s no harmony, no synergy, no cadence. But White almost makes up for this blunder with two eccentric flares, common of White’s other Sector General novels: (1) cheeky love scenes between Conway and Murchison and (2) detailed bureaucratic procedures.
The cheeky love scenes typically involve puns referring to their readiness for arousal or coy suggestions inferring their physical proximity. For such a clean-worded novel, the sexual suggestiveness always raises an eyebrow. When Conway subsumes the Educator Tapes, even the alien emotions come through their thoughts, sometimes being aroused by the presence of a particularly alluring six-legged Hudlar nurse. It’s cheeky and playful, a welcome addition to a usually dry and innocent plot. Then there’s the detailed bureaucratic procedures which, by the simple wording of it, seems it would bore anyone to bits but it’s actually very interesting to see the amount of thought and detail White had given the inner-workings of the massive hospital: how patients are processed, how triage is organized, how the cafeteria seating is situated, and how passage can be done through non-terrestrial levels. If you’ve read any Sector General novels before, none of this will be unfamiliar to you but revisiting White’s vision is always refreshing when taken in small doses.
To reiterate, there’s too much paint on this canvas, paint enough for three or four canvases rather than the concentration here in Star Healer. Ideas are good things, but not when the quantity and quality of the ideas clash with the relevance of the same ideas. Star Healer was poorly mapped out but may (just may) be more contextual between book #4 (Ambulance Ship ) and book #7 (Code Blue—Emergency ) where book #5 is the self-titled Sector General collection composed of four non-sequential stories. I’ll keep my eye out for the remaining seven books and hope to one day read them sequentially and detail the plot flow and species of the entire series.