A Tale of two Surgeons
It’s always interesting when you get two books with the same title covering similar ground. Here we have the tale of two Star Surgeons, both books exploring the idea of medical care with non-human patients. Star Surgeon (1963) by James White and Star Surgeon (1959) by Alan E. Nourse.
James White’s Star Surgeon is the second book in his 12 book Sector General series, although they link chronologically they can be read individually. Alan E. Nourse’s Star Surgeon is a stand alone Juvenile Science Fiction book.
James White was a Northern Irish writer who started as many writer of his era did in short stories. His Sector General series set the standard for medical science fiction and his anti-violence philosophy permeated throughout his books with the tension and conflict within the narrative created by the drama rather than violence. Early on as a reader he loved the idea that Alien’s weren’t necessarily evil and loved E.E ‘Doc’ Smith’s Stance on them.
“E. E. Smith opened my eyes to the fact that there could be good aliens as well as evil ones, while Heinlein demonstrated that it is, after all, possible to write ‘hard’ sf stories which centre around quite ordinary people. From that point on, I became an inveterate reader of sf.”
Alan E. Nourse was a Doctor and Science Fiction writer who originally used his writing to pay his way through medical school, later on he retired from medicine and concentrated mainly on writing. You could argue that Nourse’s credentials already give him an advantage in medical story lines.
In Alan Nourse’s Star Surgeon we follow Dal Timgar from the planet Garv II. He is inspired to become a physician, the first in the history of his people. The people of earth have long since moved on from centuries of Race and Culture wars but there is still an ingrained fear within society. Dal struggles to graduate from medical school despite his academic success as there is an institutionalised under current of humanity wanting to keep the biological sciences a Human speciality
‘It was commonly accepted that only Humans became Doctors, that was until Dal Timgar who managed to graduate first in his class from Earth’s Finest Medical school. He earned a place on board a General Practice patrol ship serving both human and alien worlds. He must convince people, both patients and his superiors, that he can practice medicine as well as a human and become a Star Surgeon.\
The book is written not as an examination of ingrained prejudice but more about the political implications of it. Earth holds a Monopoly on the health sciences which means that all other planets rely on Earth and it’s services against health emergencies such as Pandemics and other planetary wide health crisis. The confederations is reliant on Earth for these services which gives Earth leverage, the acceptance of non-human candidates will mean that eventually Earth’s power in this sector could be diminished. The ingrained fear of losing control seems to be a theme that is over arching within the book.
From my reading of other works by Nourse he can be subtle the way he weaves ideas throughout, however in this book subtly wasn’t his key as there is one section with a tribunal which is basically just exposition and I think these ideas could have been more subtly woven into the story. I’m not sure whether he was under-estimating the comprehension of his audience or he just felt the tribunal was a better way to get the ideas across.
The rest of the Narrative we follow Dal aboard his General Practice Patrol ship with two other Physicians. The story follows as they help cultures and planets whilst Dal is trying to prove his abilities against prejudice. The whole story is a fun Space Opera with the obvious well thought out allegory. If it had had a little more subtly of ideas that would have lifted it. Alan Nourse is a good writer and his knowledge of medicine gives stories like this an authentic feeling, like the Heinlein Juveniles Star Surgeon treats it’s planned audience with respect and puts across some fun and serious ideas within the text.
James White’s Star Surgeon is the second of the Sector General books and is encased James White’s non-violent philosophy with the base of the books being ‘Sector Twelve General Hospital’ (to give it its full name). The Space station hospital has multiple environments and is situated on the Galactic Rim with a purpose to treat all those with a medical need. The hospital has over 10,000 staff in place in order to help treat the 69 known races with a staff as diverse as the known universe.
In Star Surgeon we follow Dr Conway and a myriad of staff through various medical crisis and through a final surprising (considering whites philosophy) military crisis. The story was originally published in two parts in New Worlds magazine between 1961 and 1962 this gives the story a slight episodic feel in parts.
‘A gigantic hospital wheeling in space, where the sick of all kinds -from all worlds- come to receive treatment.
But for the first time the hospital itself is threatened – by creatures too different to understand its purpose – and so powerful they can cause utter havoc.’
The plot follows the Federation contacting an Empire which in results ends up in a war. The focus of the story is not the war but the casualties and causes of it. The various Alien races that are treated within the hospital are classified by a complex number of letters which describe both physiology, appearance and many other attributes. The narratives need to contently explain this for me was a little irritating. A little exposition is fine but too much and it can over take the feeling of the narrative. Overall the book is a fun read and I would be interested in reading other books within the series.
If you read my reviews or have seen any videos you will know my opinion on if a text is dated. To summarise briefly I do not adhere to this idea that old books ‘date’. I think this idea seems to permeate more in Science Fiction than elsewhere, it may have something to do with the fact that technology and social change often overtakes the ideas within a story. No one ever accuses Dickens texts for being dated. An author creates a world and reality within their book, this can be any genre from Science Fiction to something set in what we perceive as modern. As long as things within that authors world are consistent then the text does not date because they are correct for that world that has been created. Why do I bring this up? James White’s book specifically has more obvious use of how women were sometimes perceived in the late 1950’s or early 60’s. The nurses are all female and are not allowed to do certain jobs because ‘their pretty little brains would suffer mental damage’ and Nurse Murchison is described as ‘well endowed with shock absorbing equipment’. For the fictional world that James White has created this is how it is. No an author wouldn’t do that now but we have to be careful to not put modern attitudes forward when judging a 60 year old book.
Thinking about both books side by side I enjoyed Alan Nourse’s more, it gave a bit of a Heinlein Juvenile feel of which I am a fan, Nourse was interestingly also friends with Heinlein, but for me the the story as an overall flowed a lot better. I also felt more engaged by the protagonist Dal Timgar.and after reading several of his books I am of the opinion he is now an incredibly overlooked writer whose books span both the golden age and New Wave periods of Science fiction. That is not so say that Jame White’s Star Surgeon wasn’t a fun read, he created an incredible world around the Sector General books and I look forward to picking up more in the future.
At the time of writing Alan Nourse’s Star Surgeon is available on Project Gutenberg and Kindle/Kobo versions are available. Unfortunately there is no physical copies in print at the moment but you can pick up used copies cheaply in all the usual places. I have a really nice Ace 1986 release
James White’s Star Surgeon is available by ebook in the Kobo store (no kindle version) but it is easy to put a Kobo version on a kindle now. Unfortunately like Nourse’s book it is physically out of print I have a lovely Corgi Science Fiction version from 1967 with a yellow cover, which I must admit I’d like to get the other Sector General books in. As some fun reads from the Golden age I would recommend both these books.