Not actually the first one of these, but I thought since I’m hoping to do more of it I should be giving them a standard title/number arrangement like the pony fan fiction gets. Starting off with the books I got for Christmas. The first was Hogfather which to sum up, I’m not sure I actually like the story as a story, but it has some of the most meaningful bits (for me anyway) bits in the whole discworld series.
Today’s post will be about the Sector General omnibus book General Practice. Which includes the two Sector General stories Code Blue – Emergency! and The Genocidal Healer. I’ve read the second story of the two, but don’t believe I’ve read the first one before now.
Sector General is one of my favorite set of stories. It started off as a bunch of short stories. Don’t know if they were published in scifi magazines or the author just liked short story collections. He eventually did write a handful of novels set in the same universe as time went on. Sector General is a intergalactic multi-species hospital. One put together by a large 70+ species federation as a collaborative project. If you like classic science fiction you need to read at least some of the short stories. Almost all of them are of the best thought experiment scifi. It’s not exactly hard science fiction, but it’s not fluffy anything goes either. The majority of species are carbon-based warm-blooded, but there are plenty of other types of aliens as well. Methane breathers, radiation eaters, one story has a patient that is a multi-organism lifeform the size of a convenient.
Most of the short stories are based around some kind of unknown patient that is sick and/or dying and needs to be fixed up. A good amount of them are set using the hospital’s quick response rescue ship, which is crewed by a set of experts and is sent out when the disaster is also a first contact scenario. Emergency beacons from unknown ships/planets, newly explored planet has undiscovered sapient lifeforms that is discovered by colonist, that sort of thing. Which is cool because it lets a bit of mystery get mixed in. Where the crew of the rescue ship has to figure out what is the patient and what might be a dying pet, and what is damage and what is normal.
This omnibus has two of the later novels in it. I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a starting point. I might have to go back and reread some of the older stuff. It’s been a while and as I’ve noticed before my memories of things I enjoy tend to be highly edited to remove the stuff I was bored with or didn’t like. That’s for later. I do think that the sector general premise, that of a multi-species hospital that has to deal with all sorts of sickness, accidents, whatever, is much more suited for short stories. Even these two novels have a taste of being just a couple of short stories with the same main character stitched together with an overarching theme. Not that either one was bad. Just had a lot of padding and dead time compared to the tightness of the short stories. Which is why I wouldn’t recommend this one as a starting point.
As with most classic science fiction, this shows a bit of age in some of the concepts. The first one especially, but touches in the second one. Just a general human centered viewpoint. I mean, sort of. The stories themselves are wonderfully diverse and neither story has a human main character. In fact the majority of characters are aliens. Yet the main military(ish) organization that is the main face of the federation as a whole seems to be mostly human. It’s in the background but still there. As well as there isn’t much alien minds going on. There are differences based on physical changes, aliens thinking slightly different if they’ve got several arms instead of two, but for the most part all the aliens are basically human in thoughts and reactions. In addition there is a bit of a gender bias. Nothing huge, except one point in the first story when there is a comment that one particular trait has been found in all females in all species that have the equivalent gender. It also has a western world christian bias. The second story deals with religion and paints all religion across all species with an incredibly broad brush that includes pretty much the basic framework of the christian mythology. Sure you can argue that it was made broad and vague enough that a lot of religions do fit under it, but it’s still very much a western world frame of mind.
However! I wouldn’t like this if those were more than minor flaws. As usual the primary reason I enjoy the Sector General stories is lots of cool ideas. Even just the basic ideas found over and over again in many of the stories are still cool. Which helps to endure the exposition repetition in every single story they pop up in. The biggest one is the educator tape system. Basically the idea is that no single person can hold enough information to be a skilled doctor for a whole bunch of species. It can take a lifetime to become a skilled doctor in a single species. So the way they get around that is having mind-tapes basically. They have the ability to record someone’s mind, so the hospital has a whole bunch of tapes of genius doctors of various fields and species. When you need to work on that species in that field, you have that tape downloaded into your head. The problem (and story fun!) is that it isn’t just information. You actually have to have a total copy of the person, personality and memories and emotions, in your head while the tape is there. So most just get the tape, do what needs to be done, then erase it. You can even have more than one tape in your head at a time. The highest level of doctor in Sector General are the diagnosticians who manage to hold almost a dozen tapes in their head all at once. They are the ones that do the research in new treatments and handle all the incredibly complex stuff.
A lot of the aliens the author comes up with are really cool as well. Over the three dozen (more?) short stories and four or five novels he comes up with dozens and dozens of aliens. From the protectors of the unborn, who live on such a hostile planet that they have to be fighting and defending themselves from the moment they are born but their children are telepathic and communicate with each other only to have their sapience destroyed when they are born in turn. Or aliens that can’t interact with each other because when they hear the alarm sound they all connect into a physical and mental hive that mindlessly destroys and attacks everything around it. There are bird aliens and fish aliens and all emphatic insect aliens. With very little cliche to be seen.
I haven’t talked much about the two stories in the omnibus itself because there isn’t a whole lot to say that isn’t detailed analysis. Each one would have worked better as three shorter stories, each of which should be 25% of the length of the full novel. There isn’t any real connection between the two to give the omnibus a theme. If you like Sector General stories and haven’t read either of these, you should. If you haven’t read any Sector General stories I wouldn’t recommend starting with these. Grab one of the omnibus editions that have a whole bunch of the short stories. Or the Galactic Gourmet. I remember that one was pretty neat. One of the few Sector General stories that doesn’t have a medical professional as the main character.
I do however recommend reading the Sector General books. If you like classic idea-based science fiction and don’t mind a few old-fashioned biases you really should read them.