Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

2014: War Dogs (Bear, Greg)

A trove of questions with a booty of intrigue (4/5)

I’ve been well through the thick and the thin of Greg Bear’s bibliography, through the old and the new, through the series and the stand-alones. However, I have not been drawn to two of his recent projects: (1) his annual publication of a videogame-linked novel expanding the Halo universe and (2) the collaborative Mongoliad with Neal Stephenson and others. I was quite keen on his last stand-alone novel Hull Zero Three (2010) but loathed his slightly earlier City at the End of Time (2008). These ups and downs span more than twenty years: Hegira (1979) was pretty good while Psychlone (1979) was not; Darwin’s Radio (1999) was also great while its sequel Darwin’s Children (2003) was not.

When I learned that Bear was penning another series (a sequel is currently being written), I had mixed feelings. Aside from the fluctuations of quality writing from Bear, one of my main gripes with actually picking up the novel was my avoidance any novel with the word “war” in it, that being an instant turn off; the glorification of wars and soldiers doesn’t fill me with patriotism; rather, it makes me pity the state of the country and its blind folk. I experienced dread when I saw the dedication page: “to all those who served … in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam”.

Inside flap synopsis:
“One more tour on the red.
Maybe my last.

They made their presence on Earth known thirteen years ago.

Providing technology and scientific insights far beyond what mankind was capable of. They became indispensable advisors and promised even more gifts that we just couldn't pass up. We called them Gurus.

It took them a while to drop the other shoe. You can see why, looking back.

It was a very big shoe, completely slathered in crap.

They had been hounded by mortal enemies from sun to sun, planet to planet, and were now stretched thin -- and they needed our help.

And so our first bill came due. Skyrines like me were volunteered to pay the price. As always.

These enemies were already inside our solar system and were moving to establish a beachhead, but not on Earth.

On Mars.”


Michael Venn (master sergeant) used to be the average American WASP—“a white boy from Moscow, Idaho, a blue-collar IT wizard who got tired of working in cubicles” (5)—but he got burnt out in the corporate world and made the decision to join the Skyrines under the united flag of International Sky Defense (ISD). The ISD and the Skyrines who fight do not do so under the familiar sky of Earth, but tens of millions of miles away under the bleak, ruddy atmosphere of Mars. But mankind doesn’t fight another sect of mankind… they aren’t even fighting their own fight; mankind is fighting for the reclusive yet benevolent Gurus against an opponent they know nothing about.

The Gurus first landed in the Yemeni desert, away from so-called civilized humanity. They accessed communication networks and amassed assets while anonymously posting online “a series of pretty amazing puzzles that attracted the attention of the most curious and intelligent” (8). From these puzzles, technological improvements were discovered and the Gurus made their presence known to world leaders; however, their physical presence had never been seen as human Wait Staff act as their intermediaries or liaisons, limited to a few dozen. Most importantly, the Gurus bought technological gifts and “a thorough understanding of our own biology, chemistry, and psychology” (189). Humanity didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and blindly accepted the gifts without asking what, exactly, the so-called benevolent race expected in return.

Gurus were not just being magnanimous with their gifts of tech. They needed our help, and we needed to step up and help them, because these enemies were already inside the far, icy margins of our solar system, were, in fact, trying to establish their own beachhead, but not on Earth. (10)

And so, mankind physically went to Mars for the second time. The first wave of colonization was funded by the pooled resources of Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. Each of the original colonists paid in the 8-9 figures for their historical moment and later became known as Muskies (after Elon Musk), but the half of them died in transit through the vacuum of our solar system. The “idealism and pioneering spirit” (133) of the colonization drew solid backing for the enterprise but soon parallel grievances struck: the investors never got a return and “the last reserves of [the colonists’] sanity dwindled” (134). Isolated from Earth, Mars became a different sort of ideal—that of a dumping ground for malcontents:

Then arrived the third wave, including hard-core folks who found Earth too civilized, too restrictive—too stupid. Rugged individualists, political fanatics, IQ theorists seeking to isolate and improve the human gene pool. Diehard bigots and supremacists, happy to turn Mars into a spaghetti western … Mars was pretty much a lost cause. (79)

The hard-core attitudes of the first three waves eventually became distilled and purified by later generations of settlers, transmogrifying utopian idealism into “a tale of patriarchal tragedy, rigorous discipline—or hypocrisy and cant” (100), their ethos “statistical, mathematically sound … Atheists by law, strict dogmatists, reductionists … Techno-racists. Libertanianism pushed to the ultimate extreme” (185).

Amid their self-enforced strife on Mars, their planet has been invaded by the unwelcome Skyrines and the even more unwelcome enemy of the Gurus, now the common enemy of mankind: the Antagonists (Antags or Ants for short). The Gurus are limited in numbers because of they report that, even though they are technologically advanced, transportation across the vastness of space is prohibitively expensive even for them. The Antagonists, it seems however, are able to amass their numbers and their equipment to mount a defense on Mars… exactly what the Antagonists or the Skyrines are defending, nobody knows or nobody is telling; after all, they are taking orders from the reclusive and secretive Gurus.

As for Michael, his fifth tour of duty on Mars has ended. He’s in Seattle with words of warning from his Skyrine friend Joe; he’s to avoid ISD and lay low. Michael expects Joe to personally debrief him on what his experience on Mars meant to him as a man and to him as part of humanity; however, he’s met by a zaftig lass by the name of Alice. She doesn’t understand the depth of his experience, but she can offer him more than just a bowl of seafood chowder, to which Michael latches to and spill forth his incredible story:

When Michael Venn’s squad of Skyrines get shot from the sky, he finds himself in a peculiar dilemma of being without bearing or command with his fellow soldiers; their mission is to survive on the surface of Marks with only their skintight to protect them. They survive hypoxia by finding a Russian tent on the surface, they survive a meteor barrage impact by the skin of their teeth, and they survive to meet a tent full of high-ranking ISD officers—a very, very strange and/or foreboding circumstance. Though now numbering nearly twenty, the Skyrines and their COs still face death from starvation, dehydration, and hypoxia; with tunnel vision making Michael Venn succumb to his lack of all three, rescue comes in an unexpected form: a Muskie vehicle plods its way toward them and out steps a gorgeous female. Condescendingly called a “ranch wife” by the Skyrines, Michael reflects for all the saved Skyrines:

Those of us who can, follow her directions … I am deliriously grateful. I feel the way a pound mutt must fee, rescued just before they seal the hatch on the death chamber.

We’re all War Dogs, adopted by a very tall, strong ranch wife. (75)

Self-exiled from her community of Green Camp, Tealullah Mackenzie Green—or Teal for short—guides the men to a place of refuge which her father told her about. The Drifter, as it’s known, is a subterranean mine which has been excavated by a few camps for its “big lodes of iron, nickel, platinum, iridium, aluminum” (102). Though many once thought Mars to be an arid dust ball, aquifers actually hold so much water that the mine floods occasionally, prohibiting the colonists from mining. Now empty, save for the numerous rumors of its mysterious innards, they seek shelter in its labyrinth after an aerial germ needle attack by the Antags. With some their number convulsing under the dim light of a Martian day, Teal, Michael and a handful of survivors make it inside.

Michael’s squad realizes that he’s closest to the “ranch wife” and assign him to understand more about who she is, where they are, and they the hell they’re going to do. Teal indicates that one thing may assist them in finding the answer to the latter question; within the jumpsuit Michael pulls on, he finds a small platinum slug which has a “long, coiling string of tiny numbers and letters” (94). He palms the coin and continues to explore the maze of tunnels in the Drifter, all the while kicking up the green dust which ubiquitously lines the each and every tunnel, of which sneezing only becomes the first symptom.

On the horizon, they spy two things: (1) a dust devil that indicates the workings of a reputed Antagonist machinery of unknown capability and (2) dust plumes that indicate an oncoming convoy. Though the machinery is never seen, they are thankful for the arrival of some fellow Skyrines, whom they call sisters. The male Skyrines admire their gung-ho sisters, but the women emote a far from sororal attitude as they take command of the subterranean situation. They take stock of material, asses their needs, and keep captive the Voors whom they found in the Martian desert. The Voors—with an unpleasant disposition to say the least—rant about the sovereignty of their Martian soil, which falls on the deaf ears of everyone, except Teal who has gone missing. Meanwhile, the Antagonists have surrounded the Drifter.

Michael’s squad is plagued by a number of questions about their confinement in the Drifter, but two top the heap: Why hadn’t the Gurus told them about the Drifter? Is this intrasolar war being fought with Antagonists for control of Drifter?

Obviously having survived the onslaught on Mars, Michael asks himself the age-long question: Why me? Why us?


I mentioned in the introduction that I have a low tolerance for hero worship, especially blindly worshiping soldiers who are simply agents of war, many of whom probably don’t even want (or deserve) the title of “hero”. Thankfully, Greg Bear doesn’t get all sentimental about the Skyrines and doesn’t pump the same soldiers full of bravado. Most of the male soldiers are down on their luck and live hour by hour near death, only to be saved repeatedly by women—first, Teal; then, their “sisters”. The men hardly get off a single shot to glorify their status as a Skyrine. The premise of War Dogs strongly suggests that the novel is one punctuated by the terror/excitement of war, but the reality of the novel is the boredom of having life stretched and stretched on Mars.

Also downplayed is the limelight on the two competing alien races; the Gurus are only referred to and the Antagonists are only given a brief burst of importance. Michael Venn and all of humanity, aside from the Wait Staff perhaps, don’t even know what either race looks like or what their intentions are. Given the limited amount of information provided in the narrative, the two alien races had to take a backseat ride (though very interesting occupants they may be) to (1) the Muskies, (2) capitalism and art of the twentieth century, and (3) the Drifter.

The Muskies
One confusion I experienced when reading War Dogs was the timeframe. Michael Venn identifies the narrative as taking place in “the twenty-first century” (1) but there are some facts about the Muskies which stretch the timeframe.

A one-way trip to Mars looks like it could be a reality by 2025 for the Mars One Project. Bear doesn’t mention the Mars One Project, so he could be speculating a later date for mankind’s first colony of Mars. Let’s speculate that the colony is set for 2040, a year which would make the three primary investors fairly geriatric: Jeff Bezos (1964) at 74, Richard Branson (1950) at 80, and Elon Musk (1971) at 69. As a projection for the future of the world’s richest people, this seems a bit shortsighted.

Enough time passes on Mars that a third “wave” of colonization occurs and enough time has passed that language has changed: “there are now several kinds of accents and dialects and even some newly birthed languages” (74). This is the most interested part of the Muskies. The spoken language of Teal (whose name origin I’ll come to in a bit) is called “thinspeak… pronunciation adapted for high altitude or thinner air” (72). This makes the dialogue a tad difficult to understand, but I found it easy to adapt to and follow.

Tealullah Mackenzie Green is an amalgamation of three names: first, Elon Musk’s wife’s given name, Talulah; second, Jeff Bezos’s wife’s given name MacKenzie; and last, the surname of Sir Philip Nigel Ross Green, currently the sixth richest British by net worth (just ahead or, surprise, Sir Richard Branson). This leads credence toward the speculative fact that the Mars in the later part of the twenty-first century was, in fact, heavily inspired by the efforts of some of the investors… and perhaps a shared fixation with Michael Venn’s obsession for brand names and nostalgia.

Capitalism and Art
At first, as I was reading through War Dogs and recognizing so many company names, brand names, and references to pop culture, that Greg Bear simply dumped these in the novel for  a fixed reference to the past which readers could identify with. This is about 50% true. The other 50% of my inkling rests with Tealullah’s name and its own references to billionaires. Venn mentions some modern big companies or their products: Roomba, Starbucks, Maersk, Jeep, eBay, Perrier mineral water, Walt Disney, Tootsie Roll, Cheez Whiz, and Tinkertoys. Further, Venn also delves into movie history and trivia: All About Eve (1967), Wind and the Lion (1975), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Castle Keep (1969), and Kelly’s Heroes (1970)—all films within a span of eight years (Greg Bear would have been sixteen in 1967). Author indulgence, perhaps?

Finally, there’s a nod toward some fiction which perhaps inspired Bear, too: Dune (1965), Lord of the Rings (1954), John Carter of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1917), Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964), Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer character in Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Jack London’s “The King of Mazy May” (1899), and Kim Stanley Robinson for his Mars trilogy (a colony camp is named after him along with Green [as mentioned above], Amazonia [Bezos], and McClain [source unknown]).

The Drifter
Mars is the hook of the novel, but the Drifter is the sinker. The mysteries are slow to unravel but are tantalizing when considering that War Dogs is but one book to a duology or trilogy (no official word). When the mysteries do begin to unravel, so many unresolved questions ricochet off the inside of the reader’s skull, definitely whetting their appetite for book two. I can’t spoil anything about the Drifter for the reader… just be sure, it’s the center point piece of War Dogs. Mars is like your mom’s poinsettia on the dinner table on Christmas morning; the Drifter is the ham on the bone that comes for lunch.

Not everything is a stone waiting to be turned over, however. Aside from my qualms about the difficulty of pinning down a date and the echo of corporate importance through the decades, there are only three annoyances.

(1) I love new words. Considering that War Dogs is a first-person perspective novel, perhaps the vocabulary is a tad high for the direct storytelling. Michael Venn describes Alice, the woman who has come to Seattle to debrief him, with a number of adjectives. Aside from small and pretty, Venn describes her as “zaftig” four different times. Hey, that’s a new word to me, but there are some synonyms which could be used rather than repeat it for fun: e.g., pulchritudinous, buxom, shapely, curvaceous, sonsy, and stacked.

(2) So, mankind finally learns it’s not the only species inhabiting the galaxy. Some nations accept the gifts the Gurus have to offer while others shun them. The end. The only repercussion of the contact is technological and its effect on the economy; there cosmological or spiritual side of learning this new ‘they are out there” truth isn’t even glanced at let alone touched upon. And it seems the humans are all too eager to go join another war—aren’t those human ever so predictable?

(3) Greg Bear puts a good effort into creating new technologies for weapons (e.g., weak-field disruptors and strong-field suppressors), but at times the reach for a new technology feels uninspired, unseen, or simply forgotten. I estimate the timeframe for the narrative to be around 2090, so it’s a little surprising when “Alice is speaking on her cell” (217). If there are automatic taxis and round trip trips to Mars, certainly cell phones would be outdated by then, or at least called by a different name.


If you’ve got patience for a constant struggle of a handful of soldier on the surface of Mars, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the bounty of mysteries buried in the Drifter and the repercussions it may have on mankind’s relationship with the Gurus, the relationship between the Gurus and the Antagonists, and, ultimately, mankind’s relationship with itself. Though the Guru’s have superior knowledge of humankind’s “biology, chemistry, and psychology” (189), only mankind can tell itself what its true place and purpose is in the mechanism of the universe…

…when’s that sequel coming?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

2003: Asura Girl (Maijo, Otaro)

Teenage drama morphs into the surreal and the horrific (3/5)

Having read science fiction heavily for seven years and having run the gamut of all the genre has had to offer, I’ve finally decided to concentrate on one particular focus: translated science fiction. This focus has been slowly developing for the last two years while reading Stanislaw Lem, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and some Japanese short fiction. Then, after I read Sakurazaka’s now popular All You Need is Kill (2004), I decided to become proactive in procuring more translated science fiction, specifically Japanese science fiction. Thus, I put the word out and received positive feedback from a couple of publishers: Haikasoru (of the USA) and Kurodahan (of Japan).

Eager to delve into the fiction which has been out of my reach for so long, I opted to start with something modern, something glossy (as glossy as a PDF can be) and new… so new, in fact, that it’s not even available yet (November 18, 2014)—thanks to Haikasoru for providing me with a pre-release of Asura Girl, as translated by Stephen Snyder. Regardless of receiving the book for free, it has been agreed that the review be honest rather than favored by bias.

Asura Girl was originally published in Japan in 2003 under the title Ashura Garu. The author, Otaro Maijo, won the Yukio Mishima award in 2003 for this novel. He has had only one other story translated into English—“Drill Hole in My Brain” (2003)—and this was included in the collection Faust Vol. 1 (2003), which highlights “fiction and manga from the cutting edge of Japanese pop culture”.

Book’s own synopsis:
Seventeen-year-old Aiko lives a life of casual sex and casual violence, though at heart she remains a schoolgirl with an unrequited crush on her old classmate Yoji Kaneko. Life is about to get harder for Aiko, as a recent fling, Sano, has been kidnapped, and the serial killer Guru-Guri Majin (Round-and-Round Devil) has begun slaughtering children. The youth are rioting in the streets, egged on by the underground Internet bulletin board known as Ten-no Koe, the Voice from Heaven. Expecting that Yoji will come and save her from the madness, Aiko posts a demand for her own murder on Ten-no-Koe, but will she be left waiting... or worse?”


Kendo and tennis may be Aiko’s passions, but her girlish admiration is saved for Yoji; however, Yoji’s attention isn’t paid to her good looks or her cute matching set of bra and panties, a situation which frustrates Aiko’s libidinous attempts. There are been other boys, for sure—including that creep Sano and his attempted facial—but those are merely transient phases while Yoji is the foundation of her being. In the background of her own character lies the idle sub-persona of Kerstein, an invention of her mind—“a Swedish exchange student who has come to American for high school” (16). Kerstein is Aiko’s better half but Aiko sometimes loses herself in the sub-persona’s dreamt-up personal history.

Mildly ashamed of her nocturnal fling with the famous Sano—now infamous to her mind—Aiko arrives at school with a self-defense planned, but she isn’t prepared to be cornered by a group of peers and slapped in the face by Maki. Though Maki may be beautiful and powerful, Aiko springs into violent action and beats the pulp out of the alpha female, shocking the onlookers. After blood has been spilled, only then does Aiko learn of their interrogation of her: Sano has been kidnapped and his little toe sent to this parents’ house. Suddenly, Yoji arrives and takes her away from the scene, so much like the hero she wants him to be… but she also wants him to the same reckless boy she used to know, willing to try anything once and damn the consequences. Sadly, this rebel attitude doesn’t extend to his sex life, much to Aiko’s dismay.

With a distinct online presence yet nebulously existing in her reality, the Voice of Heaven (VoH) is a loose organization of upper teenagers who are bent on catching the infamous killer named the Round-and-Round Devil, whom they believe to be a middle school child. The Devil had kidnapped and mutilated the triplets of a local couple but had never been caught, so with the mindlessly synergetic postings on the VoH’s web board, the mindless teenagers set out to maim, if not kill, all middle-schoolers so as to send a message to the killer: we’re after you.

Aiko entertains her own theories about Sano’s kidnapping—mainly that he has faked his own kidnapping and cut off his own toe for want of the ransom, but VoH or the Devil might also have something to do with it; the realities of his kidnapping at endless. However, Yoji spots a few flaws in her theory and, being the rugged guy he is, sets off to find Sano. At the same time, Aiko’s brother also leaves her at home in order to mount a counter-attack to the brutal tactics of the members of the VoH, leaving Aiko at home alone and worried about her safety as the VoH’s campaign begins to manifest itself in the city: fires burn, children are ran over, blood is spilled, and the din of violence grows closer to her home. Yet, the violence that does meet her at her own doorstep isn’t the violence she was expecting.


The above four paragraphs only outline the initial 102 pages of the 224 page novel, which isn’t quite a majority of the novel but it is the most linear and relatable… yet also the least inventive and penetrating.
With a copious amount of swearing, sexuality, and minor drama, the book immediately smacks of being geared towards teenagers. I felt out of my reading comfort zone (a broad expanse including literature, sci-fi, the bizarre, and travelogues… but definitely not teenage novels). When the minor drama shifted into the dramatic horror of the city, I began to invest myself more so into the novel.

The novel is divided into three parts: (1) Armageddon, (2) The Gate, and (3) Jump-Start My Heart. The linear yet—at times eye-rolling-ly—dramatic episode of the novel entirely takes place in Part One. This plot involving Aiko and VoH is revived again in Part Three after an extensive interlude in Part Two.

Part Two—entitled The Gate—is more like a passageway or a tunnel which the reader must traverse rather than simply step through, to which there are two equal sections: (1) surrealism in “The Cliff” and (2) horror in “The Forest”.

(1) The surrealism in “The Cliff” is a slippery slope which only becomes steeper and steeper as the reader pushes on; it starts somewhat realistically but soon becomes detached, bizarre, ironic, impossible, and altogether nonsensical. The tentative bridge which links it to Part One is gossamer-thin and relies on Aiko’s unreliable memory about previous incidences. Compound her fractured memory with surrealistic imagery and the result, itself, is fractured and blurred. The 32 pages of detachment have curious veins of either telepathy into Aiko’s dream-state or unconscious inclusion into the lucid circumstances of her escape and rescue.

(2) Another 32-page foray follows the odd, detached surrealism; the scenes of horror have an even more tenuous connection with Armageddon but, if taken by itself, provides an excellent read. Going beyond Aiko’s tenuous grasp of reality and her connections to fragments of her imagination in “The Cliff”, the horror in “The Forest” slides even deeper into her intricately warped mind. Here, Aiko’s alter ego Kerstein is the protagonist. Amputated limbs speed off through the forest towards tree of children’s limbs that stands erect amid the lush vertical growth. Not only is an unnervingly eerie, but it also has symbolism more apparent than “The Cliff” and introduces the book’s third and final part, Jump-Start My Heart.


There’s no one facet of Asura Girl which would draw the mainstream SF crowd, unless you’re a teenaged reader with a palette for the bizarre. The initial so-called dystopia of the book is mildly drawing, the surrealism of the semi-conscious Aiko is bizarre, the horror of Aiko’s sub-persona is definitely creepy, and the return to normality in the conclusion has cursors of intrigue which point back toward some previous revelations.

Posted simultaneously at SF Potpourri and Tongues of Speculation

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

1979: Ambulance Ship (White, James)

Dulled by repetition and all-out revelations (2/5)

I guess “xenological medical science fiction” used to sound pretty enticing. James White is a notable science fiction author exactly for this reason, having penned the Sector General series. In 2008, I read my first Sector General book—Final Diagnosis (1997)—and loved the entertainment of it; however, subsequent forays into Sector General have become repetitive where White rehashes many main points and plots the book like a paint-by-number picture. The three parts of Ambulance Ship epitomize this disease as they all suffer from these same symptoms: rehash and monotony.

Rear cover synopsis:
“There was a lot of talk about the vital importance of his new assignment, but it still seemed like a demotion to Senior Physician Conway. After twelve years of outstanding service—and the most incredible experience imaginable—Conway couldn’t quite appreciate the “honor” of becoming an ambulance attendant at this stage of his life.

True, the insectile empathy, Dr. Prilicla, would be with him—and so would the eminently desirable Nurse Murchison—but it was definitely a comedown for a Senior Physician of his status to be conscripted as part of a first-aid team for disabled spacefarers.

Then the first call came—and Conway faced the problem of treating a spaceship crew’s mysterious ailment… without wiping out every patient and doctor in Sector General!”


Initially, Conway is miffed at being designated to the newly establish ambulance ship. His superior, Chief Psychologist O’Mara, insists that he is the man for the important job as it’s able to handle environments and medications for a large range of species. Far from being a ambulance of the pettiest manner, the new ship—donned the Rhabwar—has been fitted to handle the most difficult of all emergency cases: to rescue crews of stricken ships. Conveniently, due to come quirk in physics, all intersolar ships—be they human, of known alien origin or unknown alien origin—operate their distress beacons on the same frequency. These frequencies are monitored and, when discovered, Sector General sends out the Rhabwar to investigate the emergency, be it near or far.

The first story (“Contagion”, a novelette, 2/5 by itself) follows Conway, Captain Fletcher and a host of regulars and irregulars who dart off to recover the crew of a human ship that had collided with another derelict of substantial mass. On the way, the Rhabwar intercepts the distress transmission from the Tenelphi and Conway is certain that the speaker is a medic because of his terminology. Going to the scene, they find most the human are incapacitated and, desperate to find conscious survivors, they begin to scan the wreckage of the derelict generation ship. Deep inside the main portion, Conway finds the missing medic while every human back on Rhabwar begins to experience the similar symptoms of headache. If no alien virus can be transmitted to other species of alien, why is it that all the humans are getting sick?

The second story (“Quarantine”, a novella, also 2/5 by itself) sees Conway and Rhabwar’s crew face the debris of an organic ship which had met a curious fate. The unknown species briefly poses a problem of classification and treatment but Conway and his expertise clear the matter up rather abruptly. They take the tiny survivor—perhaps a juvenile, but they’re unsure—back to Sector General while a Contact unit is dispatched to make themselves known to the new species. But while in the surgery ward, the alien awakens and makes most of the Senior Physicians surrounding the being drop unconscious. Conway, however, is one of the unaffected and is in charge of figuring out the source of the distress, which has caused a “Contamination One” warning throughout the entire hospital. Sealed off from the rest of the ship, Conway must understand the problem before he begins to find its solution.

The third and last story (“Recovery”, a novelette, moderately better at 3/5 by itself) contains the mystery of a ship which houses two unrelated alien races. The unusual situation spurs a number of theories, but all theories are useless unless actually applied; while two survivors have been found, physically getting to them proves to be difficult as a bizarre system of defense blocks their way. When accessed and understood, the history of the vastly different small and large race of alien couldn’t be more unusual or sympathetic.


As mentioned in the introduction, White has the annoying habit of rehashing generalities into each and every story. If you’ve a couple of Sector General stories, you’ve seen everything there is to see regarding the series. White repeats the (1) that no alien virus can cross species; (2) that subsuming tapes can alter the mentality of the physician; (3) that the designation of species depends on a variety of factors; and (4) that the station itself plays host to a very large variety of species, of which he must always mention the most exotic. It feels like these passages have been copied and pasted directly from other stories, so if you’re a comprehensive reader of White (like I nearly am), it feels like all of this material is padding for the new reader, which dulls any reward for the established reader.

As for the paint-by-numbers plot, each story (here and in other Sector General stories) has a familiar flow: (1) all is normal in Sector General, (2) an unforeseen emergency arises, (3) Conway is on the case with the empathetic Prilicla, (4) Conway runs the gauntlet of possibilities, (5) the obvious conclusion is reached, and (6) Conway relaxes by flirting with Nurse Murchison. Word for word, you could apply that too all the stories.

Aside from these normal gripes, White is also prone to one huge annoyance of mine: the last-minute all-inclusive revelation that describes all the nuances of the problems faced in the previous pages, leaving very little to the imagination. “Quarantine” and “Recovery” have this same glaring flaw, but the last story manages to be moderately better in its inherent oddity than the prior.


Unfortunately, the reader is not able to procure “Recovery” by itself without having to purchase the entire collection of Ambulance Ship. I guess if you were to buy the three-story collection, you might as well read all three stories, which may hone your tastes for the last story… otherwise, the other two are a waste of time. Like White’s Galactic Gourmet (1996), this collection is only for White completists or first-time readers of White.