Review: Sector General

2017-May-21, Sunday 10:21
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Review: Sector General, by James White

Series: Sector General #5
Publisher: Orb
Copyright: 1983
Printing: 2002
ISBN: 0-312-87770-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 187

Sector General is the fifth book (or, probably more accurately, collection) in the Sector General series. I blame the original publishers for the confusion. The publication information is for the Alien Emergencies omnibus, which includes the fourth through the sixth books in the series.

Looking back on my previous reviews of this series (wow, it's been eight years since I read the last one?), I see I was reviewing them as novels rather than as short story collections. In retrospect, that was a mistake, since they're composed of clearly stand-alone stories with a very loose arc. I'm not going to go back and re-read the earlier collections to give them proper per-story reviews, but may as well do this properly here.

Overall, this collection is more of the same, so if that's what you want, there won't be any negative surprises. It's another four engineer-with-a-wrench stories about biological and medical puzzles, with only a tiny bit of characterization and little hint to any personal life for any of the characters outside of the job. Some stories are forgettable, but White does create some memorable aliens. Sadly, the stories don't take us to the point of real communication, so those aliens stop at biological puzzles and guesswork. "Combined Operation" is probably the best, although "Accident" is the most philosophical and an interesting look at the founding principle of Sector General.

"Accident": MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are human and alien brought together by a tragic war, and forever linked by a rather bizarre war monument. (It's a very neat SF concept, although the implications and undiscussed consequences don't bear thinking about too deeply.) The result of that war was a general recognition that such things should not be allowed to happen again, and it brought about a new, deep commitment to inter-species tolerance and politeness. Which is, in a rather fascinating philosophical twist, exactly what MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are fighting against: not the lack of aggression, which they completely agree with, but with the layers of politeness that result in every species treating all others as if they were eggshells. Their conviction is that this cannot create a lasting peace.

This insight is one of the most profound bits I've read in the Sector General novels and supports quite a lot of philosophical debate. (Sadly, there isn't a lot of that in the story itself.) The backdrop against which it plays out is an accidental crash in a spaceport facility, creating a dangerous and potentially deadly environment for a variety of aliens. Given the collection in which this is included and the philosophical bent described above, you can probably guess where this goes, although I'll leave it unspoiled if you can't. It's an idea that could have been presented with more subtlety, but it's a really great piece of setting background that makes the whole series snap into focus. A much better story in context than its surface plot. (7)

"Survivor": The hospital ship Rhabwar rescues a sole survivor from the wreck of an alien ship caused by incomplete safeguards on hyperdrive generators. The alien is very badly injured and unconscious and needs the full attention of Sector General, but on the way back, the empath Prilicla also begins suffering from empathic hypersensitivity. Conway, the protagonist of most of this series, devotes most of his attention to that problem, having delivered the rescued alien to competent surgical hands. But it will surprise no regular reader that the problems turn out to be linked (making it a bit improbable that it takes the doctors so long to figure that out). A very typical entry in the series. (6)

"Investigation": Another very typical entry, although this time the crashed spaceship is on a planet. The scattered, unconscious bodies of the survivors, plus signs of starvation and recent amputation on all of them, convinces the military (well, police is probably more accurate) escort that this is may be a crime scene. The doctors are unconvinced, but cautious, and local sand storms and mobile vegetation add to the threat. I thought this alien design was a bit less interesting (and a lot creepier). (6)

"Combined Operation": The best (and longest) story of this collection. Another crashed alien spacecraft, but this time it's huge, large enough (and, as they quickly realize, of a design) to indicate a space station rather than a ship, except that it's in the middle of nowhere and each segment contains a giant alien worm creature. Here, piecing together the biology and the nature of the vehicle is only the beginning; the conclusion points to an even larger problem, one that requires drawing on rather significant resources to solve. (On a deadline, of course, to add some drama.) This story requires the doctors to go unusually deep into the biology and extrapolated culture of the alien they're attempting to rescue, which made it more intellectually satisfying for me. (7)

Followed by Star Healer.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Review: The Raven and the Reindeer

2017-May-13, Saturday 17:08
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Review: The Raven and the Reindeer, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher: Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright: 2016
ASIN: B01BKTT73A
Format: Kindle
Pages: 191

Once upon a time, there was a boy born with frost in his eyes and frost in his heart.

There are a hundred stories about why this happens. Some of them are close to true. Most of them are merely there to absolve the rest of us of blame.

It happens. Sometimes it's no one's fault.

Kay is the boy with frost in his heart. Gerta grew up next door. They were inseparable as children, playing together on cold winter days. Gerta was in love with Kay for as long as she could remember. Kay, on the other hand, was, well, kind of a jerk.

There are not many stories about this sort of thing. There ought to be more. Perhaps if there were, the Gertas of the world would learn to recognize it.

Perhaps not. It is hard to see a story when you are standing in the middle of it.

Then, one night, Kay is kidnapped in the middle of the night by the Snow Queen while Gerta watches, helpless. She's convinced that she's dreaming, but when she wakes up, Kay is indeed gone, and eventually the villagers stop the search. But Gerta has defined herself around Kay her whole life, so she sets off, determined to find him, totally unprepared for the journey but filled with enough stubborn, practical persistence to overcome a surprising number of obstacles.

Depending on your past reading experience (and cultural consumption in general), there are two things that may be immediately obvious from this beginning. First, it's written by Ursula Vernon, under her T. Kingfisher pseudonym that she uses for more adult fiction. No one else has quite that same turn of phrase, or writes protagonists with quite the same sort of overwhelmed but stubborn determination. Second, it's a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."

I knew the first, obviously. I was completely oblivious to the second, having never read "The Snow Queen," or anything else by Andersen for that matter. I haven't even seen Frozen. I therefore can't comment in too much detail on the parallels and divergences between Kingfisher's telling and Andersen's (although you can read the original to compare if you want) other than some research on Wikipedia. As you might be able to tell from the quote above, though, Kingfisher is rather less impressed by the idea of childhood true love than Andersen was. This is not the sort of story in which the protagonist rescues the captive boy through the power of pure love. It's something quite a bit more complicated and interesting: a coming-of-age story for Gerta, in which her innocence is much less valuable than her fundamental decency, empathy, and courage, and in which her motives for her journey change as the journey proceeds. It helps that Kingfisher's world is populated by less idealized characters, many of whom are neither wholly bad nor wholly good, but who think of themselves as basically decent and try to do vaguely the right thing. Although sometimes they need some reminding.

The story does feature a talking raven. (Most certainly not a crow.) His name is the Sound of Mouse Bones Crunching Under the Hooves of God. He's quite possibly the best part.

Gerta does not rescue Kay through the power of pure love. But there is love here, of a sort that Gerta wasn't expecting at all, and of a sort that Andersen never had in mind when he wrote the original. There's also some beautifully-described shapeshifting, delightful old women, and otters. (Also, I find the boy who appears at the very end of the story utterly fascinating, with all his implied parallel story and the implicit recognition that the world does not revolve around Kay and Greta.) But I think my favorite part is how clearly different Greta is at the end of her journey than at the beginning, how subtly Kingfisher makes that happen through the course of the story, and how understated but just right her actions are at the very end.

This is really excellent stuff. The next time you're feeling in the mood for a retold and modernized fairy tale, I recommend it.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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