Ambulance Ship

by James White

Cover image

Series: Sector General #4
Publisher: Orb
Copyright: 1980
Printing: 2002
ISBN: 0-312-87770-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 211

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Ambulance Ship is the fourth book in the Sector General series, but as with the previous books it doesn't assume knowledge of the rest of the series and can be read independently (particularly with the excellent introduction). The publication information is for the Alien Emergencies omnibus, which contains the fourth through sixth books of the series. This version includes the short story "Spacebird," which was omitted from the original US version of Ambulance Ship.

If you've read the earlier books in this series (or, I suspect, the later), you know basically what to expect. Sector General is a huge multi-species space hospital with environments for every known intelligent species. It's specialty, at least as portrayed in the books, is solving medical mysteries, particularly for previously-unknown aliens. This book changes the setting a bit by sending the primary series protagonist, Conway, on a tour of duty on a medical ambulance ship, but the feel remains roughly the same and much of the action still takes place in Sector General.

The highlight of this book for me wasn't the aliens. They're interesting and inventive, but even after a break from the series they do feel a bit alike. White comes up with different twists and quirks each time, but the structure of the problem is fundamentally the same and the problem-solving follows a similar pattern. More interesting to me were the two quarantine episodes in Ambulance Ship, which show how the doctors function in situations where safety may be at odds with treating their patients. The first of these, the part entitled "Contagion," is the best, largely because it turns into a much different puzzle than is normal for Sector General and adds some depth to the universe. This series consists mostly of straightforward puzzle-solving, so moments of deeper characterization and history are appreciated.

Ambulance Ship is similar to previous entries in its flaws as well as its features. I'm not sure if the gender roles and sexism has gotten worse or stayed about the same as Major Operation, but they're still bad, particularly early in the book. Conway treats his wife (or girlfriend — I forget, and from that you can tell something about the focus of the story) with a noticeable amount of condescension, and White feels obligated to constantly point out how men react to her physical appearance. It could be a lot worse, and White's tone is light-hearted and balanced somewhat by the presence of competent female characters who occasionally (although too rarely) partly put Conway in his place. But as I read later in the series and the books are written more recently, it becomes harder to treat this as an artifact of an earlier culture and read past it. I was cringing enough in spots to detract from my enjoyment of the book.

If you've read previous books in the series, well, this is more. If you liked the previous entries, you'll probably like this as well. The omnibus that I read has the advantage of a pair of solid introductions, one by David Langford for the omnibus edition and another by James White for the original book; the additional context and Langford's highlighting of particular features improved my enjoyment of the stories. But, alas, this is not House in space: it's engineer-with-a-wrench stories featuring doctors instead of engineers, told with minimal characterization in a light-hearted world with detailed and bizarre aliens. It's wonderfully good-hearted, but it's not very deep. I think it's best-used as undemanding reading between other, more significant work.

Followed by Sector General.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-06-18

Last modified and spun 2017-05-21