Star Healer

by James White

Cover image

Series: Sector General #6
Publisher: Orb
Copyright: 1984
Printing: 2002
ISBN: 0-312-87770-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 206

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Star Healer is the sixth book of the Sector General series, and I think it may be the first novel in the series that was written as a novel instead of a fix-up of short stories. That makes it not a bad place to start in the series if one would rather not deal with fix-ups or barely-disguised short story collections. There isn't a huge amount of character development over the course of this series (at least to this point), so the main thing you would lose by starting here is some built-up reason for caring about the main character.

This is the third book in the Alien Emergencies omnibus (the book referenced in the publication information here).

Most of the previous stories have focused on Conway, a Senior Physician in the sprawling and wonderfully well-equipped multi-species hospital called Sector General and, in recent stories, the head physician in the hospital's ambulance ship. Becoming a Senior Physician at Sector General is quite the accomplishment, and a fine point to reach in the career of any doctor specializing in varied life forms, but there is another tier above: the Diagnosticians, who are the elite of Sector General. The difference is education tapes.

Deep knowledge of even one specific type of life is a lot to ask of a doctor, as shown by the increasing specialization of human medicine. Sector General, which deals with wildly varying ailments of thousands of species including entirely unknown ones (if, admittedly, primarily trauma, at least in the stories shown), would be an impossible task. White realizes this and works around it with education tapes that temporarily embed in a doctor's head the experience of a doctor of another species entirely. This provides the native expertise missing, but it comes with the full personality of the doctor who recorded the tape, including preferences for food and romantic attachment that may be highly disorienting. Senior Physicians use a tape at a time, and then have it erased again when they don't need it. Diagnosticians juggle four or more tapes at the same time, and keep them for long periods or even permanently, allowing them to do ground-breaking original research.

The opening of Star Healer is an offer from the intimidating Chief Psychologist of Sector General: he has a shot at Diagnostician. But it's a major decision that he should think over first, so the next step is to take a vacation of sorts on a quiet world with a small human scientific station. Oh, and there's a native medical problem, although not one with much urgency.

Conway doesn't do a lot of resting, because of course he gets pulled into trying to understand the mystery of an alien species that is solitary to the point of deep and unbreakable social taboos against even standing close to other people. This is a nice cultural puzzle in line with the rest of the series, but it also leaves Conway with a new ally: an alien healer in a society in which being a doctor is difficult to the point of near hopelessness.

It's not much of a spoiler to say that of course Conway decides to try for Diagnostician after his "vacation." The rest of the book is him juggling multiple cases with his new and often conflicting modes of thinking, and tackling problems that require a bit less in the way of puzzle-solving and a bit more in the way of hard trade-off decisions and quick surgical action. Senior Physicians may be able to concentrate on just one puzzle at a time; Diagnosticians have to juggle several. And they're larger, more long-term problems, focusing on how to improve a general problem for a whole species rather than just heal a specific injured alien.

One interesting aspect of this series, which is very much on display here, is that Sector General most definitely does not have a Prime Directive. They are cautious about making contact with particularly primitive civilizations for fear that spacefarers would give them an inferiority complex, but sometimes they do anyway. And if they run into some biological system that offends their sensibilities, they try to fix it, not just observe it. White frequently shows species caught in what the characters call "biological traps," unable to develop farther because of some biological adaptation that gets in their way, and Sector General tries to fix those. It's an interesting ethical problem that I wish they'd think about a bit more. It's not clear they're wrong, and I think it's correct to take an expansive view of the mission to heal, but there's also a sense in which Sector General is modifying culture and biology to make aliens more like them.

(The parallels between this and all the abusive paternalism that human cultures do around disability is a little too close to home to be comfortable, and now I kind of wish it hadn't occurred to me.)

The gender roles, sadly, continue to be dire, although mostly ignorable because the one major female character is generally just shown as another doctor with little attention to sex. But apparently women (of every species!) cannot become Diagnosticians because they have an insurmountable biological aversion to sharing their minds with a learning tape from any doctor who doesn't find them physically attractive, which is just... sigh. It's sad that someone who could write an otherwise remarkably open-minded and pacifist series of stories, in sharp contrast with most of SF history, would still have that large of a blind spot.

Apart from the times gender comes up, I liked this book more than the rest of the series, in part because I strongly prefer novels to short stories. There's more room to develop the story, and while characterization continues to not be White's strong point and that space mostly goes to more puzzles instead, he does provide an interesting set of interlocking puzzles. The problem posed by the aliens Conway meets on his "vacation" isn't fully resolved here (presumably that's for a future book), but he does solve several other significant problems and develops his own problem-solving style in more depth than in previous stories.

Mildly recommended, particularly if you like this series in general.

Followed by Code Blue - Emergency.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-06-05

Last modified and spun 2017-06-06