Book Review: The Hospital Ship, Martin Bax (1976)

(Uncredited cover for the 1976 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

The Lure. A nuclear powered hospital ship with a giant morgue. “THEY ARE CRUCIFYING US.” Love therapy. Will you move from your fetal position?

“1. Are you in love? [with Bax’s The Hospital Ship] (a) Yes (b) No.” (170)

Joachim Boaz scrawls…

First, musical equivalencies. Francis Dhomont, a French composer of electroacoustic / acousmatic music, stitched together the compositions of his students and friends to form the Frankenstein Symphony (1997). This act of creative compilation, compiling previously gathered and arranged found sounds, brought forth, in his words, “[a] little acousmatic monster which I hold particularly close to my heart.”

For the composer, each musical fragment indicates a personal connection, the weaving together creates a tapestry of his intellectual progeny. For the listener,  we are presented with an aura of familiar sound that has been manipulated, modified, recombined, while the personal connections must be uncovered.

Although comprised of previously composed sections, Dhomont’s behemoth was not the product of some passive scissors snipping, but rather a creative enterprise of the highest order (note 1).

An amalgamate of stimulation. In a world convulsing with the paroxysms of ennui and angst, Martin Bax’s The Hospital Ship (1976) sails with intense abandon through similar conceptual waters. A key component of the novel’s structure and purpose concerns the mechanics of Bax’s inspiration—quotations from medical texts (among others) contain the research for particular narrative sequences and in turn help explain their contents and citations from stories and poems published in his own literary journal supply/inspire associated scenes.

Bax overtly situates himself as a descendant of the avant-garde literary journal Ambit that he founded in 1959 (and continues to this day). The journal is well known for its radical artistic expression across genres—for example, Bax published Ballard’s 1966 shocker “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race.”

And now let us plunge in….

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

As with so many stories of the period, the wrecked landscape manifests the internal (and external) trauma afflicting the human race—from the war zones of Vietnam to the board rooms in the halls of capitalism. The nuclear powered hospital ship Hopeful journeys the world’s seas, crewed by intrepid doctors and psychiatrists with radical new theories of the therapeutic qualities of drug facilitated love. The world outside remains oblique, the cause of the catastrophe in the realm of theory and conjecture. The patients they encounter can only bemoan their own state and provide cryptic answers. The morgue fills and fills: the bodies in death achieving “an intimacy […] which some had never achieved in their lives” (37).

The traumatized fill the wards. Euan runs to and fro caring for the ill. The staff delve into the theories of Sir Maximov: “only use drugs, Euan, to make your patients accessible to human contact. If they are accessible allow them some tears, some emotion, to withstand the strains and stresses of the past and future” 144).

Euan’s takes on two patients who embody the forces that drive mankind inside itself: V. from Saigon, struggling with war trauma from life in Vietnam and “The Man from the West,” an American business man possessed by another form of ennui. And slowly they start talking to one another.

The crew itself manifests a schizophrenic streak. The communications officer Tafteria, plagued by a chronic shortage of pins, places in no particular order the messages she receives on a bulletin board. The wind blows the messages throughout the ship: “and anyone in the stern of the ship could reach out a hand and collect bulletins from the air as they are driven by an endless paper-chase over the stern of the boat and on into the sea” (15). Tafteria mishears the messages as well—“THEY ARE USING US” (90) really means “THEY ARE CRUCIFYING US” (117). And they (whoever they might be) really are—the crucified litter the shores. The doctors can only wander around the bodies, perplexed. And there are others, the psychiatrist Kline and his patient Coma who can see the devastation of the future rather than some suffering in her past. Kline, in overtly satirical strokes, takes on his patient’s anguish via a Fruedian “phenomenon of transference” (80) while she mellows and adores him.

As the vessel moves along the devastated coasts, the relationship between V and “The Man from the West,” although ultimately inconclusive, grows and grows, and they experience the therapeutic joys of intimacy and connection….

Final Thoughts

The Hospital Ship is filled to the brim with both fascinating ideas and audacious compositional techniques. What will strike the reader immediately is the influence of Bax’s training as a doctor (note 2). The authoritative lens brings a jarring realism as he renders his profession with poetic strokes. That said, I will focus on two elements that particularly resonated with me: intellectual genealogy mentioned above and the use of quotations (far more interesting than it sounds).

“Euan was reminded of MacBeth’s attempt years before to describe this event with his sinister poem game ‘Fin du Globe’ (1963) in which complex and meaningless postcards had been presented from all over the world” (117)

Let us unpack one of many examples of intellectual genealogy that occurs in the novel. Above is a reference within the narrative section to George MacBeth’s poem that appeared in Bax’s Ambit in 1963. A character within the story is reminded of a poem that appeared in the author’s own publication. In a way Euan’s connection to the poem game is Bax charting one of numerous sources of inspiration for a central idea in the story, the inexplicable crucifixion disease heralded by the message sent across the airways without explanation: “THEY ARE CRUCIFYING US.” J.G. Ballard’s stories are also cited in conjunction with particular scenes. While reading we see the ingredients and the end product, and the characters within the story exist as various agents moving throughout, observing the stages of their creation.

Bax’s use of quoted texts, which gain meaning through association with other quoted texts and the novel’s narrative portions, is the most ingenious (and challenging) element of the novel (see note 2). Quoted texts make up around a third of the novel and are not cited (but a list is provided at the beginning). The range demonstrates Bax’s medical training and other reading habits: from K. Kräupl Taylor’s “Behavior Patterns of Groups” in The Pathogenesis of War (1963), ed. Margaret Penrose to The Robber Barons (1934) by Matthew Josephson.

Here’s a rather silly (but simple) example of how this technique works. Euan and Sir Maxinov have a half-thought out discussion on political philosophy (from a distinctly medical viewpoint) and Sir Maxinov remembers a passage from school: “Aristotle reports that the Egyptians put them to good use. They made their bow-strings from the penises of dead camels” (156). The narrative stops immediately followed by three pages of quotes about the genitals of various animals. Often the implications are far more profound. V, the woman from Saigon, tells her story to The Man from the West. Her harrowing exposition takes on additional meaning by association with various quotations from books describing Vietnam’s pre-War landscape and the atrocities instigated by American soldiers.

The final assemblage is not to be missed by fans of 70s J.G. Ballard and New Wave SF more generally. Lacking perhaps Ballard’s poignancy, The Hospital Ship still traverses distinct and alluring waters. Bax’s medical training and profession imbue the post-apocalyptical uncertainty with a veneer of certitude (note 5). An intertextual onion à la Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972)…


(1): Link to the scherzo movement. LP images below

(2): Novels I’ve reviewed so far in my loose series on medical SF: William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat (1976) and Elizabeth Baines’ The Birth Machine (1983).

(3): I have included his references that are parenthetically cited and those that are quoted without citation below. He includes lists for both.

(4): A fascinating interview (2002) with the author.

(5): Related post of mine — > The scientific references (in this case invented) from Doctor Rat (1976).

References parenthetically cited

Texts quoted without citation

(Bob Carlose-Clarke’s cover for the 1976 edition)

Francis Dhomont’s Frankenstein Symphony

For more reviews consult the INDEX

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Hospital Ship, Martin Bax (1976)

  1. I have had this for about 20 years but never read it! (the English edition, with the incongruous babe on the cover.) Sounds brilliant, I will put it on my MRASAP list….

    • Thanks for the comment. If you like Ballard and other experiments from the period you’ll probably like this one. As I point out in the review, the quoted texts placed next to each other are jarring at first. But, at least in most instances, you’ll discover an internal logic of association.

  2. Joachim,
    Unfortunate cover? I thought she was V. The book moved right along for the most part, though I found the quoted text somewhat interrupted what I was beginning to think was an endless cruise. Some really dark humor I found particularly funny, such as Dr. Maximov’s discussion about a test of an unresponsive man using his finger.

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