Book Review: Doctor to the Stars, Murray Leinster (1964)

John Schoenherr’s cover for the 1964 edition

3.25/5 (Collated rating: Vaguely Good)

I am fascinated by medical-themed science fiction. While my tendencies gravitate towards  the more meta-fictional/experimental takes of this theme, for example William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat (1976) and Elizabeth Baines’ The Birth Machine (1983), I wanted expand my horizons by reading earlier incarnations of the subgenre.

Murray Leinster’s Doctor to the Stars (1964) gathers three stories published in the late 50s and early 60s in the Med Series sequence. As a whole, the stories are positivist, pro-peace, anti-big business, pro-science, and pro-service. Our hero Calhoun, with his small and furry petri dish test animal/companion Murgatroyd, rockets from medical crisis to medical crisis. Leinster’s future sees humankind spread across the galaxy in a general state of peace, each colony resembles earth as much as possible (cars, Earth names, Earth crops, etc.), and each colony is only loosely connected to others via trade. The members of the neutral Interstellar Medical Service journey between disparate colonies bringing new medical knowledge and solving crises. While weakened by a 50s obsession with technological mumbo jumbo, the mysteries are simple but fun, the polemic is admirable, and Murgatroyd is the furry friend we always wanted.

This collection rehabilitated my overall view of Murray Leinster. I’ll be reading further stories in the Med Service sequence collected in S. O. S. From Three Worlds (1967) or the novella “The Mutant Weapon” (1957)  soon. Recommended for fans of positivist 50s/60s pulp. It is easy to imagine works like Murray Leinster’s Med Series inspiring some of the basic medical plots and scenarios in Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“The Grandfathers’ War” (1957), 4/5 (Good): Calhoun and Murgatroyd, the sole crew of the med ship Esclipus Twenty, receive a message that a war between the planets Phaedra II and Canis III is about to break out and that casualties could occur. Due to the technological details (i.e. lengthy paragraphs of mumbled nonsense) of space travel and space launch, war is relic of the past. Calhoun must read up on the entire history of war!

The crisis: Phaedra’s sun is on the verge of supernova. The colonists send their younger sons and daughters to the planet Canis III in order to prepare it for the older refugees who will arrive later. Unsurprisingly, the youth, saddled with the responsibilities of setting up an entire new planet for colonization chaff under the yoke of relentless work and responsibilities. Soon the youngest children, previously in the care of their grandparents, are sent to Canis III. Already overworked, the young women of Canis are expected to mother countless children. In this scenario, the youth, to lessen their work burden, implement dangerous technology to care for the children, with devastating ramifications. The tensions rise when new research modifies the supernova’s timeline—the youth on Canis believe it’s all a ploy by their parents to create a new world on their labor. War brews! The grandfathers and grandmothers are willing to go to war to take the planet of their children.

Calhoun encounters the ramshackle society of the youth—replete with disease and deep psychological trauma. And as a neutral party, he attempts to prevent greater devastation.

I found “The Grandfathers’ War” to be the best story in the collection due to Leinster’s sustained, if very 50s, attempt to provide commentary on generational strife and the incorporation of quotations from the Interstellar Medical Service manual. The former explores the unrealistic expectations of the elderly on a generation forced to bear extreme burdens (a WWII reference?). Simultaneously, the youth reinterpret their treatment as a ploy of the elderly rather than a response to a real crisis. The quotations from the manual provide glimpses into the behavior, mental fortitude, and maxims to live by expected from those who devote their lives to service.

The following three quotations from the manual directly relate to the current disaster of the Trump administration:

“If a man permits himself the purpose of securing admiration, he tends to make that purpose primary and the doing of his work secondary. This costs human lives…” (7)

“Reality is far too complex to be reduced to simple statements without much suppression of fact…” (15)

“Very often an individual fails to discover the truth about some matter because he neglects to become informed about something. But even more often, the truth is never found out because somebody refuses to entertain an idea…” (35).

“Med Ship Man (1963), 3.5/5 (Good): Calhoun and his tormal Murgatroyd arrive at the planet Maya. Saddled with a gun-happy businessman Allison, who arrived on a transport vessel, they explore the abandoned cities. It appears the entire population left the city in a hurry, unplanned, and in the middle of their activities. Eventually the cause of the mystery unfolds, with disturbing parallels to the practices of big business on ranch planets. And the presence of Allison suddenly makes sense!

Leinster ups the cuteness factor of Murgatroyd–who adores landing on planets as “humans gave him sweets and cakes, and they thought it charming that he drank coffee just like a human” (76). I found it disturbing how Murgatroyd is used by Calhoun beyond his role as a companion. The tormal act as hypersensitive tricorders, no only can they detect biological and environmental changes, but their bodies are used to generate antibodies.

A functional mystery with strong anti-big business vibes… The decentralized expanse of colonized space creates greater opportunities for commercial exploration.

“Tallien Three” (variant title: “The Hate Disease”) (1963), 2/5 (Bad) is the lesser story of the three. The Eclipsus Twenty arrives at the planet Tallien Three. A strange scenario unfolds—society divides between the para and the normals. The para, described by the less scientifically minded as possessed by demons, despise the normals and have “unnatural” desires. The mystery itself intrigues. The resolution is laughable. The presence of Murgatroyd, the walking laboratory, holds this one together.

Peter Bramley’s cover for the 1971 edition

Stephen Hickman’s cover for the 1977 edition

Lima de Freitas’ cover for the 1971 Brazilian edition

Karl Stephan’s cover for the 1965 German edition

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

23 thoughts on “Book Review: Doctor to the Stars, Murray Leinster (1964)

  1. Oh my, that Moewig Terra cover, haha 🙂 I have several of those on my shelves, but most are newer – all over blue and in a “Playboy” subprint.
    I only associate Star Trek’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy (in German “Pille” for “pill”) in a prominent role with medical topics in SF.

    • As you could probably tell from the review, the crises that Calhoun tackles are only somewhat “medical” in scope.

      Apparently Leinster’s “First Contact” (1946) used a “universal translator.” His heirs unsuccessfully sued Star Trek in 2000 over Star Trek: First Contact (1996) claiming “First Contact” was trademarked. I haven’t read that particular story yet.

      • First Contact is definitely worth reading . Recently I read Ivan Yefremov’s “The Heart of the Serpent” (1958) which is a critical reply to Leinster’s earlier story in the form of an sf story! Indeed the Leinster story is summarised in a conversation some of the characters have while critically reflecting on it. Yefremov rejects Leinster’s picture of a suspicious meeting between aliens as too reminiscent of what would become cold war relations (Leinster’s story was published in 1945). Both stories are worth reading. Yefremov’s is set in the same communist utopian future that he writes of in his novel Andromeda: A Space Age Tale (1957).

        • You should write something about those two stories in parallel for your site! I’d love to read it. Did Yefremov read it it in Russian or English? How much SF was translated into Russian? I always assumed more went the other way…. from Russian to English.

          I’ve heard about Andromeda: A Space Age Tale (1957) but haven’t read it.

          Have you read any of the Med Service stories?

          • I think Yefremov read Leinster in English. He was an academic and I get the sense—though yet to be confirmed—that Russian intellectuals were able to access foreign works. Perhaps he was picking up copies of US sf mags in the morning between times at conferences overseas?
            An article on the two is a good idea. Though Yefremov’s is already part way there!
            I have read a scad of other Leinster’s but none of the Med Series. I do have a collection of them somewhere…

  2. Thank you for this review.

    I love the Med Series, though it has some clunker entries (like The Hate Disease). I enjoyed the first two in this book quite a lot, and as you say, Murgatroyd makes everything better.


    • I found Murgatroyd’s use as an animal test subject a tad suspect. Imagine taking a pet dog around and injecting it with alien diseases…. But yes, he’s a fun furry companion.

      • It’s been a while since I read these, but I remember liking The Grandfathers’ War. Thinking about these always leads me to thinking about James White’s Sector General series, which I also like. White’s stories feel less old-fashioned but retain the positivism, and are more medically based. On the other hand, Leinster’s stories have more planet hopping and have Murgatroyd.

        • I found The Grandfathers’ War the most fully realized of the three stories. As Leinster seems reluctant to go into the backstory of Calhoun or to provide any personal details, some explanation of his mentality is needed — and the quotations from the manual provide that.

          As an unabashed fan of DS9, I find the space station the perfect place for fascinating stories. My knowledge of White’s Sector General stories is limited but I’m excited about exploring them.

  3. Med Ship (Baen, 2013) appears to collect most, if not all, of the series in one 640pp package (and is cheap on Kindle) so that’s for me!

        • Absolutely. I wonder how much Leinster was informed by living through the Great Depression (and of course, his own government work). In this seemingly Libertarian future (due to the distances in space), the colonies finds themselves constantly beset by problems where the neutral medical service (governmental agency?) is required. These worlds, separated from any effective government, are preyed upon by businesses and autocratic individuals. Intervention is required to guarantee rights destroyed by big business and prevent dictators from taking hold. Just as intervention was required during the Great Depression. I’ll have to read the rest.

          And any sequence that promotes service over everything else gets some marks in my book.

          • Absolutely. I suspect Leinster’s generational cohort…too young for WWI conscription, too old for WWII participation, and four kids to support as a writer in the Depression…means he’s got the Wilsonian world-view. Supernational institutions can do less harm, more good, and the greatest threat to happiness and health is capitalism.

            +1, Murray. +1 down the line.

      • Nice review!

        The original set was The Mutant Weapon in a 1959 Ace double, This World Is Taboo (Ace, 1961), Doctor to the Stars (Pyramid collection of three stories, 1964), and S.O.S. from Three Worlds (Ace collection of three stories, 1967). The Baen does include the whole thing (which is eight titles). “Ribbon” is the fourth story and the eighth story is “Pariah Planet,” which is the magazine title for This World Is Taboo. (It’s possible, but doubtful, that the magazine and book versions are slightly different but I think the ISFDB just missed linking the variant titles on that one.)

        I have the Baen now but I’ve had the HBJ edition of Doctor to the Stars you include in your cover examples. It’s not quite how I picture Calhoun but, even so, it’s the best cover to me.

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