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.
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