Medical Science Fiction: Tell Me Where it Hurts


I missed posting last week because of a medical emergency. A family member went into hospital and we all had to gather together for support, as people do in these situations. It all turned out relatively well, thank Flying Spaghetti Monster, but, naturally (since most everything makes me think about science fiction) it’s got me thinking about medical science fiction.

There’s military science fiction. There’s cultural science fiction. There’s detective/cop science fiction. But there is not as much medical science fiction. It is a subgenre for sure, but it doesn’t get the same play as science fiction cops or soldiers.

House mdOn television medical dramas are common. One of my favorites was House, which ran from 2004 to 2012 on the Fox Network. It wasn’t science fiction at all, but science and reason were a big part of the show. Doctor Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) was acerbic and condescending, but he espoused the scientific method and used his massive intellect to puzzle out medical mysteries. His bedside manner was non-existent and anyone unfortunate enough to be one of his patients would usually experience the absolute worst week of their lives, suffering the indignities of medical tests and side effects and symptoms to rival the tortures of one of the circles of Dante’s Hell. I can tell you, being a guest patient in an episode of House ain’t no fun.

Mercy pointBut, as I said, it wasn’t science fiction. The one science fiction medical drama on television in recent years was from the now defunct UPN. Mercy Point made its debut in 1998 and was cancelled after seven episodes. Created by Trey Callaway, the show was set in the mid-23rd century, and took place on a deep-space medical space station (the eponymous “Mercy Point”) that catered to the medical needs of both humans and aliens, and served as a crossroads for both human and alien civilizations, as well as between the military and civilian agencies of human culture. The series benefited from complex characters and intriguing hints at the greater universe outside of the hospital’s hull.

Does it sound a bit familiar? Does anyone remember James White’s Sector General stories?

SCTRGNRL251983Sector General is a series of twelve science fiction novels and various short stories. The series derives its name from the setting of the majority of the books, the Sector 12 General Hospital, a huge hospital space station located in deep space, designed to treat a wide variety of life forms with a wide range of ailments and life-support requirements, and to house an equally diverse staff. The Hospital was founded to promote peace after humanity’s first interstellar war, and in the fourth book the authorities conclude that its emergency services are the most effective way to make peaceful contact with new species.

adventures-of-terra-tarkingtonSounds kind of like a combination of E.R. And Babylon 5, doesn’t it? White’s Sector General stories began in the pages of New Worlds, a British Science fiction magazine back in the late 1950’s. Eventually White expanded the stories into novels which were published by Ballantine Books and were quite popular. The last book Double Contact was released in 1999.

There are others, of course. There was Murray Leinster’s saga of the Med Ship, as well as Alan E Nourse’s The Blade Runner (the title of which was bought by Hampton Francher and stitched onto his screenplay adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and, of course, Michael Crichton’s novels Coma, Jurassic Park and Prey touch on medicine and biological manipulation. Medical science fiction can range from the serious to the somewhat silly, as with Sharon Webb’s The Adventures of Terra Tarkington.

Naturally, I hope that all of you reading this will not have to go into hospital, but if you do, maybe take some medical science fiction books along with you to help make your stay a little less clinical.

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1 Comment

  1. Interestingly enough, Alan E. Nourse was a practicing medical doctor in North Bend, WA., and his Blade Runner, though not related to the Phil Dick book, was medical SF, as was the near-future thriller The Fourth Horseman. Alan was also Avram Davidson’s doctor when Avram lived in North Bend (which stood in for David Lynch’s mythical Twin Peaks–I’ve had coffee and a damn fine piece of cherry pie at Twede’s, which was the Double R Diner in the show). One of my prized possessions given to me by Avram, is a prescription bottle for Avram from Alan E. Nourse, M.D. I visited Alan once in his house on the hill. Both writers, alas, are gone from us now!

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