Lyndon Hood - Reader, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

When we moved to Wellington most of the weight was accounted for by books. I've been rereading some of my wife's science fiction.

James White's Sector General series is set in a gigantic free-floating multi-species hospital. Its physiologically varied denizens spend their days dealing with the galaxy's most difficult medical mysteries alongside a gentle version of the usual hospital soap opera. There is an intense tolerance of difference and a united desire to heal the sick. Thematically the books cover a whole variety of ethical and spiritual issues. It's all quite utopian, very charming and highly entertaining. The characters are memorable and White smoothly manages a number of books with non-human protagonists.

And there is a war, of sorts.

A huge, crumbling space empire is encountered and its rulers conclude that the best way to preserve their power is to have an extended war based on a Big Lie. It happens that the only target they can get coordinates for is Sector General Hospital. As the onslaught intensifies, the Commander of the Federation's security forces (our guys) struggles not to hate the enemy. He's a policeman. This is just a large-scale riot.

As it is, it's the doctors who save the day. Their diligent treatment of all the wounded, irrespective of what side they're on or what shape they are, exposes the big lie and the invading fleet goes back to ask its leaders some pointed questions.

White's characters have a habit of thinking of war as a "mass racial psychosis". But it's also clear in the first book, 1962's Hospital Station, that trying to achieve ethical purity is setting yourself up for disappointment. The thing being that, despite this, somebody has to try, for all our sakes.

James White died in 1999, the year his last Sector General novel was released.

David Weber's Honor Harrington books are a different kettle of epic space war. They have been compared to, and appear to be inspired by, C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels (about what Harrington would call an "old-fashioned wet navy"), but by now there are probably more people familiar with Weber's work than Forester's.

Weber clearly enjoys working through the political and technological systems in his books (the tactics for Harrington's space battles, for example, are dictated by the peculiarities of the ships' propulsion systems) and he writes fantastic fight sequences on all scales.

Honor Harrington herself is, for plot purposes, a perfect soldier - a killing machine on any level from hand-to-hand to the strategic with and intense sense of duty and the habit of inspiring her subordinates - and she never really makes mistakes. Things that go wrong in her life are the fault of circumstances or other people. If she weren't so wracked with personal insecurity it would be maddening.

Weber's opinions do show, though. And he spares little contempt for the man who keeps insisting war is a wasteful failure of diplomacy and that "reasonable people negotiating in good faith can always reach an acceptable conclusion". In the particular circumstances of the book the position is wildly irrelevant and willfully ignorant. Weber not being one to pull his punches the man is also a shallow, greasy fool and a personal coward. One general conculsion from Weber's construction of interstellar political economics is that reasonable people negotiating in good faith can be hard to come by. He also highlights the possibility of a genuine conflict of interest.

And it's a bit like reading the Iliad (or, I presume, like watching Troy - did I mention I once played the Brad Pitt part in a reading of the Iliad?). In what becomes a very long war, you're allowed sympathy for the soldiers of the enemy (Haven) as well as the 'good guys' (Manticore).

In one memorable scene a badly hung-over Havenite Admiral risks execution by disagreeing with his government's propagandist. We should keep, he says, and be seen to keep, to the conventions on the treatment of prisoners - for entirely practical reasons (making a moral argument would probably be construed as treason). Our people will feel they're more likely to be treated well. The opposition won't become suicidal fighters. The rest of the universe won't be disgusted. Yes, I suppose exceptions could be made, but we're talking general policy.

Less likeable Havenite commanders are observed to discourage abuse of prisoners not out of respect for their humanity but because they consider that kind of behaviour to be destructive of discipline.

I suspect that Weber has gotten so popular that nobody dares edit the Harrington books for length anymore. I was increasingly exasperated as I got more than two-thirds of the way through the latest, 800-page installment without anyone shooting at anyone else.

I've also been reminded of that episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' when there's an explosion in the engine room and a witchfinderesque commission determinedly uncovers an alleged terrorist conspiracy using questionable methods. But, appearing accused, Captain Picard makes a big speech and the inquisitors go home chastised.

I think I'd like to live in Sector General best.