No matter Baen Books’ other faults, and there are a few, the company has been diligent about collecting and reissuing SF authors that may have otherwise fallen into obscurity. Eric Flint in particular has edited and published many past masters; one of the earliest and most accessible of these volumes is Murray Leinster’s Med Ship. This is a 600+ page compendium of four books first published in the early 1960s and contains, if not “novels,” than at least lengthy short fiction. An afterword identifies Leinster as a major voice in pre-Big Three SF (Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein) and the originator of many now-standard SF tropes, in this case the doctors and medical types of the stars. (What would SF be without “It’s worse than that, he’s dead Jim!”) This was my first foray into Leinster’s work.
This being my first entry for the 2015 Vintage SF party, I should lay out some expectations. I don’t believe we should excuse authors of the day for attitudes that offend now, but we should probably approach Golden Age stuff with a certain air of resignation. I wish it weren’t so, but most of these books are going to portray women, minorities, and other marginalized groups in unflattering ways, if they address them at all. It is also likely that the Competent Engineer archetype will loom large over all proceedings, probably spouting wooden dialogue and solving problems with obsolete scientific concepts. Some books may rise above this, but they are hard to come by. We can raise our fists in the air and shake them in self-righteous rage, or we can take shots every time something giggle-worthy or wildly inappropriate appears. There is no doubt an approach somewhere in the middle that manages to appreciate the old while somehow turning it to educational purposes for the new, though I’m going to concentrate on the drinking end for now. (That will be Dog’n’Suds Root Beer shots for me, thank you very much.)
Disclaimer officially disclaimed, I can say that Med Ship is deeply, gravely patriarchal. Our man Calhoun flits about the galaxy with his pet tormal Murgatroyd and solves all the problems of the little people. (A tormal is a semi-sentient animal that the Med Ships use for antibody creation. They are also coffee addicts and lovers of fine conversation. Said conversation usually involves only the word “Chee,” but they are very serious about it.) Leinster mercifully never assigns a skin color to anyone in the book, but if Med Ship were a movie, Calhoun would be Peter Cushing. He is everything we want our Competent Engineer to be, and I’m certain he has a British accent. He has very little good to say about plebians, the rich, women, young people, old people, or stupid people, but he is altruistic at heart and seeks to right wrongs. In fact, in at least half of the stories, I would have let the morons rot in their own self-made problems, but Calhoun pulls through, sometimes at great personal risk, and saves them. He has my admiration for that. He even, at the very end, bumps into a woman that he (and Leinster) grudgingly admires.
What about the rest of the book? Solid, Golden Age fun. Calhoun solves problems with his wits and with Science, a nice respite from the modern day kinetics that seem to be so popular. He never resorts to violence, being a doctor and all. On the other hand, the stories follow similar patterns that Hard SF readers will be overly familiar with. Problems lead to deep thinking, deep thinking provokes clever resourcefulness, intelligent men then calmly fix the universe and bemoan the silly irrationality that surrounds them. We’ve seen this before, but I guess those of us who don’t, as a matter of course, kick butt will never tire of seeing the smart people triumph over dumb jocks. As with many things, it’s all in the execution. A hot dog done right is still delicious and in this Leinster delivers. (The writing, not hot dogs.) The stories are have pace and momentum, things are complex enough that the solutions are not always clear from the start, and the ending is always gratifying. The outline is visible from start to finish, but Med Ship is still fun reading.
I should note that Murgatroyd steals every scene he is allowed free run in. I’m not a pet lover, but I would probably keep him and his little coffee mug around.
What about The Bigger Picture? Why should we read Med Ship? Well, it’s old, it’s creaky at times, and we’ve already seen this story before. Our standards are higher now and better books abound. Historically though, Leinster is important and his stories hacked out the paths that others trod after him. It is easy to forget that someone had to build this edifice we call science fiction, even if others have since redone the plumbing, changed the wallpaper, and added Energy Star appliances. Leinster was doing this stuff back in the beginning and we serious fans owe it to ourselves and the genre to be at least somewhat familiar. We can be clear about ways it doesn’t measure up now, but knowing where we came from is important.
Also, Leinster’s stuff is fun to read. It’s not Douglas Adams, but it’s amusing. The science is questionable now, but was sincere in its time. I don’t know that I’d recommend scarfing down all 600 pages at once (it took me a couple of years, on and off), much like I wouldn’t tell someone to crush an entire box of Wheat Thins in a single go. A few short stories at a time though, and one can have a good time, learn a bit about our SF heritage, and come to appreciate the joy of tormals.