James White,
The Genocidal Healer
(Ballantine, 1991)

The Genocidal Healer is part of James White's Sector General series. Sector General is an enormous hospital ship/space station staffed by and serving a multitude of highly divergent intelligent species (including humans). It has been the setting for an entire series of novels by White, and none of them have been disappointments. This might be the best of the lot, however.

Lioren is a physician or healer from a non-human, highly intelligent race. He came to Sector General to expand his knowledge and use his medical skills to help as many people (of all species) as possible.

But this novel starts with Lioren on trial. Lioren and a team of doctors went to a planet that had never before had contact with other species. The population of Cromsag has been reduced to perhaps a tenth of what it had been, and civilization has ground to a halt. The Cromsaggar are at war with one another, in the most primitive manner possible, with much of the fighting being hand-to-hand (-to-hand), despite the technology to engage in more "advanced" warfare. And, the Cromsaggar are dying of a planetwide plague. Lioren and his team finally figure out that the Cromsaggar have to fight this way to survive at all (I'll leave the exact explanation for the reader to discover). The doctors seek a cure for the plague, and develop a test vaccine. Lioren is frustrated by the seemingly endless tests to show that the vaccine is safe, as the Cromsaggar are lurching toward extinction while the testing goes on. He finally jumps the gun, administers the vaccine planetwide and causes an almost-total extinction of the remaining Cromsaggar.

The trial at the beginning of the book is to determine a fit punishment for Lioren; he is demanding the death penalty for himself, because of his sense of guilt. The sentence is much worse: he must live.

On one level, this is a well-written, fun and exotic future-space story that flows rapidly. It is very character-driven, with a strong central character and an amusingly diverse supporting cast, most of whom have been the central characters in previous, or will be in future, novels in the series. The technology and science part of this "science fiction" is not well articulated, but it is not the focus anyway. This is a story about people, no matter how many legs or wings they have.

On another level, this is also a story of redemption and the need to accept imperfection and to settle for mere excellence. The main character, Lioren, is an alien, a highly moral and highly skilled doctor who feels he cannot go on after almost annihilating the Cromsaggar, and he wants to be killed for making such an egregious error. When denied this death, he must find a way to cope with continued existence, and find a way to be a benefit to others. Can he save himself? Can he be useful to others, even though he lost his license to practice medicine? His answers to these questions result in a redemption that is on a parallel with that of Oskar Schindler, as depicted beautifully in the film, Schindler's List.

This is a science-fiction book where the science is a minor, almost irrelevant point. This is the story of a man trying to save himself. It could not be told better.

by Chris McCallister
16 September 2006

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