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Literature / Med Ship

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A series of science fiction stories by Murray Leinster. Originally published individually in various magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, they subsequently appeared in book form in various combinations. The first complete collection, under the title Med Ship, was published by Baen Books in 2002.

In the future, when mankind has spread across the galaxy, one of the vital supports of civilization is the Interstellar Medical Service, which ensures that new medical knowledge gets spread around, helps out with plagues and other major threats to public health, and consults on the various new hazards that inevitably crop up when seeking out new worlds with new edibles (and inedibles) and new diseases.

Every ship of the Med Service carries, in addition to the human crew, an alien animal called a tormal. Apart from a friendly and sociable disposition that makes them good traveling companions and valuable goodwill ambassadors, every tormal possesses several medically useful traits. First, a tormal can tell with a quick smell or taste whether a food is good or dangerous to eat (and the biology of a tormal is enough like that of a human that the results are transferable). Second, a tormal has an extremely efficient immune system that can produce a response to any new infection, often before the tormal even starts to feel unwell; in cases of previously-unknown new disease, the tormal's antibodies can then be used as the basis for a mass-produced treatment.

The series follows the crew of the Med Ship Asclepius Twenty, the human Calhoun and his tormal companion Murgatroyd, as they deal with cases from the tougher end of the spectrum — including that special category of health hazard that results when a person is prepared to injure or kill others for their own advantage.

This series provides examples of:

  • Absent Aliens: Humans are the only known intelligent species. In "Tallien Three" (aka "The Hate Disease"), the possibility is raised that the trouble on Tallien Three is the work of an unknown alien intelligence; Calhoun doesn't consider it likely, and it turns out not to be the case.
  • And the Adventure Continues: Most stories end with Calhoun wrapping up his current case, but "Pariah Planet" (aka "This World is Taboo") goes a bit further and includes the beginning of the next one. The Baen collection has this as its last story, giving the book as a whole an And the Adventure Continues ending.
  • Artificial Gravity: Spaceships are equipped with "internal-gravity fields", which are never explained or indeed ever mentioned except when they go wrong.
  • Book Ends: "Pariah Planet" (aka "This World is Taboo") begins with Calhoun, working in a part of the galaxy that has suffered neglect from the Med Service, arriving at a planet and receiving a hostile reception. At the end of the story, he moves on to the next planet on his checkup list, and receives a similarly hostile reception.
  • Epigraph: In "The Mutant Weapon", "Ribbon in the Sky", and "The Grandfathers' War" — incidentally the first three stories to be written — each chapter is headed with an apposite quotation from the book Calhoun is in the middle of reading.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: FTL travel is achieved using the "overdrive", a form of warp drive which creates a cocoon of Subspace or Hyperspace around the ship that allows it to travel at a large multiple of the speed of light (approximately one light year per hour).
  • The Immune: A tormal usually fills this role in any plague situation.
  • Instant Sedation: When Calhoun takes out some opponents with a sedative in "The Mutant Weapon". The author does at least specify that it's a future-sedative not yet invented in our time, and noted for its fast effect.
  • Kids Versus Adults: "The Grandfathers' War" featured a war between generations (although the younger was of the age of maturity).
  • Mad Scientist: The villain in "The Mutant Weapon", who was shunned for his grotesque appearance and wound up an expert in designing Synthetic Plagues with an elaborate plan to Show Them All.
  • Mugged for Disguise: Calhoun uses this in "The Mutant Weapon" to gain access to the bad guys' spaceship, leaving his victim tucked out of sight wearing only his underwear.
  • Must Have Caffeine: Murgatroyd is very fond of coffee, which he drinks out of miniature cups.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Firmly in place whenever the bad guys demonstrate their uncouthness.
  • Noble Shoplifter: In "Plague on Kryder II", Calhoun raids a grocery store in an evacuated town for samples of the products he suspects of being vectors for the "plague"; as he departs, he leaves money for them on the checkout desk.
  • Non-Human Sidekick: Murgatroyd.
  • Not With the Safety On, You Won't: There is a scene in "Pariah Planet" (aka "This World is Taboo") where a stowaway in a moment of desperation attempts to shoot Calhoun; unfamiliar with firearms, she hasn't taken the safety off, giving Calhoun an opening to disarm her.
  • Phlebotinum Breakdown: There is inevitably one story where Murgatroyd's ability to produce antibodies on demand fails for handwavy reasons right when Calhoun really needs it. (It's "Quarantine Planet".)
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Calhoun demonstrates this on more than one occasion.
  • Subspace Ansible: Averted; ships can travel faster than light, but transmissions can't and messages between star systems have to be physically carried by ships. (On the other hand, radio conversations within solar systems seem to proceed without any time lag, even over distances of thousands of kilometers.)
  • Surrogate Soliloquy: Calhoun has developed a habit of thinking out loud by talking to Murgatroyd as if Murgatroyd could understand him, and responding to any noises Murgatroyd makes as if they were pertinent questions. His side of the conversation seems as if he's Repeating So the Audience Can Hear, but really what Murgatroyd's saying is usually along the lines of "Why are you wasting time making incomprehensible noises when you could be fixing lunch?"
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: In "Ribbon in the Sky" a planet has three separate colonies on it which, due to prolonged isolation, each believe that the residents of the other two have a highly infectious disease. A boy and a girl from different cities fall in love and decide to run away together.
  • Synthetic Plague: More than one story features one of these.
  • Throw 'Em to the Wolves: At the end of "The Mutant Weapon", Calhoun does nothing more to the villain than lock him up to await the attention of the authorities, telling his former victims when they protest that vengeance is a bad habit to get into. Privately, he admits to a suspicion that — since the villain is locked up with his underlings, who now blame him for the mess they're in — there may not be anything left to do to him by the time the authorities arrive.
  • Tractor Beam: The space-age equivalent of air traffic control towers are equipped with force fields used to bring arriving spaceships in to controlled landings, and to loft departing spaceships out of the planet's gravity well. The infrastructure required is such that they can't practically be mounted on spaceships, though.
  • The Watson: Played with. Calhoun has developed a habit of thinking out loud by talking to Murgatroyd as if Murgatroyd could understand him, and responding to any noises Murgatroyd makes as if they were pertinent questions. This is just as helpful to the reader as if Murgatroyd really were following the conversation.
  • We Can Rule Together: In "The Mutant Weapon", after Calhoun uncovers the villain's plot to take over a chunk of the galaxy, the villain offers him a planet of his own if he refrains from interfering. It's a measure of how unhinged he is that he's astonished when Calhoun isn't interested.

When the gong sounds, breakout will be five seconds off.