The One Book That Made Me Believe In Aliens (Not In The Way You Think)

There was a time, not that long ago, when if you told people you were a science fiction fan they would ask you—no doubt thinking of The X-Files—whether you really believed in aliens. My usual response was to reply, putting a gentle emphasis on the second word, that it’s called science fiction for a reason. But the fact is that I did, and do, believe in aliens … but not in that way.

Of course I do believe that there are intelligent alien species out there in the universe somewhere (though the Fermi Paradox is troubling, and the more I learn about the peculiar twists and turns that the evolution of life on this planet has taken to get to this point the more I wonder if we might, indeed, be alone in the universe), but I don’t believe that they have visited Earth, at least not in noticeable numbers or in recent history. But I do believe in aliens as people—as complex beings with knowable, if not immediately comprehensible, motives, who can be as good and bad as we can, and not just monsters who want to eat us or steal our water or our breeding stock. And I can date this belief to a specific book.

I was twelve or thirteen when my older cousin Bill came from California to live with us for a summer. At one point during his stay he had a box of old paperbacks to get rid of, and he offered me my choice before taking them to the used book store. One of the books I snagged that day was Hospital Station by James White. It was the cover that grabbed me, I think: a realistic painting of a space hospital—a clear ripoff of Discovery from 2001, but adorned with red crosses. The concept of a hospital in space promised drama, excitement, and tension, and the book did not disappoint. But better than that, it changed my mind and my life in some important ways.

Up until that time I had generally encountered aliens only as villains, or even monsters—the Metaluna Mutants from This Island Earth, the hideous creatures from Invasion of the Saucer-Men, the Martians from War of the Worlds, The Blob. True, there was Spock, but he scarcely seemed alien, and besides there was only one of him. Even in prose fiction (I had recently read Ringworld) the aliens were more nuanced, but still fundamentally adversarial to humanity; alien species tended to appear as stand-ins for either thematic concepts or for other nations or races of humans. But in Hospital Station, for the first time, I found aliens who were truly alien—strange and very different—but nonetheless allies, co-workers, and friends.

Hospital Station is a collection of five stories showing the construction and evolution of the eponymous station—Sector Twelve General Hospital—in a universe with so many intelligent species that a standard four-letter code has been developed to quickly categorize their physiology, behavior, and environmental needs. To accommodate those widely varying environmental needs, the station is divided into many sections, each with atmosphere, gravity, and temperature suitable for its usual occupants. A universal translator ameliorates the problems of communication between species, but—and this is critical—it is not perfect, nor can it immediately comprehend the languages of new aliens; it must be brought up to speed when a new species is encountered. Also, eliminating the language problem doesn’t prevent miscommunications and cultural conflicts.

But despite the conflicts that do exist between species in this universe, the primary problems that face the characters in Hospital Station are those that face any doctors in any hospital on Earth: healing the sick, solving medical mysteries, and preventing the spread of disease. The conflicts are interpersonal, the villains are diseases or physical processes, and the tension is generally provided by a race to heal or cure in time rather than a need to destroy or prevent destruction. It’s not that there is no war in this universe, but the army—the interspecies Monitor Corps—is barely seen in this volume and exists primarily to prevent war rather than to wage it. It is a fundamentally optimistic universe in which the main characters, of widely diverse species with different needs, personalities, and priorities, are primarily cooperating to solve problems rather than competing against one another.

This was the first time I had encountered this type of aliens and I devoured the book with gusto. Even better, I discovered it was the first in a series, which continued until 1999. I soon learned that many other such fictional universes existed—including, to some extent, later incarnations of Star Trek—and eventually I began writing about them myself. The Martians and Venusians in my Arabella Ashby books are intended to be people who, though their bodies, language, and culture may be different from ours, are worth getting to know.

The stories in Hospital Station were written between 1957 and 1960, and they may seem rather quaint by today’s standards (the portrayal of women is particularly eyeroll-worthy). But it served to introduce to me a concept which we now summarize as “diversity”—the importance of representing and accommodating different kinds of people, with different points of view, who can by their very differences improve everyone’s lives by bringing their unique perspectives to bear on our common problems. Unlike the purely villainous aliens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Thing, these aliens are complex beings, and even when we disagree we can work together to find common cause. And though this view of diversity can sometimes seem facile and overly optimistic, I think it’s better to hope for the best than to live in fear of the worst.

The Sector General novels—of which Hospital Station is the first—are available in omnibus editions from Tor Books.

David D. Levine is the author of the novel Arabella of Mars , its sequel Arabella and the Battle of Venus, and over fifty science fiction and fantasy stories. His story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the Hugo Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, and Sturgeon. Stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Tor.com, numerous Year’s Best anthologies, and his award-winning collection Space Magic.​​

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