The Future of Medicine

As I mentioned in my writeups, I felt like I spent a lot of Worldcon talking with people about medical SF or the surprising dearth thereof. It’s still on my mind for two reasons.

First, I’m looking at this year’s starred-review books as I begin to build the Best Books of the Year list, and that led to me reading Michael Flynn’s Captive Dreams, a dense and chewy collection of medical SF stories. Some were written many years ago, but the hypothetical medical science is still relevant and really interesting, and Flynn does a wonderful job of looking at the intersection of the scientific and the social, talking about hope as well as horror. I feel like this book landed in my lap at just the right time, so that I can shove it into the hands of anyone who claims that medical SF is too hard to do well or that technology is advancing so quickly as to make speculation obsolete.

Second, I spent last night in the ER with my girlfriend, who was presenting all the symptoms of appendicitis (though fortunately her appendix is fine and the culprit turned out to be something a lot less scary, with no surgery needed). At one point she suggested to the doctor that while he was taking our her appendix, he should implant a GPS tracking device so that I know where she is even when she forgets to charge her phone. ”Don’t joke about that,” the doctor said. “We’re nearly at the point where we can do it for real.” Of course I was immediately reminded of Maureen McHugh’s “Oversite” (in the superb collection Mothers and Other Monsters, which you can download for free), and once again I felt a brief surge of gratitude to the authors who make me think about the ethics and ramifications of medical technology.

So once I’m done reading all these amazing starred books for the Best Books, where should I look for more good medical SF?

17 thoughts on “The Future of Medicine

  1. Eddie Cochrane

    Well the classics are James White’s Sector General series, Murray Leinster’s Med Service stories and Groff Conklin’s anthology “Great Science Fiction About Doctors”, which I recall getting in the ’70s and was a very good and surprisingly large collection of stories.

  2. Michael Walsh

    From the past, James White’s “Sector General” series. Basically a hospital in space that treats humans and non-humans. Not surprisingly, there’s a Wiki entry: . The stories are good fun puzzles.

    While I can’t comment on the “good” aspect of it, occupying a very, very small niche of dental SF there’s Piers Anthony’s “Prostho Plus” which is described in the Wiki as “follows the adventures of a prosthodontist, Dr. Dillingham who is picked up by aliens who are in need of dental work.”

  3. Andrew Porter

    There’s been a ton of medical SF, by James White—his multi-book STAR SURGEON series; Murray Leinster (MED SHIP, reprinted by Baen); and others. MDs Alan Nourse and F. Paul Wilson have also done genre stuff.

  4. [dave]

    The Patron Saint of Plagues by Barth Anderson was sort of medical SF? To my thoroughly unscientific eyes, anyway. A near future medical thriller, anyway. Although what I liked most was its premise that Mexico had become a global superpower. Although I don’t remember whether it passed muster as far as the Bechdel test or being a good representation of Mexico to a Mexican.

  5. Paul Riddell

    I have to admit that I gave up on seeing more medical science fiction when I was a kid, but a lot of that was because I practically grew up in a hospital, and what was being pitched as “medical science fiction” was usually pretty mediocre compared to the real thing. (For all of the people espousing Alan Nourse’s _The Blade Runner_, for instance, it was grand…when I was 14. I tried reading it again when I was twenty, and the BIG MESSAGE hitting me in the head over and over left me dizzy.) What I was craving in fiction, I found in nonfiction with the “The Best American Science Writing” collections from HarperCollins/Ecco. Every last one, and I’ve been purchasing them for a third of my life, is a joy, and approximately a third to a quarter of the articles reprinted in each tie to medical science. (I’ll also add that they cover veterinary science, which is even more underrepresented in SF. I still chuckle appreciatively over learning the distinct differences, veterinary medicine-speaking, between camels and horses, and how most of the research ties into the fact that female camels are the best racing camels. Apparently, a racing camel’s best racing years are also its most fertile years, so there’s a lot more to breeding thoroughbred camels than in breeding thoroughbred horses.)

    On the other hand, if I really disliked humanity, or disliked it more than normal, I’d bring up the old WB series “Mercy Point”. Calling it “ER in Space” doesn’t come close to describing how horrible this was. If you missed it, be thankful: I forced myself to watch the pilot when I was still writing for “Sci-Fi Universe,” and I’d sooner be locked in a broom closet with Bruce Sterling and Whitley Strieber than watch another one.

  6. Christian Schoon

    Re: Paul’s comment above, I can point younger readers to a forthcoming medico-SF novel that picks up on the veterinary angle. Disclaimer: it’s my book: “Zenn Scarlett,” coming from Strange Chemistry Books (the new YA imprint of Angry Robot Books), due out in May, 2013. Story follows the adventures of a 17-year-old novice exoveterinarian specializing in the treatment of large, dangerous alien animals as she works through her first year of school at the venerable Ciscan Cloister training clinic on Mars. Details… at my blog:

  7. Sylvia Engdahl

    You might be interested in my independently-published novel STEWARDS OF THE FLAME, which deals with an interstellar colony where the medical establishment is literally the government and even minor medical problems are treated by force. It presents lack of individual choice about medical issues as tyranny, and some reviewers have commented that this is all too close to the direction in which we are heading, despite the intentional exaggeration of it in the story. Implanted GPS trackers (in everyone, whether they’re sick or not) are viewed by the characters as the last straw. The book can be downloaded free this month at most major ebook retailers and a paperback edition is also available.

  8. Laer Carroll

    A more recent example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s CRYOBURN, about a world which has implemented widespread cryogenic storage for the ill or for those who want to hop into the future and keep their health. As you might expect, there are problems as well as benefits to this approach.

  9. Jenn

    Even though it was published last year, Max Berry’s MACHINE MAN was a nice gritty existential man-in-the-machine sci-fi triller, with not a small bit of medical sci-fi and body modification.

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