Book Review: James White – Dark Inferno (aka “Lifeboat”)

Bibliographic details at Sector General website.

James White is probably best known for his Sector General stories, but his long and varied career included quite a variety of sf, and this is a nice example of the other material. It’s hard sf with beautifully drawn characters and social background, a combination which is rarer than I’d like.

The story is set in the relatively near future, during the time of colonisation of the solar system. Mercer reports to his first post as a ship’s medical officer, on board a passnger ship bound from Earth to the Jovian colonies. To the passengers he has status as a crew member. In reality the medical officer is considered no more than a glorified steward by the rest of the crew, because that is normally all his job entails on a ship whose passengers are carefully screened for medical problems. But this trip is different, because the unthinkable happens as Mercer puts the passengers through their orientation lectures — a genuine and very dangerous accident, requiring everyone to take to the lifeboat capsules before the ship’s reactor explodes. Now Mercer has to do the part of the job nobody ever expected to be needed — he has to try to keep the passengers not just alive but sane as they drift in three person plastic bubbles, with no prospect of rescue for several days. Tempers fray as conditions in the pods grow ever more hellish, and Mercer has nothing but a radio channel and a psych manual to help him keep people under control…

The description of the space flight itself is excellent, with some very nice touches such as the scene where Mercer is instructing the passengers how to manually orientate their pods so that they can use the one shot motor to regroup at the designated meeting point. It creates a very believable picture of what might be a real journey. But along with the hard sf there is an interesting plot and superb character building, beginning with Mercer himself, and then gradually introducing the crew and some of the passengers. Most of the book is from Mercer’s perspective, but once the main characters are established there are occasional sections from the points of view of other characters, showing the psychological effects of both the unpleasant and worsening physical conditions, and the fear that the rescue ship will not arrive in time. The developing emotional relationship between Mercer and a young widow and her son is particularly nicely done. It’s clear at the end of the book that with time they’ll probably become romatically involved, but White never pushes the pace of the relationship beyond what’s plausible in the situation he describes.

There’s some quiet commentary on various social issues of the time this book was published (1972) which are still relevant today. This ability to slip in social commentary without resorting to blatant preaching was one of White’s strengths as a writer.

An excellent book, and well worth seeking out.