By Cheryl Morgan
I’ve been making a lot of mention recently about the fine job that Pyr, the new major US SF publisher, is doing to bring good UK writers to the attention of the American public. But in order to establish themselves Pyr also needs to find new writers, presumably Americans. They picked up Fiona Avery from the comics business, but who else is out there? San Francisco-based writer Michael Blumlein had got a number of award nominations for his short fiction and has won a Readercon Award for his collection, The Brains of Rats. He has also had a horror novel made into a movie. Pyr has opted to publish his new SF novel, The Healer.
Blumlein is not a full time writer. He also teaches medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that his novel is about medical ethics. His SF setting postulates a planet on which humans live alongside a related species, the Grotesques. As you might guess, they are not pretty to look at but some of them have an almost magical ability to draw sickness out of a patient, sometimes excreting it as an angry lump through a special organ in their chests. Most Grotesques live poor and unremarkable lives in a ghetto city, but those tested at puberty and found to have the healing skill are forcibly drafted to serve their human masters for the good of all society.
Our hero, the rather obviously named Payne, is of course a superb healer. We first meet him at his first job out of college, working in a remote mining town. He soon learns a few valuable lessons in life, including that some guys would rather stay sick than have to be hugged by a doctor, that if you are poor enough you might be prepared to trade your health for money, and that no matter how good you are at healing you can still screw up through overconfidence.
From there Payne moves to a major city, where he learns a whole new set of lessons, most of them to do with the position of grotesques in society. He briefly becomes a member of a revolutionary cadre. But in the end, as we might have predicted, he ends up at Rampart, the healer HQ, where he learns far more than he probably wanted to know about politics and about his own species’ place in the world.
You may have guessed from this that The Healer is a very deliberate book. It has a point to make (well, lots of points actually) and pretty much everything that happens to Payne in his life is designed to illustrate one or other of those points. It feels very much like he is a puppet being moved this way and that by the dictates of the book’s argument. The book is also quite slow. You won’t find anything in the way of exciting fight scenes, torrid sex, or indeed much at all to get the blood pumping, because The Healer is not that type of book.
What it is instead is a very thoughtful book, and I am not in the least bit surprised that it comes with glowing recommendations from authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula Le Guin. It also has good characterization, so although the plot can seem a little artificial at times you still think you are reading about real people. If you like your SF to major on social issues then I can warmly recommend this book to you. If, on the other hand, you are looking for hard science, or for pulsating action, then The Healer is probably not for you.