The novel “Lifeboat” by James White was published for the first time in 1972.
Doctor Mercer is Eurydice’s new ship doctor and his first voyage looks boring because the ship’s safety is absolute. The only problems seem to be in establishing a relationship with the passengers and even more so with the officers, who consider him a glorified steward.
On the route to Ganymede, a problem is detected in one of the nuclear reactors that power the Eurydice. The captain is injured during an intervention on the reactor, which at that point becomes impossible to shut down. As a result, the order is given to abandon ship, and Mercer finds himself trying to help the passengers from afar after they scatter among the lifeboats.
James White is best known for his Sector General story series set on a space station used as the basis for a sort of space red cross, neutral and ready to treat the injured and the sick of any species. This series represents the synthesis of the author’s passions, as he wanted to study medicine but had to give up because his family couldn’t afford to pay for his studies. Passionate about science fiction, he wrote many stories in which medicine was central to the plot.
In the case of “Lifeboat”, the protagonist is a doctor who takes service on the spaceship Eurydice. Safety in space travel is the top priority, so Mercer is explicitly told that he’s considered a glorified steward. Basically, his job is to lecture passengers on safety and to help those who feel sick during periods of weightlessness. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be if there weren’t an absolutely unforeseen emergency.
The first part of the novel is used by James White to introduce Dr. Mercer and, through his eyes, Eurydice’s captain and first officer and some passengers. Everything seems very quiet on the journey and the problems of the passengers are trivial. Things change when a problem is detected in one of the reactors that power the Eurydice, caused by an error that seems almost impossible.
Despite the plot that reminds of a disaster movie, “Lifeboat” isn’t exactly a fast-paced action novel. The abandonment of the ship is frenzied because the passengers are scared, but it’s made clear that it will take time for the failed reactor to explode, so there’s no need to rush to the lifeboats. The pace becomes quite quick mainly because the novel is really short by today’s standards, with the consequence that events follow one another quickly.
The story of the Eurydice shipwreck is in many ways the story of how Mercer tries to take care of the passengers by talking to them over the radio. With him, there’s only the Eurydice captain, who is sedated most of the time so as not to aggravate the injuries sustained during the intervention on the failing reactor.
The tension of the story is given by the reactions of the passengers to their situation. They have to stay in lifeboats scattered in space so far from each other that it’s very difficult for the doctor to rescue someone. It’s a situation that must continue until another spaceship arrives to rescue them, they have limited supplies and oxygen, and their presence increases the heat within the lifeboats.
“Lifeboat” is not a story of heroism by the protagonists because James White tried to offer a realistic story about the problems following an accident in space. Above all, the reactions of ordinary people are developed, and they may not be good people, and of the ship’s doctor who must try to help them. If you’re interested in a story with these characteristics, I recommend this novel.