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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Hospital Ship

Martin Bax

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To purchase The Hospital Ship

Title: The Hospital Ship
Author: Martin Bax
Genre: Novel
Written: 1976
Length: 219 pages
Availability: The Hospital Ship - US
The Hospital Ship - UK
The Hospital Ship - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : formally interesting dystopian variation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 5/8/1976 Martyn Goff
Sunday Telegraph . 4/12/1977 Selina Hastings
Sunday Times . 11/7/1976 Jill Neville
TLS D 9/7/1976 Michael Mason

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book has many analogies with a major piece of music (.....) It as echoes of Camus's Plague and hence is brilliant, shocking (in the right way) and absolutely not for the squeamish." - Martyn Goff, Daily Telegraph

  • "Brilliant but grotesque allegory about, I suppose, the end of the world" - Selina Hastings, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The book would have been even more interesting if it had concentrated entirely on this remarkable event. Instead there is such a plethora of arbitrary information that it ends less like a novel than an unsorted out-tray." - Jill Neville, Sunday Times

  • "It soon becomes clear that Hospital Ship is not a novel to be read for its imaginative content but only for its technique and doctrine. (...) Technically the most unusual and intriguing feature of the novel is its deployment of other texts (.....) As I see it, Martin Bax is trying by this method to depersonalize his utterance (.....) Literary crudeness follows in the wake of this tired didacticism -- chiefly in the book's astoundingly elementary symbolic arrangements." - Michael Mason, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Hopeful is the: "big atomic-powered hospital ship" of the title, plying the high seas in a near-future that has seen an indeterminate catastrophe visited upon the world. Occasional news from the world at large filters through or is picked up, but the exact state of things remains always unclear:

     Sometimes the information that was thus collected seemed to suggest that business was much as usual all over the world, while at other times the suggestion was that total collapse had already occurred. But whether there had been a war, a new plague or what, Euan was unable to assess.
       The ship docks at various points across the world, and some of those on board venture on land where some communities continue to function, in some -- sometimes even almost normal -- form while others seem to have almost completely vanished. Stray patients and clusters of them are picked up, but they tend to have no history they can relate; the state of the world remains baffling, and it seems almost impossible to figure out the causes behind all these effects. Basically:
     It's all in a seething confusing mess, a lot of people are sick and ill. Very few people are really healthy. There's plenty of work to do.
       If the function of the ship is reasonably clear, it nevertheless remains something of a mystery-ship. But, for example: "whoever converted this ship knew we was going to have bodies" -- and Euan gets to see where they are kept; it's: "the largest morgue he'd ever been in", with three thousand bodies and counting.
       Word, of any sort, from anywhere, is rare (if not unheard of); radio transmissions are intermittent -- and not always helpful when received: passing near South Africa, the only station they receive:
was broadcasting over and over again obscenities and swearwords in Afrikaans. The sequences were never repeated in exactly the same order but were interspersed with short abusive speeches addressed to the Kaffirs. The listeners decided the messages were being generated by a computer.
       At one point, there is more radio-activity, and one message comes to predominate, understood as: 'They're using us.' That is not the message being transmitted, as the ship-travelers learns when they go ashore in Gibraltar to investigate. As they realize:
     'Yes,' said Sir Maximov, who was up on deck breathing deeply the fresh morning air, 'they were telling us about a disease process and we didn't recognize it. We ought to have done, it's been well known for years.'
     'What disease ?' said Euan.
     'The crucifixion disease,' said Sir Max, 'it can start in early infancy.'
       The crucifixion disease is exactly what it sounds like -- though less disease than pathology. But in this unsettled world there is little remaining sense of normality; so too aboard the ship psychological trauma seems more consequential and widespread among the patients than physical ailments (though also manifesting itself as these).
       The story focuses on several of those assigned to the ship, specifically the doctors, as well as several of the patients and their distinctive issues, patients such as those known as: 'V. The Girl from Saigon', 'Coma', 'The Man from the West'. One of the doctors, Euan, is the central figure, and much of the story follows him, giving some sense of conditions and the activity on this enormous floating hospital. Other medical professionals include new addition Sir Maximov Flint, whose 'Maximov therapy' is a labor-intensive, very hands-on from of erotic therapy (that, however, doesn't always get the expected rise or indeed much of any reaction out of some of these patients). There's also another psychiatrist aboard, Kline -- who had brought with him his most famous patient, Coma. His solution to patients being weighed down by worry is a 'Million Year Theory':
He maintained that patients were only anxious, depressed or whatever it was because they felt there was no end to their troubles. What you had to do was to take them forward a million years. He asked patients: 'What will anyone feel about your problem in a million years ?'
     'There is only one answer to that question -- nothing,' said Kline. When you had established that, all you had to do then was close the gap between now and the future -- a million years hence. Then the patients could say, if nobody's going to worry then, why worry now ?
       The Hospital Ship is not, however, simply a straightforward narrative of these adventures on the oceans in this semi-post-apocalyptic world. Interspersed in the novelistic narrative that follows the characters on the ship and on land are page-long excerpts from other texts -- textbooks, history, commentary. (A bibliography at the end of the book lists the references.) They cover a variety of subject matter -- though several do dominate: information about earliest childhood, from giving birth to infant-care; commentary on the corporate-capitalist system, with a focus on stock-market business; the shadow of the American experience in Viet Nam, in the form of texts related to South East Asia (as also the ship itself travels to the region -- Bax interestingly opting to throw a fictional country into the mix, "Mois, which lies between South Vietnam and Laos"). Both the outside texts and the activity on board often involve psychology (and psychopathology), often in conjunction with the sexual.
       The documentary bits -- often lengthy -- do not always obviously complement the story itself, but it gives that narrative an interesting texture -- not least in, like the text itself, sometimes seeming almost to ramble on beyond the essential or obvious points. Additional quotes are woven into the regular narrative as well, in a text of (not quite free-)association. Bax's medical background -- he is a doctor -- very overtly informs the novel, and if the conditions of the characters, including several of the patients being treated aboard the Hopeful, are treated in ways that seem ... medically unlikely, the conditions and the treatments are founded in the real situations (from personal to global-political) Bax diagnoses in the world around (so also here with the still almost completely raw engagement with the experiences of the Viet Nam war). Fiction allows him to expand on what the limits of real-world application (with Bax particularly -- though far from solely -- interested in earliest childhood development and its consequences).
       With its references to and quotes from J.G.Ballard, The Hospital Ship is very much a work of fiction of its time and a certain school (of mid-70s British fiction). Both the Viet Nam war and the economic crises of those times (with its particular British malaise) strongly color the fiction, but Bax's dystopian (and/but purposefully vague) vision of what has become of the world make for a novel that still is in many ways relevant fifty years later; reading it in coronavirus-hit 2020 the similarities to present-day conditions are all too easily found. (The psychology, like much 1970s psychology, has, however, aged less well -- but it does make for an amusing blast-from-the past.)
       An odd and not necessarily easily accessible book, The Hospital Ship is primarily formally interesting -- it is, in the way outside material is used, an unusual variation on the semi-documentary novel -- but also beyond that of some interest in its vision and story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 June 2020

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The Hospital Ship: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Martin Bax was born in 1933.

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© 2020 the complete review

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