Lifeboat by James White
Review by Thomas F. (hardtack)
It was not just another drill. The spaceship’s nuclear reactor started to overheat. The passengers had just minutes to abandon ship. Now the passengers are scattered all over space, their small rescue pods out of sight from one another. Due to the rush, families often did not escape in the same pods. Some of the pods are overcrowded, while some have just one person in them. All the pods are transparent, and space is a big, empty, dark and scary place.
The first couple of days the excitement of the situation keeps everyone occupied. Then the boredom and the problems creep in. Personality conflicts, the perceived lack of air and ‘taste’ of recycled water, the heat generated by human bodies, food that does not satisfy, all begin to put the passengers on edge. Sexual attractions, some unwanted, arise in pods that cannot handle the heat generated. People starting bickering with each other, then the bickering turns to hate. Some passengers start fighting each other.
The few officers, all of whom are in their own pods, are absorbed with the technical problems of rescue and a nuclear pile that might explode before the destroyed ship is out of range of the rescue pods. Mercer, the ship’s medical officer on his very first cruise, is also in his own pod; and now his job is to control the passengers in sixteen other pods he cannot even see. But, despite the instruction manuals, in all the short history of space travel no one has ever done this before. Sounds like fun? It gets better. The captain is injured and sedated, and the first officer, who apparently hates Mercer’s guts, is in charge. And a 10-year-old boy, alone in his own pod, who tries to be a spaceman, but sometimes cries for his mother, looks to Mercer for help.
Meanwhile, company executives are trying to decide if it is worth the money to send a rescue ship for people who are probably going to die anyway. And in the pods, the air is starting to run out.
This absorbing sci-fi thriller from a completely different perspective will not bore you.
James White is the respected author of a number of other ‘medicine in space’ sci-fi novels in his Sector General series.