This is a summary and review of The Unknown Shore by Donald Malcolm.
I found this little science fiction paperback (191 pages) in the bargain section of a used book store. It was published in 1976 and is the 19th book published in a series by Lazer Books.
The book is very much a product of its time, with stereotypical sexist depictions of women’s roles and cultural norms. However it could have been a very interesting book if it had stuck to its main premise, instead of introducing the weirdest and dumbest plot device I have ever encountered in a sci-fi novel.
The book starts off well enough. There is a war between an Earth and an alien enemy, which no one has ever seen in person despite supposedly fighting them for years in space and on the ground on various contested planets. The Terrans and the unnamed Enemy are fighting over one contested solar system. They have established a hospital on a planetoid behind the front lines which is caring for casualties evacuated from the main battle zone. So far so good; that actually makes sense.
Suddenly the medical personnel receive word that the battle has been lost and all Earth forces must evacuate the system immediately. The medical staff have only one ship and a few hours to load up all of the casualties and get out of there before the Aliens come and destroy the base. The problem — and this is where it gets weird — is that there is not enough room for all of the patients who are convalescing at the base. But they do have some freezers that could be used to put them in suspended animation, except that there isn’t enough room in these freezers either.
So what to do? Do they draw lots and leave some of their people behind? No of course not. They choose the only logical solution, which is to amputate all of the legs and arms of their patients so they can jam them all into the freezers and get away. Because that is what you do when aliens are coming to blast you to smithereens.
To be fair, the Terrans are in possession of some sort of growth hormone that will allow the patients to regrow their limbs once they get to a better medical facility, though the process is not perfect and some may never regain their limbs. Still, desperate times call for a sharp saw and so the doctors get busy chopping off limbs and once done they stuff their newly compact patients into the freezers and then run like hell. They are just in time because as soon as they leave the base, and are about to jump to warp space, an Enemy ship comes into view and fires on the earth vessel.
The earth vessel is damaged but manages to jump to warp. Unfortunately the discharge of energy at the point of warp propels the Earth vessel in a completely unknown direction and causes them to make the longest jump ever. They emerge far from the battle, on the actual edge of the galaxy. They have just enough engines left to make it to a nearby star, the Unknown Shore, and land on the only habitable planet.
In a nod to realism, the new planet is no paradise or second Earth. The environment is somewhat hostile and there is a lot of volcanism, the water is foul, and the forest and skies hold dangers. But once again the amputation plot device rears its head.
There are 200 men and women on the planet, but a lot fewer arms and legs. They have to figure out what to do with the amputees. They only have a bit of the re-growth serum and not enough to go around. Do they draw lots? Do they pick the ones who can contribute the most to the colony? No, of course not. They do the only logical thing which is to give each of the patients one arm or one leg just so they can sort of look after themselves. The idea is the one with the arm will help the one with the leg, and vice versa.
There are some twists like a mutiny by crewmen who don’t think that the colony should squander its meager food supplies on the patients, and a few crewmen get taken by giant flying birds, and a cancer-causing tree looks like it might hold the key to making the re-growth hormone, so maybe everyone will get their limbs back after all, but these issues are never fully developed.
In the end, the area’s volcanic activity forces the humans to abandon their ship and move to safer ground. They carry what possessions they can and their limbless patients into the forest. As they journey, the patients can be heard singing some optimistic song suggesting that they are going to make it and that this colony of humans will survive, though they will never see Earth again.
I have to give the author credit for having disabled characters. It is not something you commonly see in science fiction, but mass amputations so you can fit people in a stasis chamber? WTF.
VERDICT: Read it for the unintentional humor created by the bizarre plot device.