“The Adventures of Terra Tarkington” by Sharon Webb is a book with great
promise, but with somewhat flawed executuon. Reading it, one immediately
knows this is something special, something worthy of greater
exploration, but at the same time you find yourself struggling through
some of it weaker points.
The book features the story of a newly minted nurse in the Interstellar Nurses Corps and how she stumbles into adventure and love along the way — but don’t worry, this book is far less a love story and far more a
comedic sci-fi adventure.
After looking at a few reviews of the book online, it became immediately clear where “The Adventures of Terra Tarkington” went off the tracks.
The original version of this novel was told in a series of short stories in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. It was only later that the stories were collected for book form and a story interlinking them was added by
Sharon Webb. (I assume) She then tinkered with a few things here and there in each of the short stories to make them work together.
It was this added story that proved to be the book’s undoing, mostly because it’s so easy to skip over and still thoroughly enjoy the stories of Terra’s misadventures.
Before we get too far, here’s what the back of the dust jacket has to say about “The Adventures of Terra Tarkington”:
Meet Terra Tarkington, member in good standing of the Interstellar Nurses Corps. She joined up to aid her fellow beings and see the universe. But she got a little more than she bargained for when her first assignment took her all the way to the Bull Run. She’s having some trouble adjusting to a steady diet of tuberoid muck-suckers and operating alongside of giant cockroaches: even after Dr. Scott (handsome,
intelligent HUMAN Dr, Brian-Scott) joins the hospital staff, her life on the Bull Run just seems to consist of one glitch piled on top of another. Of course, what Terra doesn’t know is that she’s become a pawn in an intergalactic game of spy-vs-spy between the Galactic Intelligence Agency (GIA) and the dreaded KBG. And before the game ends, she and her
dear Dr. Brian-Scott will find themselves hurtling between the stars with the fate of the entire universe resting literally in their hands!
Come. Meet one of the most loveable, laughable heroines in this or any other galaxy. Join in her astonishing adventures as she sets out to make the universe a safer, healthier and far more hilarious place to live in. She is out to heal the universe, and steal your heart.
WHAT WENT WRONG
The book is presented as a fully fleshed out novel, when in fact it is a series of short stories that revolve around Terra’s efforts to learn about the denizens of the universe and what happens to them when they are sick. Those stories are pitch perfect.
The problem lies in the effort to interconnect them and create an over-arching plot. This plot is previewed in the back cover information: Two spy agencies are using Terra and her friends to do their bidding and — depending on which side they’re on — create an intergalactic incident or keep everything fine.
The ultimate problem then is that all the passages involving the spy agencies could be completely redacted and you’ll have a remarkably charming collection of short stories.
Adding to this issue is just how hard it is to comprehend the actions the two agencies are taking against one another, who’s doing what and why.
Part of this is the fault of the fact that Sharon Webb opts to juggle so many characters in this side story and several have very similar names (which made it hard for me to follow).
The convoluted plot simply muddies the water for the Terra stories since the people in the “spy agency” plot rarely interact with those in the Terra plots.
In fact, the early “spy agency” plots nearly made me toss the book aside in frustration. I didn’t though, and for that I am truly thrilled, because what’s left after the “spy agency” plots is something wonderful.
Further some plot points created in the framing story should certainly be part of the main plot, and that generates a problem for the main plot. What I’m referring to is so-called “button computers,” which are little, badge-sized computers a person can wear and are utilized excessively by one of the spies in the framing story. The problem lies in the fact that if Terra had a few button computers of her own, she would have been able to avoid many of the mistakes she makes treating her patients. That of course would have made for far less exciting stories featuring our heroine.
But wait, don’t even let that complaint stop you from reading, because I liked a lot of “The Adventures of Terra Tarkington.” Heck, I even liked the button computers idea. Read on to learn more …
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The one word to describe this book is “charming,” at least the parts featuring Terra. Even the non-“nursing crisis” sections have some entertaining aspects about them, but without a doubt, Terra Tarkington steals the show (which is a good thing since the book’s named after her).
Author Sharon Webb creates an entertaining character in Terra, and one that you don’t see too often in Sci-Fi. She is every bit a the character in a soap opera — at least in her own mind. Her journals, letters to friends and nursing reports show her penchant for melodrama, dreams of a star-crossed romance and general disdain for immoral behavior. Ball all that up together, add in the hospital setting and you have the perfect star of a daytime drama.
Dropping such a character into a sci-fi backdrop creates something totally new. We’ve seen all sorts of fish-out-of-water characters deposited into this type of setting before, but bringing a Romance Comic nurse into a semi-serious sci-fi setting is truly inspired.
More importantly, Sharon Webb, a former nurse herself, has some amazing ideas on what to do with her nurse. First off, unlike Star Trek’s semi-famous nurse, Nurse Chapel, Terra Tarkington very much takes matters into her own hands. She makes big decisions and big mistakes that help to propel the plot and keep her at the center of the action. Poor Nurse Chapel, well, she was just window dressing for the most part.
Where Webb stumbles with her ability to describe things, she excels at coming up with inventive ideas. The badge-sized button computers are a good example. In the book, one of the characters uses his set of button computers to help him with “sorting” data and analyzing strategy. The buttons are programmed with their own personalities too, just to help people work with them a little easier.
Another effort Webb undertakes is creating aliens with truly unique physiologies. Instead of relying on human characteristics that can express emotions, one alienrace expresses joy, anger, frustration, fear and indifference with the particular curve of their nose flaps. And she doesn’t just mention them once or twice, Webb uses those nose-flap emotions thoroughly and with great effect. You never know exactly how a nose flap looks, but you know what each little ripple in it means.
Webb also has a lot of fun exploring what a human thinks is normal and how that’s different. In one story (see the Audio Drama below), she mistakenly cures a creature of its ESPer organ simply because she doesn’t recognize a swollen paw for what it is. In more than one instance, the Interstellar Nurses Corps and the doctors of the galaxy find themselves completely baffled by a medical mystery that we, as humans, have already cured. But rather than taking that for granted, Webb unspools a great yarn about trial and error in the art of xenobiology.
Speaking of aliens, Webb throws around at least a half-dozen races into the book. There’s the lizard people. There’s the bug people. There’s the nose-flap people. There’s the cyborgs. There’s even a few strange plants tossed in, just for good measure.
It’s truly important to note that Webb handles the book with wit and humor. Her soap-opera hero has just the pluck to keep us reading. Even the framing story, which is quite needlessly tacked on, shares the humor — it’s a story of spies trying to gain the higher ground, and just how low they’ll sink to get there.
In short, “The Adventures of Terra Tarkington” is a book worth reading, but just be warned that you’ll struggle through some parts — particularly the first 50 pages or so. In the end, you’ll be glad you read it and wish that Webb had brought Terra back for another go. You’ll finish the last page wanting more.
BEYOND THE BOOK
The potential of Terra Tarkington is clear.
She’s funny, likeable and no-doubt beautiful, so you can’t help but wonder what would a Terra Tarkington TV series be like? Or a comic book? Since it’s an episodic story, a movie wouldn’t do it justice, but a serialized continuation would be wonderful.
In comics, you’d want an artist with the ability to show Terra’s wide range of (mostly) comedic emotions. The artist would have a ball developing new and strange aliens for her to encounter. Following Sharon Webb’s lead, the stranger the alien, the better the story would be. A comics writer would need to find a way to extrapolate the issues of earth-creature health and well-being to alien physiology and psychiatry.
In a TV show, you’d need an comedic actress, a hunky man to play the love interest and a decent budget to help build the host of aliens.
And while I wasn’t too fond of the framing sequence, the ideas Webb laid out in them are interesting enough to salvage and develop into a more-solid side plot. Yes, Terra should be caught up in a spy network, it just needs to be done better this time around.
BONUS! CHECK OUT THE AUDIO DRAMA
Further, check out the audio dramatization of one of the short stories from the Atlanta Radio Theater Company by going here: Terra Tarkington, Interstellar Nurses’ Corps: Switch on the Bull Run
I have to say, the actress performing the Terra role captures her perfectly.
Buy copies of Sharon Webb’s The Adventures of Terra Tarkington.
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