Science fiction author James White (1928-1999) was born in Northern Ireland and into geekdom at just the right time to discover stories about swashbuckling galactic heroes, vile green things from beyond the void, space awash with green and crimson as good and evil vie for supremacy, ray guns, ray beams, beam rays, antimatter planet missiles and weaponized suns. By the time White picked up the pen he'd had enough of that. He created Galactic Sector Twelve General Hospital. Over the following four decades it would become the centerpiece of a prolific writing career, the fuel for twelve books' worth of novels and short stories.
Sector General is a megalomaniac's vision for a space station, the best thing in multi-species medicine and xenobiological research in the known galaxy. It has employees from most of the sixty-odd sentient species of the Federation and the means to serve them all, from ordinary oxygen-breathers, through water- and chlorine-breathers, to beings of cryogenic methane who avoid direct starlight and those who are housed in reactor shielding.
This is not enough. "Known galaxy" is an oxymoron, so from time to time an exploratory vessel detects a new type of distress beacon or chances upon first contact with a world that's in trouble well over its head. Then the maintenance technicians get to find out how good they are at adapting their facilities, and the medical staff gets to find out if they can figure out the functioning (and malfunctioning, and which is which) of a sentient life-form from scratch.
No doctor can treat a patient of another species, not (emphatically not) because of a risk of cross-species contagion, but because training is no substitute for a native's experience of/in wildly different anatomy. Sector General cheats by using Educator tapes - mind-recordings that can be temporarily impressed upon other consciousnesses, gifting them with the donor's knowledge and skills. The downside is that recording is an all-or-nothing proposition: a tape transfers a copy of an entire mind. The copy has no separate self to struggle with, not that the recipient needs one to struggle upon suddenly remembering two lifetimes in entirely different bodies. Human doctors experiencing an Educator tape for the first time can be spotted in the cafeteria, eating a bland-looking sandwich with their eyes closed.BWM * High-ranked and, not coincidentally, remarkably stable beings are allowed to carry tapes for extended periods or several at the same time, opening new vistas of intuition, deduction and psychosomatic conditions. The venerable position of Senior Physician (2-4 tapes) is well bearable as long as you only drift into your own daydreams and are careful during mating seasons. Few make the jump to Diagnostician (6-10 tapes) despite the opportunity to become a living legend. Make terrible puns about multiple personality disorder at your discretion.
Power on the station lies in the hands of the Psychology Department, vital but not there for the patients. It runs the Educator system and deals with any resulting "And how many legs do you think you have today, doctor?" situations.BWM ** It is also tasked with extensive screening and monitoring of the staff to make sure that they cope with almost everyone they meet being the wrong shape; stamping out xenophobia while the laws of probability alone dictate that most people look like living nightmares to at least one other person; keeping the fear of spiders and eight-legged patients from meeting; offering traditional psychological services and, in general, making sure that dozens of varieties of healers can work together towards their one goal in some approximation of harmony.
All things in the series share two defining features. First, the aliens, creations of an imagination that never knew the words "special effects budget." Three to four dozen sentient alien species appear in the series, none of them portrayable by a man with a rubber forehead. Only two are humanoid, and both are bit players, four or eight feet tall and furred. The most popular species do tend to be oxygen-breathers with resemblance to Earth animals, but to use a flunky analogy, a game of 1000 Blank White Cards falls apart if every card tries to revolutionize the table. All bets are off with the patients.
Bizarre alien biologies are the main focus of the series. These are medical puzzle stories, typically ones where the hospital staff has to diagnose and treat a member of an unfamiliar species before it expires from its condition or from their ministrations. Some variety exists: the patient might be physically familiar but seen after a decompression accident, or in a previously unexamined stage of its life cycle, or pregnant. Nonetheless, each book has at least one newly encountered alien.
sto cop had the grace to further popularize "Doc" Smith's letter-code species classification system, retooled to make humans DBDG rather than AAAA.
Mystery-solving's position on the center stage leads to what the books are not: namely, much else. Few characterizations go beyond what's necessary for the plot, interpersonal conflict is as rare. The main character for the first six books, Dr. Conway, is short-tempered, a bit of a recluse with his own species and of course brilliant, but can still be summed up with the words "human medic." He already has his dream job and has proven himself to be stable and untroubled to get it. The staff lives without major problems, save for those presented by their cases and some matters of the heart(s). The second six books feature six different protagonists - nurse, chef, one doctor, the like - who are not deep, but they are nuanced and tend to develop as a side effect of alien-poking. These serve to season the idea-based stories without revolutionizing them into people-based ones or getting in the way. Taking credence from this statement is the fact that the two novels with genuine character arcs are my two favorites.
Second, they're doggedly, even relentlessly nice. There are no bad guys, war is considered a form of mass psychosis occasionally exhibited by backward cultures. The only antagonists are disease, injury, and whatever feelings of hostility and mistrust would keep doctors from triumphing over the former two. And triumph they shall, for ultimately we can all get along, seemingly insoluble cases are cracked, differences are overcome and everything turns out all right. Faith in humanity is an ubiquitous undercurrent. Being an undercurrent, it can't call for anything more sophisticated than generic kindness and tolerance. Being generic, it avoids having characters turn to each other and exclaim "Boy, life has sure been great since we stamped out [20th century political idea] and fed it to the dogs!" as seen in half a dozen works of your choice.
The very existence of the hospital is a demonstration of tremendous stability and cooperation, but also an effort to maintain those things by bringing beings of all kinds together to cooperate on an altruistic mission - a sort of Babylon 5 with fewer explosions. Where scifi institutions generally segregate by species, Sector General's corridors are a cacophony of two-ton nurses, treaded life support vehicles and the occasional traveler on the ceiling. Heaven help anyone who insists on finding suitable seating in the oxygen-breathers' main dining hall.
Fans of Sector General, myself included, seem to adopt a remarkably consistent attitude: they cannot quite buy into the author's optimism, but don't care.
James White spent most of his years in Belfast.
Are the stories good? I can't answer that with a straight "yes." Generally. Some complain about the short stories that make up five of the six Conway books, others claim that the seven full-length novels (each a medley of several cases) are overlong. Two short story collections rambled too long to keep my interest, one novel never caught it, and I'm a sucker for the concept. All the rest were warm fuzzy bundles of joy.
The books are one-afternoon reads of perhaps 150 paperback pages at the start of the series, 300 at the end. There's little violence, few expletives, occasional innuendo that gets interrupted at a crucial moment, and very occasional sex that doesn't go into the mechanics. Unsettling wholesomeness should not be taken to mean that there's no tension, not after the scalpels come out, or no action. Not a lot of action, but every now and then things go wrong badly enough to send people running. Penned over most of a lifetime, White's prose moves from embarassing to pleasant. He hones a dry wit to liven up mostly straight-faced stories and, conspicuously, practices not adding an adverb after every "said." His descriptions are utilitarian, there to do the job and get out without making a scene. Native English speakers will probably have no trouble with specialist terminology. Non-native ones should do fine, but one tip: an "operative field" is not futuristic technology.
Now to examine a few things in detail...
Dialogue across the language barrier is done with Translator packs, Walkman-sized devices hung from the neck or thereabouts. Translators output in monotone, can't catch nonverbal communication or idioms, and are prone to overloading in crowds.BWM *** A marvellous subversion of the usual fish-in-your-ear cop-out; at the same time, it doesn't make the characters sound any more natural when they already have that mystery story tendency to explain plot to each other when they should be acting on it.
The repetition inherent in a series' worth of see alien, fix alien seems to be consciously addressed, first by adding increasing amounts of excursions to derelict ships and plague-ridden planets, then by swapping Conway and his operating theatres to a number of different characters with their own jobs, although even the non-medics invariably get caught up in the medical malady of the week and prove instrumental in curing it. Keeping with the optimistic tone, the hospital could hire a nose piercing specialist and it would end up on the Planet of the Nasalzoids as they look for unconventional approaches to a congestion epidemic. White manages to keep from raising the stakes to absurdity or struggling for ideas, and breaks his formula on occasion.
I'd rank Sector General midway between "hard" science fiction and "soft" science fiction, with the Educator tapes dipping into what's apparently known as PFM, or Pure Magic. These old but vaguely defined boundaries separate works with limited fantastical elements that rigorously adhere to (and often showcase) modern - well - science, and works stuffed full of shrink rays and time travel because they're about future people. Not on the hard end because White handwaves in several unlikely science fiction inventions, including antigravity in all its contradictory glory, to focus more on such things as the right way to perform CPR on a giant, boneless, silver-furred caterpillar. (With gusto.) He was not a doctor or a biologist: his beasties probably couldn't fool professionals, much less have realistic evolutionary paths or proofs of viability in their ecosystems. Readers who don't believe that some hard scifi fans would expect these are encouraged to not find out. Not on the soft end because the stories set and follow plausible rules. Anything less than strong internal consistency to establish the limits of possibility would've been tantamount to equipping each alien with a Deus Ex Machina gland.
Sector General's age pushes it towards soft SF. The setting was created during the Golden Age of Science Fiction and
remained the same throughout, slowly becoming retro-futuristic as the future has changed. Thematically there are no nanoassemblers, no megacorporations and nobody gets uploaded into anything. Technologically it has that credulity-straining combination of medical scanners and starships without robotic surgery or cell phones. Prosthetics are built, never grown. Personal computers sneak in halfway through, blushing and hoping that nobody will notice. Of particular note is the existence of telepathy: it is presented as a strictly biological facility, a concept that was apparently more plausible way back when, and the series accumulates an impressive collection of ways it can go wrong. One recurring character cum giant dragonfly is an empath. His ability to sense nearby emotions is often invaluable in determining which bits are the sentient ones.
White has a curious habit of introducing his alien protagonists without so much as the number of limbs. Details of their appearances are given as they become relevant, even though this would actually justify the "As I stopped to admire myself in the mirror..." trick that some of of you won't know from bad Internet porn stories. The effect gives the imagination some nasty jolts when it's suddenly forced to correct colours or the number of mouths involved, but also forces the reader to consider the aliens as people rather than something that crawled out of a shooter game. Ursula Le Guin did something similar in her civil rights - era A Wizard of Earthsea, where she followed a tropical seafaring people for a couple hundred pages before happening to mention that they're all bl*ck.
The scarcity of details about alien protagonists might be because they were needed in exposition. White tends to put the story on hold to relate the basics of the setting. It's well that he does, since the occasions when the characters blab it to each other instead can become painful. This process is repeated in story after story - in collections, sometimes several times per book - reusing the same tired expressions far beyond their limits. There's some sense to this, as the basics are not the things to wonder at but the things to wonder through. The ability to tune out when the infodump hits is still a small but weighty advantage for a long-term reader. Worst hit is nurse/pathologist Murchison, Conway's significant other, whose physique is greeted with compliments or catcalls time after time. As her breasts keep on preceding her onto the page the overall impression sneaks away from a healthcare specialist. This is probably unintentional: even the author seems relieved when he finally gets to have a non-human protagonist see the woman as "lumpy."
On the subject of women, the series shows its age in more than an alarming lack of mirrorshades. For all the nigh-fanatical calls for tolerance, boys get to be doctors and save the day, girls have to play nurse. Apparently women are unable to let their psyches be invaded deeply enough to take an Educator tape. This is not a human peculiarity but universal, by definition a part of the maternal role of the female, much like independently evolved mammals would all still have to nurse. I was willing to dismiss this as a quirk of the author, but I also tend to be oblivious like a nihilist in a nuclear blast. More progressive and/or more female readers may be offended despite also getting better schadenfreude from White's later backpedalling.
Where should a new reader begin? No entry is necessary to understand another one, but slowly increasing levels of overarching plotlines and references to earlier works mean that the last two novels, Mind Changer and Double Contact, should also be read last. The appendix below details what spoils what. A newspaper review recommended chronological order, I recommend biting the bullet and starting halfway through, at the creatively named Sector General or Star Healer, as a good balance between quality and number of spoilers. But for those unwilling to
pir shop online, it's a seller's market.
That's Sector General. Inventive tales with no delusions of being Literature. My own relationship with the series has been a definite "Come for the entertainment, stay for the ambiance" affair, with its mood giving it re-read value well beyond what's usual for mysteries. I don't even like a quarter of the books, but find myself inordinately fond of this little corner where hard work can make everything turn out all right, vile green things from beyond the stars are friends you haven't met yet, and a six-legged pathologist can't keep any of its mouths shut about the gossip from the cryogenic methane ward.
The Appendix: A Bibliography
That's it. Unless you wish to know about specific books, you can stop reading now.
Hospital Station (1962)
Main characters: Construction worker O'Mara (DBDG), Junior Intern Conway (DBDG)
This set of five short stories is as much about healing new aliens as is everything else. Meanwhile Dr. Conway is introduced as a naive jerk who gets it beaten out of him in varyingly literal ways to become the familiar healomatic. O'Mara is introduced as a high-functioning jerk who's best off that way.
I mainly recommend this for historical interests to those who started with later books, much like the first two books in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. The first Conway story was published in a scifi magazine only because it needed something to fill up pages, and this shows. The practice of hiding the solution beforehand not just from colleagues but from the reader is rampant. Thankfully, "Quick! We must do something completely insane based on a hunch I had! No time to explain!" wanes in later installments.
The formative status of the series at the time of Hospital Stationis apparent in the way things are subtly wrong. Aliens have different numbers of legs or carry symbionts that disappear later, the pacifism is a bit less established, telepathy is mentioned as a tool rather than a happy accident that's far too unreliable to harness systematically, et cetera.
Star Surgeon (1963)
Senior Physician Conway
I long swung between liking and disliking this book before settling on amiability. The writing is crude compared to later installments, but the plot works. Star Surgeon is what's apparently called a "fix-up novel", multiple stories written separately and stitched together, but the scars are not bad enough to be unsightly so the overall impression is closer to a full-length story with a detachable prologue.
The first story is a delightful little medical jaunt. The second, much longer one has WAR. There's not much else to say without giving away the plot, but the story manages to remain faithful to the themes of the series, and the way warfare fits into the setting makes for interesting reading - just not something that one would want to see in it more often.
More progressive and/or more female readers grumble about this book in particular.
Major Operation (1971)
Senior Physician Conway
Ambulance Ship (1979)
Senior Physician Conway
Some editions have the story "Spacebird," others have a recap that spoils it.
It's a space wreck extravaganza with the introduction of the first multispecies rescue vessel. Commisioned after Sector General turned out to achieve succesful first contacts faster than the actual first contact specialists, and named after one of the greatest figures in the history of medicine, the Rhabwar is stationed at the hospital with a team of rescue specialists led by Guess Who.
The ambulance ship's introduction is a clear attempt to bring variety and expand the setting. Unfortunately this is done by having the characters explain the ship to each other in excruciating detail. With the most ambitious (and by far the most contrivedBWM ****) story already spoiled for me by Star Healer, "Spacebird" was the only story that I got into.
Sector General (1985)
MacEwan (Human DBDG), Grawlya-Ki (Orligian DBDG), Senior Physician Conway
Spoilers for "Tableau", a short story that shares the universe but not the hospital
I have yet to fully read this one. The first story of four, an origin tale, was a lot of fun and I look forward to tearing through the rest.
Star Healer (1985)
Probationary Big D Conway
Spoilers for Ambulance Ship
Code Blue - Emergency (1987)
Nurse Cha Thrat (DNCF)
Spoilers for Star Surgeon, Ambulance Ship, Star Healer
The Genocidal Healer (1991)
Former Surgeon-Captain Lioren (BRLH)
Spoilers for Hospital Station, Major Operation, Ambulance Ship, Star Healer, Code Blue - Emergency
Lioren was a being of honor, plus an ambitious, obsessive genius by Sector General standards. His obsession was what led him to act as he did on the biggest case of his career, and his sense of honor what led him to act as prosecutor in his own court martial.
The first fourth or so of the book is an extendent flashback, an ordinary medical puzzle save for its ending. After it catches up, Lioren is forced to cope with living and the plot goes on to touch euthanasia, morality, religion - if it wasn't for the excellent alien patient introduced late on, this novel would be completely out of character.
The Genocidal Healer is the one Sector General book that takes effort to read. This is not meant as a criticism.The Egyptian, a brick-sized life story of a royal physician to the Heretic Pharaoh, may blow minds for a living but it's still not something that one snatches off the shelf on a whim. Being slightly in awe of this installments, I can't give an impartial opinion about it. It's unlikely to cause such flabbergastedness in those who do not share my passion with the small sub-genre of weird creatures walking around and chatting, but in that field it rivals 1/0.
The Galactic Gourmet (1996)
Chief Dietician Gurronsevas (FGLI)
Spoilers for Ambulance Ship, Code Blue - Emergency, The Genocidal Healer
So much for depth. Clearly not satisfied with ambient weirdness levels, White goes on to introduce a worlds-class chef with visions for Sector General's meals. This might be the quirkiest scifi premise since Jack Vance's quite literal Space Opera (1965).
The best laid plans of six-legged gargants, and all that. The first half of the book is a tour de farce through the challenges familiar settings and species present to catering, 'challenges' here used in both the 'opportunity' sense and the 'making you wish that you'd thought of flammability three seconds earlier' sense. Prime worldbuilding material for old readers, but presumably not many newcomers will want to start by reading about hospital food.
At the halfway mark, the plot gets caught up in a convenient alien-saving effort and actually loses steam as the exploration and solving a few true natures involved proves to be nice, but nothing that you'll remember reading after a month.
Final Diagnosis (1997)
Patient Hewlitt (DBDG)
Spoilers for Star Surgeon, The Genocidal Healer
This is my idea of how not to do a Sector General novel. The main character's human biology is just not as interesting as extraterrestrial weirdness, and the way this particular bit of human biology acts xenophobic and rather snooty fails to endear the rest of him. The plot is obvious to those who've read an earlier story and gives it away for those who haven't. There was no stupid grin at the end. There's a lot of socializing in Final Diagnosis, so on the shaky basis of good Amazon.com reviews it's possible that I missed the people while looking for the freaks.
This is the point where continuity errors between books start reappearing: the author, a lifelong diabetic, was losing his sight.
Mind Changer (1998)
Chief Psychologist O'Mara (DBDG)
Spoilers for everything
Double Contact (1999)
Diagnostician Prilicla (GLNO)
Spoilers for everything
"As You Know" expospeak. Freaky alien sex. Expospeak during freaky alien sex without so much as a hint that it is an aphrodisiac. Exotic beings. Deceptive environments. Dangerous misunderstandings and understandings. Breakthroughs, rescues, reconciliation and hope. Double Contact is as generic as a Sector General novel can be, so it should draw the same reaction as the series as a whole.
It seems like a pity to have a series which lasted slightly longer than Star Trek end on another stock tale, instead of an epic that would've brought characters past and present together with the heroes of a thousand worlds for one last challenge that blah blah blah blah. On the other hand, White had to have been running out of creative ways to mutilate the hospital and a planetary catastrophe or interstellar plague would've defeated the point of science fiction with a murder deficit. If the nostalgia trip of the previous novel is a wrap-up, then this one is an epilogue that ends the series in the best way possible: by showing that Sector General remains, and the dozens of varieties of healers on it continue their work.
Not collected in any of the above are the Sector General short story Countercharm as well as three or four stories that share the setting but not the hospital. If those are counted as part of the series, it accounts for slightly less than half of his production. The only one of his other works that I've read in its entirety is The Watch Below, a fairly self-indulgent look into how life could survive in unlikely scifi circumstances, seasoned with the familiar theme of joining hands and singing kumbayah. It drew out the stupid grin. The novel gets bonus points for having a space journey where, after things initially go Wrong, all major problems are caused by people being people and not by the destabilization of the interocitoric warp matrix or a positive feedback loop in the turboencabulator. Second Ending and the Irish steampunk novel The Silent Stars Go By seem to be held in high regard.
Related works: If you want to have completely original ideas, develop schizophrenia. Other authors than White have written medical science fiction before, during and after the times of Sector General, though none have done so as extensively. One list***** features hundreds of entries but seems accept anything remotely connected with health. Here's what I've heard of:
* Dr. Alan Nourse: Star Surgeon, with no relation to the one above but with an actual doctor behind it.
* Murray Leinster: The Med Service series.
* S. L. Viehl: The Stardoc series, which seems to be fairly occupied with CHARACTER DRAMA.
* Michael Reeves and Steve Perry: Battle Surgeons and Jedi Healer, Star Wars meets M*A*S*H. Obligatory quote:
"...I've had extensive medical programming, including access to the database files of Sector Gen-"
* Piers Anthony: Prostho Plus. Dentists IN SPACE! Seems highly regarded.
* ?: Mercy Point, a ridiculously obscure TV series circa 1998 that did not survive halfway through the first season. Nine episodes were made.
* L. Ron Hubbard: Can get bent.
* The main website, apparently by the people White used to beat in Space Invaders. The thing probably has more information about White than the rest of the Internet combined, and was a massive help despite its horrible, horrible habit of converting quotes into present tense.
* Wikipedia article
* TV Tropes Wiki article (SPOILERS)
* Demo of Descent: Freespace, an unrelated space combat game that uses the same translation convention and makes it awesome in a way that might not be conveyed by text.
* The James White Short Story award
* "Sci-fi visionary White operated in universe of optimism"
* "'Double Contact' Gives Dose of Old Medicine"
* Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Sector General, and now we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel.
* A bit of nifty blog stuff
With thanks to The Custodian and GhettoAardvark, unless they'd rather not be associated with this.