Tales of Sector General (Sector General, #9-11)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

This omnibus collects the penultimate three volumes of the Sector General series – The Galactic Gourmet, Final Diagnosis and Mind Changer. These three books continue White’s theme in his later books of getting away from Sector General itself in one form or another.

The first deals with the arrival at the hospital of Gurronsavas, the greatest chef in the galaxy, (a Tralthan FGLI) to become the chief dietitian. The first half or so has Gurronsavas settling into life at Sector General and finding interesting ways to make the food better for some of the more exotic life forms. Obviously, things go horribly wrong, and in the second half, he’s hiding out on the ambulance ship Rhabwar and involved in trying to help a fallen civilisation on a planet that mostly refuses help. This book continues the fine James White tradition of having aliens as protagonists and very few humans, something which I’ve always enjoyed (I’m still tickled pink by the description of Pathologist Murchison, described in detail in earlier books as a particularly voluptuous woman, as the one with yellow fur on its head and the ridiculous, functionless protrusions growing from the front of its thorax).

Final Diagnosis is the first Sector General book to be told from the point of view of a patient. The patient also happens to be an Earth human and starts of as quite xenophobic – something that the inhabitants (both staff and patients) of the hospital soon wean him off. There’s much more of a medical mystery about this one, and it involves the patient having to work with staff, going right up to diagnostician level (Conway from the earlier books gets a walk-on part here) to figure out his illness.

The final book, Mind Changer is the one that I’m most ambivalent about. The protagonist here is O’Mara, Sector General’s irascible chief psychologist. I always enjoyed O’Mara’s appearances in previous books, but I didn’t necessarily like the idea of getting into his own head and seeing what makes him tick, even if that does give a way to do flashbacks to the early days of the hospital. This book sees O’Mara promoted, on his way to retirement, and this gives us a look into his head, as he mulls over his options and thinks about the situations that got him to where he is today. One of the things I liked about him was that he was inscrutable, and usually a plot device to nudge the plot in the direction of where it needed to be, so the idea of deconstructing O’Mara is a bit odd. It does work though, and still feels like a Sector General book.

As I’ve said when talking about other Sector General books, I’ve always loved these gentle, non-violent space operas where wars are treated as police action and the vast majority of species work together, exemplified in this great hospital – this shining beacon in space, telling all that we have more in common than what divides us, whether the “us” is a basic oxygen breathing DBDG or a telepathic VXTM that exists from the direction absorption of radiation.

Book details

ISBN: 9780739401590
Publisher: Science Fiction Book Club
Year of publication: 1999

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

By Max Brooks

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not normally a fan of either zombies or post-apocalypse stories, but this was recommended by a friend whose judgement I trust, and I’m glad she did, because I really rather enjoyed it. Told as an oral history after the end, it tells the story of the Zombie War using interviews with those who were involved with it and who were just caught up in it, from the early days of the first breakouts right to the end, after the war was won. It’s a good approach, which allows for subtle world-building, both in terms of each section, which starts with a heading of the location (“United Federation of China”, “Holy Russian Empire” etc) and the content of the interviews, which let out a lot about what’s happening or happened, without spelling it out.

So great world-building and a clever framing device. Also, the fact that it’s happening after the war means that humanity survived and thrived to the point where an historian could do this, and that makes it less grim than others of its genre and, for me, makes for a decent read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780715637036
Publisher: Duckworth
Year of publication: 2006

Superman: Red Son

By Mark Millar

Rating: 4 stars

I rather enjoyed this “what if” story, asking the question of what would happen if the infant Superman had crashed in the Soviet Union rather than the US. It starts in the 1950s when Superman has come into his powers and is working for the Soviet authorities, under Stalin, and charts his rise and eventual fall, alongside Lex Luthor. Other superheroes also turn up, both Wonder Woman and Batman, both reimagined in some sort of Russian context (I don’t care what anyone says, Batman’s furry hat is adorable, and very practical) as well as Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen.

I like how Miller has played on the tension between the sort of world that Superman is born into and his fundamental good nature, a nature that just wants to help people. The idea of what help means is drawn out, as Superman comes to believe that in order to help people, he has to take the very Soviet view of creating order, sort of the antithesis of American individualism.

The battle of wits that goes on between Superman in Russian and Luther in America is well played too, lasting decades, as Luther goes from a well-balanced scientist into full scheming megalomaniac mode, in his attempts to bring down Superman.

So all in, a nice alt-hist with a very neat twist at the end of the story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781840238013
Publisher: Titan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2003

War: Tales of Conflict and Strife

By Roald Dahl

Rating: 3 stars

This book brings together Dahl’s wartime memoir, Going Solo, and several short stories he wrote about the experience of war. I must confess that although I’ve read Going Solo before, it wasn’t familiar at all when I came to re-read it. It was an interesting memoir of a very different time when young men would go out from Britain to work in the Empire, and obediently lined up when called for duty in war.

The stories are possibly more interesting. Going Solo is written in quite a light-touch way, with little emotion. The stories are where Dahl lets his feelings about war out and especially the last two, Someone Like You and The Soldier, both about the effects of war on those who fight it, are very affecting.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405933193
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year of publication: 2017

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos #1)

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 4 stars

The idea of the Canterbury Tales in space always sounded like a good one, and it’s been well executed here. Seven pilgrims are making a pilgrimage to the Time Tombs on the planet Hyperion and as they travel, they tell each other their tales of their previous connection to Hyperion and what they’re looking for. This acts as a framing narrative around a number of other stories and it works really well. It wasn’t until about the third tale that I realised that as well as being different genres, each of them had their own voice that was completely distinct from the ones around it. It takes real skill to achieve that, and still form a cohesive whole around it.

The tales themselves are all engaging, some more emotionally hard-hitting than the others with the Scholar’s tale being the stand-out. In some ways it feels of its time, in its descriptions of women being very physical, all breasts and curves, which feels a little off, reading it in the 21st century but that can be overlooked in favour of the solid and very intriguing story being told. Each tale sheds light on the ones that came before it, and provides groundwork for the ones to come, so that by the end, your understanding of the Hegemony, the “angel of pain”, the Shrike, and the threat faced has radically changed.

So a great book, and I’m definitely going to have to pick up the sequel, to find out how the story ends – this isn’t a complete narrative in its own right: it ends as the pilgrims reach their destination, with doom hanging in the air. And after a serious and portentous book, I loved the incongruous closing paragraphs where the pilgrims join arms and make their way to the Time Tombs all singing the theme tune to The Wizard of Oz. It’s so bizarre yet it works – it lightens the mood without dispelling the atmosphere that Simmons has so carefully built up. Genius.

Book details

ISBN: 9781407234663
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 1989

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