Alien Emergencies (Sector General, #4-6)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

Sector Twelve General Hospital is the galaxy’s largest multi-species hospital, built to be able to treat any of the many and varied species of the galactic Federation, not to mention any other intelligent life forms they encounter. It is, to quote a line about another space station, a shining beacon in space, all alone in the night.

There are three volumes bound together in this omnibus: Ambulance Ship, Sector General and Star Healer. The first deals with the establishment of Sector General’s first purpose-built ambulance ship, the Rhabwar, headed up by regular series protagonist Doctor Conway. The special purpose of this ship is to respond to distress beacons sent out by unrecognised species and establish peaceful first contact and show that they mean no harm by helping heal travellers in distress. Sector General continues this theme, showing more of the bizarre situations that the crew of the Rhabwar find themselves involved with. Star Healer sees Conway (provisionally) promoted to the hospital’s most senior rank, that of Diagnostician and shows us the different class of problem that these most senior doctors must face.

I must confess to having had a soft spot for the Sector General novels for many years, ever since I first found Star Surgeon in the local library. The stories are often a medical whodunnit, which I enjoy and I love the unusual fact that there is almost no violence in the whole series. The idea of putting medics at the front line of your space opera may not be new, but White’s passion for non-violence (the author himself living in the decidedly non-non-violent environment of Belfast during the Troubles) shines through here.

Another aspect of the Sector General books that I have always liked is White’s attempt to not make it Human-centric. It’s made very clear that Humans are just one member (albeit one of the larger species) of the Galactic Federation. The protagonist of the stories is Human but most of his co-workers aren’t, and they aren’t just Humans with lumpy foreheads either. White imagines aliens that range from fuzzy teddy bears to crystalline entities that exist by the conversion of hard radiation. He makes an attempt to make the aliens really alien and mostly succeeds, although the idea of the six-limbed elephantine most senior Diagnostician in the hospital also being its chief gossip does tickle my funny bone.

White certainly believes in saving his imagination for the alien races and encounters, rather than on description. Once he finds a description that works, it gets reused, at least once a book, often more frequently. The same description of Sector General as a “cylindrical Christmas tree” or chief psychologist O’Mara having “eyes that opened on a mind so deeply analytical they gave him what amounted to a telepathic facility” or the description of the hospital’s four-letter physiological classification system abound. This doesn’t annoy me, but often the reverse, like seeing an old friend popping up regularly.

While some of the stories could certainly be described as “corny”, the Sector General books and the volumes in this omnibus are very entertaining to a fan of space opera, and inspiring to a fellow Ulsterman who shares White’s passion for non-violence.

Book details

ISBN: 9780312877705
Publisher: Orb Books
Year of publication: 2002

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