BooksOfTheMoon

Double Contact (Sector General, #12)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

Without necessarily meaning to be, this is the last Sector General novel. White was ill when he was writing it, and its publication ended up being posthumous. This novel sees Senior Physician Prilicla and the crew of the Rhabwar answering multiple distress calls from the same location and finding a botched first contact operation. Prilicla and his comrades have to not just save their patients, but undo the damage that’s been done.

Like the rest of the series, this is a peaceful, one might say pacifist, space opera (although there is a “misunderstanding” that leads to a siege at one point). White was passionate about non-violence and uses his characters to repeatedly make the point that peaceful contact and co-operation is best for everyone. There’s a wonderful quote towards the end of the book:

“War, he thought sadly as he looked down at the terrified casualty, was composed mostly of hatred and heroism, both of them misplaced.”

There’s a nod back to Star Surgeon as Prilicla deliberately puts hostile patients in the same ward as other patients to show that they mean them no harm, and the constant correction of the “Etlan war” to the “Etlan police action” amused me.

And Prilicla finally gets promoted to Diagnostician! As the last act of the last book in the series, it feels really fitting. And the last sentence in the book hammers home White’s philosophy one more time: “One does not give orders to a Sector General Diagnostician.” – spoken by a senior marshal of the Monitor Corps, again making the point that the military (sorry, police) is subservient to the healers.

Sector General itself, alas, only gets a cameo at the start of the book. Goodbye you “shining beacon in space”, you’ve been an inspiration to us all.

Book details

ISBN: 9780812568608
Publisher: Tor Science Fiction
Year of publication: 1999

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

General Practice (Sector General, #7-8)

By James White

Rating: 5 stars

There’s something utterly satisfying about finishing a Sector General novel, especially when you’re as far along as this and are familiar with everyone’s favourite space hospital. I love the way that intriguing situations are created without any conflict or violence, or at least, that the conflict that does arise tends to be the result of misunderstandings or arguments about the best treatment.

For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the concept, Sector Twelve General Hospital is a giant multi-species hospital somewhere near the rim of the galaxy with the facilities to treat any species known to the Galactic Federation, from the more usual warm-blooded oxygen-breathers right up to the wild and wacky creatures that exist through the direct absorption of radiation.

At the end of the previous book in the series, Star Healer, the protagonist of the series up to that point, the Human doctor Conway was promoted to the top tier of physicians, the Diagnosticians. With this promotion, it became clear that he could no longer continue to be the reader’s point of view into the mighty world of Sector General, so with Code Blue – Emergency, the first volume in this omnibus, White makes a leap of faith and makes a non-Human the protagonist, something that continues with The Genocidal Healer. And White’s aliens are no Star Trek-style Humans with lumpy foreheads, but are truly weird, both physically and cognitively. The two books in this volume also begin to make the shift from purely physical medical problems to psychological ones, both in Code Blue – Emergency and The Genocidal Healer, although weird aliens with weird ailments are definitely still embedded in the genetics of the series.

In the introduction, John Clute speculates that White’s gentle space opera emerged from his background in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. As a child of the Province myself, I lived to see the Peace that White so clearly dreamt of and portrayed so achingly in his novels and I wish that he had lived long enough to see the same.

Book details

ISBN: 9780765306630
Publisher: Orb Books
Year of publication: 2003

Monsters And Medics

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

I am a fan of James White and his brand of mostly violence-free space opera and enjoyed this collection. The meat of the collection was the novella Second Ending about the last man on Earth and the robots who keep him alive. This was a poignant and well-told piece, showing the loneliness of the position with realistic cracks in the protagonist’s sanity, and the sort of petty and pointless revenges that he would take out on the robots who wouldn’t let him die.

Of the other stories, Counter Security was a humorous tale of a sci-fi loving night-watchman who gets handed a very strange mystery in the dead of night; Dogfight is one of White’s very few war-stories, into which he injects his own particular brand of humanism; Nuisance Value involves a world rebuilding itself after the apocalypse and one man’s battle to clear his father’s name long after he has died; and finally, we have In Loving Memory, a story that he describes in the introduction as being formed while he was courting his future wife. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting from the story, and although I might disagree with the premise of a second wave of human space colonisation striving to undo the genetic differences that have arisen since the first to avoid war, it was quite hard hitting in its own way.

A good collection then, both for established White fans and for those who want a bit more thought and a bit less violence in their space opera.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552104623
Publisher: Corgi
Year of publication: 1977

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

Major Operation

By James White

Rating: 3 stars

This is a series of linked novellas/short stories in the Sector General universe about staff at the hospital space station Sector 12 General Hospital (Sector General for short) and the weird and wonderful cases they deal with, from all the different life forms that make up members of the Galactic Federation, and beyond. I always enjoy the Sector General books which are that rarest of things: pacifist space opera. No matter what the shape or physiological classification of the creature that comes through the airlock, the first instinct of the doctors (of all shapes and sizes) is to treat it. This makes for a refreshing change, and a very starting point for dealing with a situation.

The focus of this book involves first contact with a particularly odd planet — christened “Meatball” due to the fact that its surface seems to be entirely covered with living material of some kind — and the various patients that come from there, leading up to the biggest, and very possibly strangest, patient that Sector General has ever had to deal with.

The various alien races that populate the book (and others of the series) are quite fascinating, and White has obviously put in effort to make his aliens truly alien, and not just humanoids with lumpy foreheads. While perhaps not quite up to the standards of its predecessor, Star Surgeon, this is still a very entertaining read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345242297
Publisher: Ballantine
Year of publication: 1971

Hospital Station (Sector General, #1)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

This is the first in White’s Sector General series about a giant multi-species hospital in space following Dr Conway from his first entry into the hospital as an intern to his rise to become a Senior Physician. While some of the medical ideas may be outdated and somewhat quaint to our eyes, the idea of a medical mystery story (or rather, stories, since this is a collection of linked stories set in the SG universe) appeals to me and works quite well.

The first story in the book is somewhat of a prequel, showing the past of the hospital’s chief psychologist, Major O’Mara and his role in its construction, while the last is probably the weakest, with Conway acting in ways that seem awfully bizarre and irrational from the outside — even once you understand what he’s doing, it still doesn’t make sense.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable space opera set in a distinctly unusual environment (which was, I understand, the intention: to be an antidote to the warmongering SF that was prevalent at the time and in that it has succeeded.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345320681
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1962

Star Surgeon (Sector General, #2)

By James White

Rating: 4 stars

Doctor Conway is a Senior Physician at Sector Twelve General Hospital – a giant multi-species space hospital station, caring for sentient beings from your bog-standard oxy-nitrogen air breather to exotic species that live on the consumption of hard radiation. The book follows Conway as he deals with his many and varied patients ranging from a near-immortal alien meddler in worlds right up to Sector General itself…

I think this is another book I read at an impressionable age and I still enjoy it on re-reading although perhaps some of the ideas in the multi-species hospital don’t necessarily stand up. Conway and his foil, chief psychologist O’Mara, are good characters and I enjoyed reading about the many and varied aliens that White imagined up and how Conway dealt with them. Just don’t read it if you’ve got any medical training.

Book details

ISBN: 9780345291691
Publisher: Del Rey
Year of publication: 1963

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