James White

Star Surgeon

James Lecky

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      Far out on the galactic Rim, where star systems were sparse and the darkness nearly absolute, Sector Twelve General Hospital hung in space. In its three hundred and eighty-four levels were reproduced the environments of all the intelligent life-forms known to the Galactic Federation. . . Its thousands of view ports were constantly ablaze with light-light in the dazzling variety of colour and intensity necessary for the visual equipment of its extra-terrestrial patients and staff - so that to approaching ships the great hospital looked like a tremendous, cylindrical Christmas tree. . .

      The staff of Sector General was a dedicated, but not always serious, group of beings who were fanatically tolerant of all forms of intelligent life. . . And they prided themselves that no case was too big, too small or too hopeless. Their advice or assistance was sought by medical authorities from all over the Galaxy. Pacifists all, they waged a constant, all-out war against suffering and disease whether it was in individuals or whole planetary populations.

  (Star Surgeon, 1963)

 

      Like his contemporary, Bob Shaw, James White was one of the few Irish writers to work in the Anglo-American tradition of science fiction, often using the tropes and techniques first developed in the early home of SF – pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories and Weird Tales.

      Born in Belfast in 1928, he discovered science fiction in the early 1940's – in particular the works of E.E 'Doc' Smith and Robert Heinlein –  and, along with fellow fans Walter Willis and Bob Shaw, helped to produce the fanzine Slant (1948-53) and later contributed to Hypen (1952 – 65) both of which did much to promote the notion of Irish SF fandom:


      “When we were writing fan articles and convention reports, and later our first science fiction professional stories, we didn't think we were doing anything legendary. We were just having fun. . .

      "We were really religious about Astounding - then for a period in the late '40s, month after month, the stories were all about atomic doom. We were getting fed up with it, and we said, 'Why don't we write the kind of story we would like to read?' So Bob Shaw and I went off and did this, more or less as a joke.” (James White interviewed in Locus 1993)

      

      By the 1940s, science fiction as a genre had begun to leave its pulp roots behind –  guided initially by the influence of John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction – and started to move in a more literary direction. Broadly speaking, this meant more emphasis on character interaction and less reliance on the simple plot formulas which had characterised early pulp SF (although this is not to say that straightforward planetary or futurist adventure stories vanished from the genre).

      James White's first professional sale “Assisted Passage” appeared in the British science fiction magazine New Worlds in 1953 and is in many ways emblematic of his work, featuring a stranded alien on Earth and the doctor who assists in its escape from hostile (and very human) forces. The story's human protagonist, Mathewson, would prove to be the first of many sympathetic and altruistic characters who would appear time and time again in White's work:

      

      "The gift of the ship will make a big impression on Allen's friends. It is a friendly act toward a highly advanced and probably extremely powerful race, one they can't ignore. And, the most important item, it will prove to them that we are civilized." Then he amended, "At least, some of us are."

  (Assisted Passage, 1953)

  

      White's first novel, The Secret Visitors (originally serialized as Tourist Planet in New Worlds) appeared in 1957 and is an uneasy mixture of Cold War politics, spy thriller and alien incursion notable primarily for its many scenes set in Northern Ireland. His second, however, Hospital Station (1962) slipped the surly bonds of earth completely and began what was to become his most successful and best known series, Sector General:

  

      “The Sector General series started. . . as a one off idea for a novelette. It was published in New Worlds in 1957. The editor said it sounded like an interesting proposition, aliens treating human beings in hospital, and would I like to do another one? So I did another one, then another. The reader response was good. I did the first five, which where published as Hospital Station. . .  then I did a three-part serial where the hospital got involved in a war. .  .

      “I started the series with simple medical puzzles like detective stories, and the doctors had to solve the puzzle before they could hope to treat the patient. . .

      “Then there were five more novelettes published as Major Operation (1971). That was supposed to be the end of the series but Ballantine (Books) prevailed on me to do another and I did Ambulance Ship (1979), then Sector General (1983) and Star Healer (1985). I thought that was the finish of the series, but they asked for another one.  . . “ (James White, Locus 1993)

  

      Sector 12 General Hospital – to give it its full name – is a huge hospital space station located on the galactic Rim, designed to treat a wide variety of life forms and to house and equally diverse staff. Created in the aftermath of an interstellar war, Sector General is first and foremost a place of sanctuary and peace in an otherwise hostile universe.

      Written between 1957 – 1999, the stories concern the lives, loves, hates and duties of a group of doctors and bureaucrats, both human and alien, on the vast space hospital which gives the series its name.

      Superficially at least, the Sector General series (and, for that matter many of White's subsequent novels) belong to the sub-genre of science fiction known as Space Opera, one of the cornerstones of genre SF which traces its modern roots back to the publication of Edward E. Smith's The Skylark of Space, which first appeared in Amazing Stories in 1928.

      At its most basic, Space Opera involves interplanetary conflict, usually between the forces of Earth and/or humanity against a fearsome and powerful alien enemy and usually with a Black Hat/White Hat morality which leaves little doubt who the heroes are. Quoting Wilson Tucker (who first coined the term) in the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, the writer and critic Gary Westfahl suggests a number of characteristics which define Space Opera as a literary form:

  

      First, space opera involves a 'space-ship' (and) depicts journeys through uncharted realms in vessels bringing humans into contact with the mysterious stuff separating their safe harbours... Second, space opera is a 'yarn' an exciting adventure story. Typically positing a universe filled with human or alien spacefarers... a literature of conflicts, usually with violent resolutions. . . Third, space opera. . . often succumbs to formulaic plots and mediocrity. . .

  and goes on to note that:

      As early as 1932, Hugo Gernsback (one of the founding fathers of science fiction ) announced impatience with “A plot that simply relates a war between two planets, with a lot of rays and bloodshed. . .

  

      However, even in the early Sector General stories, such as “Medic” (aka “O'Mara's Orphan”, New Worlds, 1960), White had already begun to repudiate the simple morality of pulp Space Opera and the story's protagonist, O'Mara, finds himself responsible for the well-being of an orphaned alien child:


      The alien occupying O'Mara's sleeping compartment weighed roughly half a ton, possessed six short, thick appendages which served both as arms and legs and had a hide like flexible armour plate. Coming as it did from Hudlar, a four-G world with an atmospheric pressure nearly seven times Earth normal, such ruggedness of physique was to be expected. But despite its enormous strength the being was helpless, O'Mara knew, because it was barely six months old, it had just seen its parents die in a construction accident, and its brain was sufficiently well developed for the sight to have frightened it badly.

  (Medic, 1960)

  

      In many ways, “Medic” is a quintessential Sector General story – both comic and serious by turns –  focusing on O'Mara's attempts to care for and feed his foundling and to diagnose the (to him) mysterious illness which threatens its survival.

      Although sympathetic alien characters had appeared in SF before (most notably 'Tweel' in Stanley G Weinbaum's groundbreaking “A Martian Odyssey”, 1934) it was common in Anglo-American SF to view The Other as a threat. Much early SF is heavily populated with potential or actual invaders and hostile alien life-forms (the Martians of H.G Wells' War of the Worlds, the pod people of Jack Finney's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, A.E Van Vogt's eponymous “Black Destroyer”  and the self-aware machines of Clifford Simak's “Skirmish”, to mention a few).

      White's aliens, however, were rarely of the galaxy-conquering variety and represented either the patients or doctors of Sector General and he strived (often succeeding) to make his non-human characters as viable and believable as their human counterparts.

      Similarly, non-humans would play an important part in the Sector General stories in particular Dr Prilicla 'a spindly, awkward-looking and incredibly fragile life-from' and Diagnostician-in-charge-of-Pathology Thornnastor 'the being whose vast bulk scraped both sides and the top of the ward door on its way in. . . '

      But, more importantly, the Sector General stories were not simply Dr Kildare in Space (to use a contemporaneous example) and White would often use them to tackle not only the tropes of genre science fiction but often complex moral issues. In Star Surgeon (1963) an attempt to aid a disease-ridden plant results on an attack upon Sector General, while in The Genocidal Healer (1992) the arrogance of an alien physician leads to the annihilation of an entire species.

      At the core of Sector General and, indeed, at the core of the majority of White's SF lies a firm belief in pacifism. Unlike the gung-ho space heroics of, say Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) war is never glorified and any death, particularly a violent one, is seen as a tragedy rather than a triumph.

      White would write twelve Sector General novels (some being fix-ups of previously published short stories) with the last, Double Contact, being published in 1999, the same year as his death.

      But although Sector General was his best known work, James White also wrote a number of stand alone titles, some of which deserve to be rescued from the shadow of Sector General.

      Second Ending (1961) tells the story of Ross, awakened from cryogenic sleep to discover that he is the last man on a slowly dying earth, in some ways redolent of Byron's poem “Darkness” (1816) and the great conflagration it describes:

  

      The sea was dying of radioactive poisoning, the land dead already and at night the air glowed. . .  The fires started by lightning or still-smoldering debris took hold and spread everywhere. . . even a heavy rainfall served only to slow that fiery advance. Across fronts hundreds of miles wide the conflagrations raged, sweeping first through countries and then continents. . . spewing great masses of ash and smoke into the upper atmosphere. . . the great tracts of once-lush jungle were dead and, above the waterline, drying. When the dry season came they went the way of all other combustibles on the surface of the planet.

  (Second Ending, 1961)

  

      Widely regarded as one of White's best novels, and one of his personal favourites, Second Ending was nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award, but ultimately lost out to Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

      The Escape Orbit (UK title Open Prison, 1964) is an ingenious adventure on an alien world where human prisoners of war in an interstellar conflict have been confined to a primitive world and are forced to survive not only the natural dangers of their new home but also the looming threat of a civil war between the various factions of this new, enforced, society.

      Like many of White's protagonists the central character of Escape Orbit – Warren – is essentially a pacifist and, despite a certain amount of sturm und drang, the novel is one which argues for the essentially social nature of mankind, and, like the Sector General series, quietly but passionately anti-war:


      He began quietly by outlining the war situation as he, one of the officers responsible for overall strategy, saw it. . . It was a picture of a long, costly war which had reached the stalemate of mutual exhaustion. . . he went on to tell of ships which had failed to make rendezvous because key members of the crews had committed suicide, or mutinied, or shown in some other shameful fashion their inability to withstand the strain of a job which all too often was simply a few hectic minutes of action sandwiched between months of utter monotony,

  (The Escape Orbit, 1964)

  

      All Judgement Fled (1968) is a quintessential First Contact story. When an alien spacecraft enters the solar system and resists all attempts at contact, a multi-national crew of astronauts is sent to investigate and, once inside, find themselves in danger both from within and without, compounded by the problem of how differentiate between the "people" and "animals" aboard the Ship:

        

      On the radar screen the target showed as a pulsing blob of light which crept steadily down the distance scale, and in the telescope the Ship grew and spread until it overflowed the field of view. Gradually P-Two's velocity with respect to the other vessel lessened until it hung motionless at a distance of one mile from the Ship.

      Like a minnow investigating a sleeping shark, McCullough thought.

      Berryman cleared his throat loudly and said: “The – Ship is broadside on to us. I estimate its length at just under half a mile and its diameter at about one hundred yards. The diameter is uniform throughout its length, except where it curves inward at nose and stern. Two-thirds of the way towards the stern – I'm assuming it is the stern because the other end contains more transparent material – the hull is encircled by a belt of large, transparent blisters. Twelve of them, I think. The sun is shining directly onto one and I can see metallic reflections. . . there is nothing visible on the Ship resembling a conventional rocket motor or even a jet orifice.”

  (All Judgement Fled, 1968)

      One of them was drifting in the centre of the corridor, a dumbbell shape covered with long spikes. Each half of its body was roughly the size of a football, and there were no sensory or manipulatory organs visible. A second alien clung to the opposite wall net like a great, fleshy spider, giving him a perfect view of the starfish body with its thick tentacles and leathery tugument. The tentacles ended in bony pincers, like white, miniature elephant tusks. McCullough estimated its physical mass to be approximately half that of a man, with the tentacle length between four and five feet.

  The third alien. . . covered part of the window with its body so that McCullough and his camera had a perfect view of its underbelly, which was soft and pinkish-brown and convoluted into folds and opening which were evidently mouths or gills or sensory equipment of some kind, all grouped around a large, sharp, centrally placed horn or sting. . .

  (All Judgement Fled, 1968)

  

      One of White's most morally complex novels, All Judgement Fled was a deserved winner of the European Science Fiction Society's Europa Award.

      The Watch Below (1966) weaves two parallel stories – one human, one alien –  in narratives that, at first, seem only unified by theme, but come together into a satisfying climax. Underkill (1979) was a rare foray into darker territory. Set a few decades after a worldwide energy crisis known as the Powerdown, Underkill paints a picture of a society in chaos plagued by terrorism, violence and disease:

  

      “The world is a pretty horrible place at the moment, but why write books where it's horrible too? I did write a very angry book once. . . called Underkill. . . and there's a lot of urban guerilla stuff in there. It was obviously an expanded Belfast. . . but it was not the sort of story people expected of James White and could I please do another 'Sector General'?” (James White, Locus 1993)

  

      A life-long fan of science fiction as well as a SF writer, White maintained close ties with fandom and was guest of honour at many conventions – most notably the 1996 World Convention in Los Angeles – and was a long serving council member of the British Science Fiction Association and president of its Irish counterpart the ISFA.

      Despite a long a productive writing career, White won few awards – although his work was nominated for the both the Hugo and Nebula –  and his critical reputation is variable, with the critic Paul Kincaid describing him as “a second rank writer who occasionally produced first rank work” but conversely described as “the master of medical science fiction” by Gary Westfahl.

      It has been argued elsewhere that science fiction is a literary form in constant discourse with itself – the tropes, icons and arguments of earlier SF are often reused, re-examined and, in some cases, refuted. (The New Wave of the 1960s was a reaction against the low literary standards of 'mainstream' and/or pulp SF, the Cyberpunk movement of the 1980s a reaction against the 'comfortable bloating' of SF in the 1970s) but there have always been those writers, such as James White, well known by SF aficionados but virtually invisible to the wider literary world, whose work remains true, and solidly attached, to the core of science fiction.

      A solid craftsman rather than a literary stylist, James White never sought to 'reinvent the wheel' with regards to science fiction, but engaged enthusiastically with the genre and brought a rare and deep humanity to his work. His best novels Sector General, Star Surgeon, The Genocidal Healer, The Escape Orbit, Second Ending and All Judgement Fled – certainly can stand with the best science fiction of their period and are definitely head and shoulders above the mass of poorly written and conceived “sci-fi”  which has always – unfortunately – been too common in the genre:


      “I've never gone in for the the old type of square-jawed hero who blasts aliens out of the sky and never thinks about the down side of war . . . I write about the sort of characters and the sort of world that I would like to live in. I'm trying to escape from reality. If you're the writer, you're the boss. It's your party. . . I do like to have people act in a thoughtful and ethical fashion. Part of the philosophical reasoning behind 'Sector General' is that I don't like war and I don't like people who practice it. In hospital, the doctors and nurses do not admire the heroes who are causing so much medical repair work for them.

      "There has to be conflict in any story to make it interesting, but I like the conflict to be people struggling against a natural disaster or an epidemic or something like that, even an ecotastrophe, but having them fighting nature rather than each other I think it makes a better story. You don't need any bad guys, or not many. You don't need a villain who has to be shot to pieces by the last page.” (James White Locus, 1993)


James White died on August 23, 1999.


Bibliography

Novels

The Secret Visitors (1957)

Second Ending (1961)

Hospital Station (1962)

Star Surgeon (1963)

The Escape Orbit (aka Open Prison, 1964)

The Watch Below (1966)

All Judgement Fled (1969)

Tomorrow is Too Far (1971)

Major Operation (1971)

Dark Inferno (aka Lifeboat, 1972)

The Dark Millennium (1974)

Underkill (1979)

Ambulance Ship (1979)

Sector General (1983)

Star Healer (1985)

Code Blue – Emergency (1987)

The Silent Stars Go By (1991)

The Genocidal Healer (1992)

The Galactic Gourmet (1996)

Final Diagnosis (1997)

Mind Changer (1998)

Double Contact (1999)

First Protector (1999)


Collections

Deadly Litter (1964)

The Aliens Among Us (1969)

Monsters and Medics (1977)

Futures Past (1982)

The White Papers (1996)


Online Resources

http://www.sectorgeneral.com: A splendid site on James White and his works containing an extensive bibliography

http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/white_james : The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction page on James White.