A collection of some of James White's best short fiction, and of his early fan-writing. The short fiction is great -- most of it I've seen in other collections, but some of it I read here for the first time. Although he's best know for his Sector General stories, the others here demonstrate the range of his skills. I found the fan writing, mostly about early SF conventions, less interesting. But it is well written, and I suspect if you know the people involved, it would be riveting. The notes on Sector General and the classification system are detailed and useful.
James White is best known for his much-loved Sector General series. The stories are set in a vast multi-species space hospital, where various different alien doctors grapple with even more alien patients. And these really are alien (physically, at least): no humanoids with slightly different nose ridges here. We have everything from animated plants, massive high-gravity planet beings, chlorine breathers, water creatures, right through to beings that metabolise hard radiation.
Alien physiology is described by the famous four letter classification system. The first letter indicates the main group. A-C are water breathers -- D-F are warm-blooded oxygen breathers -- G-K are low gravity, insectile oxygen-breathers -- L,M are low gravity, bird-like -- O,P are chlorine breathers -- Q-Z are various exotic cases, including superheated steam breathers, radiation eaters, frigid blooded, crystalline, shape morphers, telepaths... The creatures we meet in the stories include:
The medics use 'educator tapes', consisting of the entire knowledge and personality of a local expert, to treat alien species. The more senior the medic, the more tapes they have residing in their head at one time. The simultaneous multiple conflicting points of view can cause them problems, especially at meal times...
Don't expect deep, dark, weird psychological dramas, though. Nor deep characterisation -- nor much different-alien psychology: most of the weirdness comes from the conflicting world-views of the educator tapes. Indeed, I find that Prilicla is the only one who has much distinctive character. But that is not what these stories are about. The message, put over with a light touch, is essentially optimistic, as we see species of every physiological type working together, often grumpily, but never xenophobically. Sector General stories are essentially fun puzzles (although some of the stories of intelligent species trapped by their evolutionary heritage can be poignant): a newly-discovered alien with a peculiar physiology arrives at the hospital, and the doctors have to discover the secret before they accidentally kill their patient whilst trying to cure it.
A recurring scene in the Sector General stories is the staff canteen, where Diagnosticians, living with several alien educator tapes, try to find some kind of food that revolts none of the wildly-diverse species sharing their heads. So eventually we had to have a story about the food.
Gurronsevas, an FGLI Tralthan gourmet master chef, has found a new challenge: improving hospital food. The first half of the book shows him making small improvements to various diets, but also causing various calamities. Eventually, he has to be removed from the hospital for a while, to let things, and people, calm down. O'Mara cunningly assigns him to the First Contact ambulance vessel Rhabwar, on a mission to Wem, where ecological catastrophe has caused civilisation to collapse, but the surviving natives are refusing aid. Naturally, food is the problem and Gurronsevas provides the solution.
Part of the fun comes from meeting all our old friends again. Although Conway has only a cameo role, Prilicla, O'Mara and Murchison feature throughout. The rest of the fun comes from the descriptions of all the aliens, and from trying to solve the puzzles before the characters do (which isn't all that hard in this case, actually). Classic Sector General stuff.
Final Diagnosis links in well with the series as a whole, being a follow-up to the war described in Star Surgeon, in that Patient Hewlitt was born on the planet that was once Etla the Sick. [There is a little too much recapitulation of that back story for my taste -- if you want to start in at volume 10 of a near-40-year-old series (both real-time and story time), you deserve not to understand what's going on!] Hewlitt's problem is that no-one will believe he's sick, until Prilicla finally solves the puzzle. But by then, his disease is loose in Sector General, and it can cross the species boundary, potentially threatening the entire Federation...
Well, I'm afraid that I am just as bad as all those doctors in Sector General: they are more interested in "juicy ETs" than they are in their own species -- and so am I. Because the protagonist of this latest puzzle is a human DBDG, I find myself a little disappointed. But there are still some good ET scenes, such as the games of scremman with the other patients, and the Tralthan couple's reactions to the pet kitten.
What's this then? I downgrade Final Diagnosis because it is about only a human DBDG, and not about juicy ETs -- but I'm marking Mind Changer highly, yet it too is about a human DBDG? Ah yes, but it's not just any human DBDG; it's about Sector General's inimitable Chief Psychologist, O'Mara himself.
Despite a few preliminary stories, the Sector General series really starts with "Medic", set during the construction of the famous hospital -- which tells how O'Mara got his prestigious position in the first place. Since then we have really seen him only from others' points of view, as he ensures, by fair means or foul, that all the diverse strong personalities in the hospital stay reasonably sane. Now we get a whole book from his point of view. Marvellous.
It is time for O'Mara to retire. (This series is nearly 40 years old, and the characters' time has progressed in step with real time. In a very real sense, I've grown up with these people.) First, he has to select and train his replacement. In trying to decide who to select, he is forced into thinking about his own selection all those years ago, in a series of flashbacks. So, as well as the senior doctors in the current smoothly running hospital (modulo the current desperate crisis, naturally), we get to see a young uncertain O'Mara, a trainee Thornnastor, and Sector General just beginning to be populated and take shape. We also find out why O'Mara is quite as blunt and forthright as he is.
Brilliant piece of retconning.
Dr Prilicla, along with his medical staff of Pathologist Murchison, shape-changing Dr Danalta, and Kelgian Charge Nurse Naydrad, are sent off into the unknown in ambulance ship Rhabwar, to answer a distress beacon from the Monitor Corps ship itself sent to answer two other beacons. They find not just dire medical emergencies, but a bungled First Contact operation they must repair -- and once that's sorted out, they discover their problems are only just starting...
More fun with old friends, and some lovely alien medical problems. This time it's mainly from the PoV of the empathic Prilicla, so we have an interesting juxtaposition of what everyone is saying and what they are actually feeling.