James White

Star Surgeon

Star Surgeon Dean Ellis

Cover art by Dean Ellis

Star Surgeon by James White was first published in 1963.  It is the second book in the Sector General series. I read the first book, Hospital Station, which is an episodic collection of short pieces about the events that go on at a space-station hospital. I have read a couple of White’s books. This Sector General series is all right so far. I feel like it has a very narrow sort of audience.  Basically, the stories are very similar to what would happen if you mixed Babylon 5 with any of the prime time TV hospital shows like (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med, etc.).  So, if the reader is a fan of medical/hospital drama, then they will probably be more inclined to like this series.

This novel was a novel. What I am saying is that it is not engrossing or complicated or outrageous. And it is not abysmal or horrific or wretched. It is frankly… just a novel. I cannot even say that it is entertaining because I do not feel that really describes this storyline. At best I can say this novel was interesting. The trials and tribulations of a doctor in a space-station-hospital who has to deal with an immense variety of lifeforms who seek medical attention is either going to interest readers or it is not. I found it very laid-back and mellow reading. In this story, the hospital actually falls under attack by the “Empire” – a galactic collection not a member of the “Federation”  (who operate the hospital), but White’s writing just made the battles/threats seem very distant and non-engaging.

Well, the reader spends most of his time with Dr. Conway as he is working through the logistics that a space-hospital in pandemonium would undergo.  As in the first book, Conway can be annoying and tedious. He is definitely not a larger-than-life superhero type of character. The book is written one-hundred percent from his view, so the reader gets to spend a lot of time with him.  Unfortunately, there are points when he can be utterly wearisome. The classification of the lifeforms gets a little tedious, too. So, lifeforms are categorized into four-letter designations, largely based on their environmental needs. Throughout the whole book the reader is continually assaulted with these designations.  I really wonder if White was able to keep them consistent and accurate. It would take a truly boredom-loving individual to go through and check each mention.

All of this may seem like I disliked the novel. I did not. To be honest, if you read the first book in the series, you know precisely what you are getting into if you start the second. I expect the third to be similar. While I will not be giving this five stars, this story is nothing more or less than I expected; sometimes that is sufficient.

The subplot with the female nurse, Murchison, is hideous. Conway has the hots for her and she is playing hard to get and then a war gets in the middle of their ridiculous relationship. It just drags on and on. Murchison is also written as if she is a competent nurse, but at the end of the day, she is rather daft and to be hunted and hounded like a rare albino deer rather than as an individual with personhood.

The war basically started from misinformation and it ends with the same. The two sides basically realize that war is bad. (Remember, from book one, Conway is an adamant pacifist.) The soldiers on both sides come to form a ragged peace after they come to experience that what they were told about the enemy is not true. The end.

2 stars

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The Secret Visitors

The Secret VisitorsThe Secret Visitors is James White’s first novel, published in 1957. I read the darling ACE edition that has tiny font that hurts my eyes. Cover by Schinella (???).  However, it should be noted that it was originally (at least parts of it) serialized in 1956’s New Worlds Science Fiction publications.  This is significant because I am allowing for the storyline to have been originally meant as a serialized work, digested in segments, and perhaps mauled a bit when put into novel format.  And it is White’s first novel. (Another attempt at presenting mitigation.)  Because, folks, this one is a stinker.

Anywhere on the Internet where you find someone giving this novel either four or five stars as a rating, you need to discard that person’s review/rating.  They are lying. Seriously, there is no way, that I can see, in which a reader can give this book anything higher than a three star rating. And, frankly, in all seriousness, I cannot really imagine anyone giving it that many stars.

Now, I have read a very good White novel ( The Watch Below ) and also a decent, endearing story ( Hospital Station ).  I have also heard rumor of some other good pieces by White. This, novel, however, is not good. I suspect that any good reviews it has ever received are out of sentimentality or because in this novel readers discern the germ out of which grew White’s best works.

The novel begins in media res in such a mess. Starting in media res is a frequently used method of beginning a story. However, authors who utilize this, need to pull it together and sort out the mess in a cogent way.  White gives the reader just a little bit more, but it is unsatisfying and still seems random and rushed. By chapter VI, though, it really just does not matter any more.

A big issue with White’s storytelling, in my opinion, is that he spends most of the work telling readers what is.  By this I mean that he does not explain or give any background. He presents a world of current-time facts. So, readers do not know how anything got to this point, the background on anything, the reasons for anything, etc.  Some of this is okay – and PKD is a master of pulling this writing style off with charm.  However, White just seems like Cratylus pointing at facts.

Lockhart, a doctor, races over to a body on the sidewalk. He is supposed to…. do something medically. Simultaneously, Hedley (an Intelligence Agent) is nagging him and shooing away bystanders.

Then, we are in hotel rooms. We meet “the girl” and several other wooden characters. A professor is there, he is apparently an older gentleman because he is cantankerous and does not fit in with the others. There are a couple of hazy, confused scenes in the hotel. Fistfight and then a needle stabbing? (I’m mad about the Cedric character – he is the worst-written, ill-explained, incomprehensible part of the novel.)

Lockhart is suddenly playing the rôle of tour guide for Kelly (the girl).  She is hideous and annoying. At first she really vexes him, but then he falls in love with her? I’m at a loss for this chaos.  Here, at least, we are given some information about the actual storyline. Apparently, there are off-worlders who are bored and our planet has stuff. So, they like to tour our planet and collect photographs and music and postcards.

Oddly enough, according to Miss Kelly, Earth was the only planet that changed its seasons, that had so infinitely lush variety in its flora and fauna, that was capable of producing such rich music, such gorgeous scenery.  No other inhabited planet had an axial tilt; this meant that the other worlds had no change of seasons, that their plants and animals had never had to adapt to changing circumstances, thereby producing variety.  Consequently, their inhabitants found the other worlds unbearably dreary and monotonous, while Earth would have been a veritable tourists’ paradise. – pg. 40, Chapter Four

Can you spot the dozens of logical/reasoning/scientific errors there?
Anyway, the story continues to a nearly-indecipherable scene on a beachfront with the landing of the off-worlders’ ship.  Suddenly, everyone is mentally and physically all good with hopping on the ship and heading into space with off-worlders. Aboard, we learn there are strange clothing, customs, and political machinations.  There is an interesting interlude wherein on a planet an alien body is ruining the planet and Lockhart becomes a hero by playing doctor.

Scenes take place involving guns and even a little kid with a water gun.

A weird trial occurs when the ship finally reaches its destination planet. Turns out the earthlings were doped. The little kid saves the trial. But it does not really matter because we have to have a space-navy battle. Hedley, at this point, is completely beyond any reader’s connection to character. And Lockhart decides on his “life’s work.”

I want to give this 1.5 stars. I guess I can give it two…. because the scenes with the “Grosni” are worthwhile. So, only read this if you are a White fanatic. It was a rough time reading this one.

2 stars

Hospital Station

Hospital Station - James White; Del Rey; 1979

Hospital Station – James White; Del Rey; 1979

I just managed to squeeze in one more read for January. Remember, January is Vintage Science Fiction Month as proclaimed by Little Red Reviewer! My final review for January, then, is Hospital Station by James White (1928 – 1999).  It is a “collected/fix-up” book featuring five stories that describe some early incidents at Galactic Sector Twelve General Hospital.   Originally, this was published in 1962, but it collects stories that were published in New Worlds between 1957 and 1960.  Hospital Station is also the first book in White’s Sector General series, which has twelve books in total (the last released in 1999).

The stories in this collection are very obviously “collected” stories and do not follow a specific timeline. In fact, as one reads the stories, there is a lot of obvious shifting with the elements of the stories.  By this I mean that White seems to have really enjoyed creating the “landscape” for these stories and he definitely worked hard on the extra-terrestrial/alien lifeforms, however, he does not really seem to know exactly where to write from or who to write about.  I did not rate the individual “stories” separately.

Please do look at the cover, which has a scene presumably from one of the stories contained within (Trouble With Emily).  The cover art here was done by H. R. Van Dongen (1920 – 2010).  Dongen is a pretty interesting character who died not too long ago. Anyway, this is never going to be one of my favorite science fiction covers, but there are not that many, I would think, with levitating/flying brontosaurus…… thunder lizard!

The five stories contained in Hospital Station and their original publication dates:

  • Medic (variant of O’Mara’s Orphan) – 1960
  • Sector General – 1957
  • Trouble With Emily – 1958
  • Visitor at Large – 1959
  • Out-Patient – 1960

The first two stories in the book did not win me over. The first, Medic, begins in media res, is choppy and caustic. Until I got a sense of how White was writing these stories, this one seemed kind of messy. Frankly, I would not be too surprised if this was one of those stories that one hears about – vintage stories with ugly publications because of cheap payment, mean publishers/editors, and a necessity to put food on the table and fill pages in a pulp magazine. The main character is O’Mara who seems all over the place. But we learn he is a really well-built muscular fellow who also is nearly brilliant. So, immediately, he is off-putting because in current novels, readers expect flawed and damaged loser-types characters.

vintage-sf-badge

My third review for 2016

Maybe the most annoying facet of this story is that White does not seem to know what he wants O’Mara to be or to do. That sort of uncertainly just makes the choppy story even more so.  However, straightaway the best part of the story is the alien.  Somehow White created some fairly awesome alien beings throughout these stories and maybe it was easier for me to continue reading because this alien was so unexpectedly interesting.

The second story, Sector General, threw me a bit because the main character is not O’Mara, but Dr. Conway.  And while I found O’Mara a little over-the-top, Conway is downright aggravating.  He’s a newer member of the medical team at this superb medical station.  This is where White’s uncertainly enters again:  we are led to believe that this Hospital Station is supposed to be state-of-the-art, brand new, high-tech and so if one is assigned here, or hired on here, this is proof of that person’s elite status within the medical community.  But in so many ways, as I read this story, Conway seems tentative, perplexed, and naive. It almost seems like he got hired on at the station totally oblivious to what he would be dealing with.

Oh, well, and the notable thing with Conway is that he is a big pacifist. Totally anti-war, anti-killing, anti-military. In fact, throughout the story he displays an immature and silly attitude toward the “Monitors” (military) at the station.  All of this is fine, well, and good, but why IS the military at the station?  Not to make it seem like I am siding with Conway (in this story) with all his confusion and puzzlement regarding the military, but it seems like White just has the Monitors crewing the station to provide a contrast to pacifist Conway.  Also, I suppose it (military presence, and therefore activity) provides “patients” for the hospital.  Forward to 1993 – 1998, and this turns into (I bet….) Babylon 5 on Warner Bros. TV.

I enjoyed the third, fourth, and fifth stories a whole lot more than the first two.  The point of view settles on Dr. Conway.  We learn a lot more about the station and the stories are a lot less choppy and whiny.  In these, White’s work with creating alien beings and posing medical challenges is brought to the forefront, which, honestly, is probably the main reason why readers would seek out these stories.  Hospital in space – admit it, there’s potential for interesting fun there!  Hospital dramas on TV have always flourished. I think the soap opera General Hospital first aired in 1963:  only one year after this collection is released.

There is not an extreme amount of medical science, however.  That may or may not be a dealbreaker for many readers. For me, it was fine. Other readers may complain that the lack of detailed medical knowledge makes the stories lighter or sketchier than they could be.  There is something to that sort of complaint, but I think White makes up for it by focusing on the necessity for diagnostics.  The team of diagnosticians at Sector General play a major, vital role at the station and when these characters enter the story, it really fleshes out the story and pushes it beyond the views/actions of Dr. Conway.  Focusing less on the doctoring and highlighting the role of diagnosticians is fairly interesting.  May I also provide the date for the FOX TV show House, M.D. (2004 – 2012) that was entirely centered on the activities of a crack-diagnostics team.

White borrowed the alien species “classification system” from writer E.E. “Doc” Smith.  This system uses a four-letter code which designates the type and needs of the aliens that are encountered. This is explained briefly in one of the stories, but I did not care enough to learn it or make sure it was internally consistent.  White has these future space-doctors have access to “educator tapes” which are like the knowledge plug-ins in the Matrix movies. Except in White’s stories, these tapes are practically “taped” educators of another species.  Doctors can “plug-in” these tapes (for a limited time) and have a very essential (i.e. they psychologically become) understanding of the species they are seeking to learn about and treat.  This is pretty neat, I think.  I like watching authors present and solve and wrestle with epistemological scenarios like this.

Overall, O’Mara and Conway are aggravating and tedious.  However, I really like all of the alien creatures we meet. In a couple of stories, Conway is forced to work alongside aliens and these are the high points of those stories, in my opinion.  Naturally, White advances some alien species to include elements of telepathy/empathy, but its not as goofy as Counselor Troi in Star Trek.  Frankly, with all these ideas, floating around in this book, it is surprising some other authors have not really taken to such scenarios and made shared-worlds or other series with some of these concepts.

There is a lot to like here.  Ideas and concepts and aliens are fun.  The main characters, though, are a bit tedious to read about.  And there are some gaps and challenges, if the reader wants to pick through and point such things out. I was entertained and I would gladly read on in the Sector General series. I kind of expect the series to improve because I am hoping White got a handle on what he wanted to do with the series after these stories. The three star rating is for the choppiness and uncertainty.

3 stars

The Watch Below

The Watch Below - James White; 1966

The Watch Below – James White; 1966

Today I finished The Watch Below by James White (1928 – 1999).  It was first published in 1966 and the copy that I read is the February 1966 edition.  It is also the first of White’s novels that I have read. Since reading it, I have been considering whether or not this novel would be different if it were written this year. In many ways, the outcome would be very different. Definitely more negative.  But at the same time, I do not think this novel is particularly dated – an interesting fact for a mid-1960s work.

White’s genius in this novel is to juxtapose the survival efforts of two generation ships:  one human and one alien, one earthbound and one in outer space.  There are a number of pseudo-opposite items that White uses to create the comparison and contrast among the two generation ships.  For example, the aliens are sentient, scientific, and fallible.  They are also aquatic “water-breathers.”  Their planet has suffered from their sun’s effects and their race has been forced to evacuate in an elaborate effort to seek out a new “homeworld.”  Naturally, such a new world needs to have significant water resources.

The Gulf Trader is a converted tanker that in the early 1940s suffered a torpedo assault.  Probabilities and magic aside, though the ship is hit twice by torpedoes, several humans survive the attack and remain trapped within the partially submerged Gulf Trader. Of course, their first concerns involve the necessity of oxygen resources and keeping the remnants of the tanker from being flooded by water.

I was far more interested in the Gulf Trader than the fleet of survival ships with the aliens.  Mainly because having survivors in a sunken vessel seems more unique and exciting than flying around space looking for a new homeworld.  In fact, if the novel had solely been about the Gulf Trader, I would still have enjoyed it.  The contrast with the aliens is worthwhile and interesting, but maybe not as exciting as just focusing on the submerged ship.  Anyway, the survivors include a doctor, a first officer, a Lieutenant Commander, and two nurses.

One of the issues with the novel is that the nurses (women) are treated like they are idiots.  To be nurses in the merchant navy or the Royal Navy, I would assume they would have some medical knowledge and functional skills.  Instead, White writes them as if they are helpless, hapless, empty-headed dolls.  Several times, I found myself asking: “well, aren’t these women nurses? shouldn’t they be able to provide something to this stranded group?”  And, yes, of course White has them provide something – they are the mothers of the “generations.”  Basically, the plot has these two women survive so they can repopulate this sunken vessel and turn it into the “generation ship.”  Aggravatingly, they have to be coddled and reassured and treated with kid gloves.  (Has White ever even met a nurse?)

Anyway, I took a rather immediate shine to Lieutenant Commander Wallis – even before the torpedoes hit. After the explosions, he becomes the leader of the group.  However, he has big help from Dr. Radford.  In fact, it is difficult to say who is more integral to the survival of this group – Radford or Wallis.  The key point regarding the Gulf Trader is that this is a survival episode wherein the survivors are forced to suddenly adapt, innovate, and struggle on their own.  The humans are thrust into an entirely unbelievable situation and forced to deal with it.

The alien fleet which is headed toward Earth is the result of the whole civilization’s efforts to create a survival situation involving a strong and planned strategy.  And maybe this very fact is why I was more fascinated by the humans below the sea than the aliens in space.  The unexpectedness of the Gulf Trader’s scenario engenders more sympathy and excitement than the strategic efforts of the aliens.  Several times as I read, I was slightly annoyed by the interruption of having to read about the aliens.

The most important fact in the humans’ survival is not that they creatively solve the mundane issues of oxygen, waste-removal, flood-prevention, heat-sourcing, and nutrition.  Rather, it is that they find a way to, almost error-freely, transmit knowledge.  They are able to adapt to their surroundings and maintain their level of intelligence through several generations.  The first group of survivors begins to practice “The Game.”  This is first suggested by Wallis, but adjusted as needed by everyone else who ever lives in the vessel.  The Game is never completely outlined in detail (how could White do this?) but it does remind me of both Hermann Hess’ Magister Ludi/The Glass-Bead Game as-well-as Iain Banks’ The Player of Games (1988).

The Game, is it is always called, is how the humans survive the claustrophobia, monotony, and other psychological effects of their experience.  It is used for transmitting knowledge, ideas, and for entertainment.  It does seem so implausible, but there is something that is also very appealing and interesting in this concept.  Ultimately, it explains how generations after the original crew, the survivors still have someone called Wallis that is considered a doctor/Commander – and he thinks cogently on topics of bacterial infection, survival tactics, and leadership.

Another downside to the writing:  it gets a bit confusing as to the layout of the Gulf Trader.  So many compartments and “tanks” that I think the reader can get lost or stop caring too much about the specifics of the locations.  Also, while this novel focuses on the parallels of surviving generation ships, I think a little more description and environmental development could have helped out.  Yes, the reader is exposed to the many issues facing the crews.  However, I think a few moments of “descriptive prose” could have enhanced the eeriness and tension of the setting.  White’s writing tends to be factual and direct.

The ending is a lot more positive than I expected it to be.  Frankly, if this story was written today – I doubt it would be written with such a positive outcome.  Maybe 2015 is a lot more negative and apocalyptic-minded than 1966…. that’s kind of depressing, I guess.  In any case, the latest Wah-lass is a hoot and I liked him just as much as his ancestor.

4 stars