Archive for November, 2013

Science Fiction Round 28: Sector General – Emergency Medicine IN SPACE.

James White’s Sector General series was the first (or at least one of the first) scifi series that I read completely, thanks to there being omnibus versions of the oldest six novels and to the staff of Uncle Hugo’s bookstore in Minneapolis having copies of the related short stories.  White wrote 12 Sector General novels and a bunch of shorter pieces, between 1957 and his death in 1999.  I finished reading the series sometime around 2000 if I remember correctly.

Covers of the first (left) and last (right) Sector General novels.  In the interests of noting when White got it right: the excess of one current single-human-culture specific marker for "hospital" on the covers is not what actually happens in the text.

Covers of the first (left) and last (right) Sector General novels – notice the transition from 1950s pulp to 1990s series paperback. In the interests of noting when White got it right: the excess of one current single-human-culture specific marker for “medics” on the covers is not what actually happens in the series.  Sector General’s ambulance ships are each marked with a few dozen different symbols with approximately the same meaning, from various different member worlds of the Federation.

The Good

You could describe the series as pacifistic space opera.  White grew up in Belfast and was motivated to a very strictly pacifistic system of ethics by his witnessing The Troubles.  So while there is military conflict in the series, it is always presented with a very clear message that war is to be avoided if at all possible.  The focus is far more on the dramatic tension of “We have this apparently-sick person.  How can we save them?”.  It is nice to see a series where most of the characters are explicitly well-intentioned and don’t exhibit uncharacteristically bad judgement as a way to short-cut the plot.  White also had a gift for designing thematically-interestingly-alien aliens, which I’ll talk more about below.

The plots are in large part formulaic, with limited character development.  This is not by itself a bad thing: consider most medical dramas or procedurals.  And while the initial stories focused almost entirely on the actions of a single doctor, a surgeon named Conway (who I suspect started as a self-insert character), White later considered things from the points of view of characters with many different roles in the hospital: patients, students, the Monitor Corps police/coast guard/engineers that maintain and supply the place, the psychologists who serve the hospital staff, the chef running the hospital kitchens.

The novels are also not entirely episodic.  The events of the earlier ones are reflected in the later ones, although White was not fully consistent in his world-building.  On the other hand; this is a series where there is FTL by “hyperspace jump”, artificial gravity, and a Federation of several dozen intelligent species with nearly comparable technological expertise spanning the Milky Way and Large Magellanic Cloud.  So we are already deep into the inconsistencies of space opera, which have been mentioned before.

The Bad

Despite White’s effective advocacy of pacifism, there are some serious problems with the series.  I recognized them when I first read the books, but missed their full extent until I did a re-read more recently.


There is persistent and grating sexism and gender essentialism in the stories.  It presents somewhat oddly.  In stories from human points-of-view, all non-human intelligent aliens are referred to as “it” rather than with other English pronouns and it is repeatedly stated that their genders are irrelevant to anyone who isn’t part of the same species and that whatever biological sex they may have is only significant if they are patients and it matters to their treatment.  This is handled consistently: in stories from non-human points-of-view, all humans are referred to as “it”.   But the five non-human narrators are all from species that have two biological sexes that are mapped to two socially-constructed genders and referred to by she/he and him/her.  Of the five, four describe themselves as male and one as female.

And the worst sexism is among the human characters: men are persistently and disturbingly over-valued relative to women.  Of the main human characters, all but one is a man.  And that one is Murchison, who is introduced initially for the express purpose of being Conway’s love interest.  She also is initially cast as a nurse assigned to work for Conway, which introduces an additional layer of creepy.  In the later books, she transfers to pathology and demonstrates exceptional skill at figuring out what killed people whose existence and biochemistry no one has encountered before.  So apparently White was learning to be less sexist.  But he still included repeated nonsensical claims that “human women think differently than human men” and so no woman was capable of becoming a doctor at Sector General.  And that is even after he wrote an entire novel centered on the culture shock experienced by female-described non-human doctor who is the first person from her world to work at the hospital.

Let this be an object lesson: it is all to easy to continue to be horrifically bigoted even if you think that you are not being so.

Anglocentrism (or at least Ireland/Scotland/Wales/England – centrism)

As with the sexism, this is far more obvious for the humans in the setting than it is for the interactions between the many different intelligent fictional species.  There is a problem with many of the alien cultures being treated as Planets Of Hats rather than individuals, but White’s portrayal of the human characters in his stories is more immediately grating.  By way of illustration, here are the names of the human characters that show up in the first 100 pages of one of the books, Mind Changer, in order of appearance:

O’Mara.  Skempton.  [Peter] Conway.  Braithwaite.  Craythorne.  Bates.  Mannen.  Davantry.

The details of these characters’ appearances are largely not described.  But the setting for the series is a many-centuries-distant future where Earth is supposedly united under a single government that covers it and many space-based installations and colony worlds, and that government is itself only part of the deeply-integrated Federation.  Under what positive future history does almost every human have a currently-traditionally Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or English name?  I’ve flagged this pattern under “anglocentrism”, but I suspect it reflects pervasive and unacknowledged subtle racism where White was wrongly treating a very small fraction of humanity as the default.  That is a serious problem.  (Edit: a human nurse named ‘Patel’ does show up briefly later in Mind Changer.  Physical description of the character extends to “dark skin” – while the skin tones of the other human characters are unspecified.)


There is a related problem: even with the various non-human narrators, human characters are in the majority in the stories, particularly in the Monitor Corps.  And this is in a Federation of several dozen intelligent species, where the human population is explicitly not particularly high as compared to those of other species.  This does not make sense, even if we restrict ourselves to oxygen-breathing liquid-water-as-solvent environments with people who have close enough to the same senses as humans that we can use the same toys they do.  Star Trek has the same problem, but Sector General doesn’t have the excuse of needing the characters to be portrayed by human actors.

So White was using human-as-default for most of the medics in his stories (although not for the patients) and a very unrepresentative fraction of humanity as default humans.  That’s not cool, even though White is perhaps less bad in this respect than many other authors – that merely illustrates how pervasive the problem is.

The Aliens

The male-assigned-narrow-subsection-of-humans-as-default-people problems aside, White did create a lot of interestingly alien aliens; ranging from sentient symbiotic virus colonies (that was inspired by Hal Clement) to heavy-gravity people with six legs whose idea of a handshake would break your arm to a collective intelligence that forms itself together into a several-kilometer-long walking city.

White often designed his aliens to fit a particular plot he wanted to do.  Somebody said “make a doctor who is actually a leech”.  So he did – except that the leech isn’t actually intelligent.  It’s the equivalent of a white blood cell for a sentient continent.  Think a peat bog threaded with an organo-metallic nervous system, which has been successful at competing with other similar creatures for real estate over a large landmass.  Then somebody makes the mistake of trying some limited terraforming … cue the plot of Major Operation, where there is a combination of landscaping, surgery, and how-do-we-explain-what-we-need-to-do-to-the-patient.

Cover of one of White's short story collections.  The bird-like creature is not the patient.  It's the habitat.

Cover of one of White’s short story collections. The bird-like creature is not the patient. It’s the habitat.

On another occasion, White was considering how a culture might make interstellar spacecraft without what we would be pleased to call high technology (I later figured out a different way of doing that).  White’s idea was inspired by the bombardier beetles: biological rockets.  He assumed an intelligent species that evolved in an ambiguously parasitic/symbiotic relationship with something not entirely unlike a large version of the beetles.  They engineered a way of exploiting a large local heavier-than-air flying creature in the same way, put a few of themselves inside it in suspended animation, coated the whole thing with an aeroshield shell (see above), and launched the whole thing onto an escape trajectory at the top of a very large pile of beetles (the usual complaints about biotech apply).  Quite a long while later, a Federation survey vessel finds the bird.  Confusion ensues as the patients are mistaken for a disease on their life-support system.

White did have one complaint: “Whenever I invent a really interesting alien, it promptly gets sick and ends up in Sector General”.

Remember When I Said Evolution Does Not Work That Way?


Some of White’s aliens have evolutionary histories assigned to them that are somewhat plausible.  For example: the Blind Ones are in fact blind.  That’s the human name for them, rendered into English from whatever language the human characters are actually using.  They evolved from a subterranean borrowing species.  Their technology is centered around tactile and auditory controls and they have built interstellar spacecraft with it.  Good enough.  But a bunch of other of White’s aliens don’t work due to basic physics – telekinesis is not possible, nor is telepathy that works on all brains of any kind.

White also falls into the trap of thinking that evolution has a direction.

Sector General staff classify lifeforms based on a four-Roman-letter classification scheme that is supposed to cover all known possible life-support requirements and basic anatomy and body plans.  This is not the same as species: humans are DBDG, denoting approximately “warm-blooded oxygen-breathing carbon- and water-based lifeforms with a spinal cord and tetrapod limb and head arrangement”.  So are two other species in the Federation, who look as little like us as they do bears or dogs (there are also, implausibly, the Human Alien Etlans – who look more like us than we look like the other chimps; they aren’t members of the Federation).

The problem is not the forcing-all-lifeforms-into-456976-categories*.  That would probably be possible, although not necessarily in a clinically-useful way (does it matter more for surgery where your limbs are or “this anesthetic will knock you out and not kill you” ?).  The problem is the ordering of the scale.  Humans are classed under “D”.  Supposedly, water-breathing or otherwise fully aquatic lifeforms were assigned A, B, and C prefixes because they were “more primitive” – which is meaningless, as I described before.  Some people who are approximately mobile intelligent woody plants are classed as AACP because “plants came before fish”.  Except what do you mean when you say “plant” and “fish” ?  There is as much or more diversity within clade Viridiplantae as there is within clade Animalia, and new types of plants appear constantly.  On Earth, the first woody plants (~400 mya) appeared after the first bony fish (~420 mya).  We can expect any comparably-extensive biosphere to have produced as wide and chaotic a range of lifeforms.   And since evolution has no direction, there is no universal pattern of what your ancestors were doing to lead to what you are doing now.   For example, Earth has some intelligent species whose ancestors went from being fully land-living to being fully aquatic…

Basically, White was good inventing anatomies and physiologies but he failed at evolutionary biology and ecology, as well as remaining apparently largely oblivious to several different forms of social privilege.

*The cultural privilege illustrated by using a four-Roman-letter scheme may be worrisome.

Choose Your Own Adventure 105: Playing The Hero

2013/11/26 4 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

Being bold (and possibly self-sacrificial), you chose to tell you new companions who you are… and then make sure they don’t get in your way.

Part 105

You pull a spell around the small group before you speak.  “My real name actually is Severel Mazurek.”  While the three genuine students are stunned into silence, you briefly explain that allegations of your treachery have been somewhat exaggerated.  You say you are trying to prevent the Emperor from using a spell that will cause a major disaster to occur, but he refuses to listen to you now.

Jenneth begins to say, slowly and thoughtfully, “We could help-”

But you raise a hand and interrupt him.  “No.  What needs to be done will be easier on my own.  In fact, it would likely be better if all of you took a leave of absence from the academy, and left Alederik.”

“For how long?” asks one of the others.

“A few weeks.”

The three of them look at each other.  “You’re sure you don’t need any help?”

“I’m sure,” you reply.  “I could have left the prison on my own at any time.”

“Oh.  Well,” he finished, “Then I guess we were never here.”

They quietly disperse into the night, and you leave in a different direction.


You spend the night away from your place in the student residences, as a precaution.

As it turns out, this was a good plan.

When you get back to the mage academy, the place is swarming with city guards.  You note a Black Hand from a distance, and make a point of avoiding being noticed.  You do manage to find a few other students, who don’t know you, and are standing in a small group, watching the proceedings.  “Do you know what’s going on?”

One senior student shrugs.  “Not really.  I heard they hauled off Professor Lehhev on charges of sedition and treason, or something dangerous like that.  They’re also running through the students’ quarters, looking for some other suspicious character.”

“Thanks,” you reply.  “I guess I won’t be getting much done today…”  And you move on before you can be recognized.

The Choices

Option 108:  Dive in and rescue Lehhev at the first opportunity.  You need his help to dismantle the spell of nastiness.  And besides, you owe him.

Option 109:  Hold back.  Lehhev may be better off if you just disappear.  Try to retrieve the oblivion spellbook, and then find somebody else who can help you.

Option 110:  This is one thing too far.  A direct confrontation with the Emperor is sure to happen, sooner or later — you might as well make it sooner.  Time to visit the Emperor and get him to spill the beans.

Superheroes Round 9: Iron Man 3

2013/11/23 1 comment

I am the Iron Man, duhnuhnuhnuhnuh nuhNuhnuhnuh.


Robotically controlled suits fly everywhere.  Remind me why we need to have a person in any of them?

Robotically controlled suits fly everywhere. Remind me why we need to have a person in any of them?

Even Superheroes Can Have Mental Illness

I’m of mixed feelings about this aspect.

On the one hand, it’s reasonable.  It’s not too surprising that after going through all sorts of major stressors, Tony Stark develops what appears to be PTSD.  He has panic attacks and trouble sleeping.  It’s a good thing to see that even a superhero can have a mental disorder — perhaps it will go towards reducing the stigma, and helping people in real life seek help if they need it.

Which leads us to the other hand.  The kid who acts as Tony’s sidekick for a little while asks him, after seeing a panic attack, “Should you see a doctor?  Should you be on medication?”  (To which his replies are something like “Probably” and “maybe”.)  If somebody benefits from medication, that’s fine.  But I worry a bit about two different things.  First, there’s the pejorative  implications — since “he’s off his meds” is often used as an insult.  Second, counseling doesn’t seem to get mentioned so much as the meds, even though it’s a more common treatment.  Even though it helps many people.  And the fact that medication isn’t provided without counseling to go along with it.

Number 42

Prototype Iron Man suit.  Two points for the Hitchhiker’s reference.

And then… I’ll admit that the self-assembling suit is kind of cool, but I’m not sure exactly what the point is.  So… you can push a button, and various pieces of your suit fly at you and assemble on top of you.  This is convenient if you want your suit in a hurry, but inconvenient when only half of your suit arrives.  It also seems unnecessarily complicated.  Stark has already been demonstrated to have a suit that can be collapsed into a briefcase — why not just keep that around at all times?

This is one that also, at some point, responds directly to Stark’s mental commands.  Perhaps something like motion capture, except more high-tech and working off of Stark’s mental impulses.  We’ll just ignore the fact that this works from a device in his arm instead of around his brain.  Nonetheless, it is cool, except for when he has a nightmare and the suit attacks Pepper Potts… because he kept it in while he was asleep, and didn’t put in safety features to prevent the suit from responding while the controller is not conscious.

Ultimately, I’m left with a single question: if Stark’s suits are capable of autonomous operation, as is demonstrated in the big final battle, why do we need to put humans into any of them?  Sure, maybe you have them get in the suit to protect them while the other suits are battling the bad guys, but… otherwise?



This is this film’s equivalent of Captain America’s supersoldier serum.  It gives you super-strength, speed, and amazing regenerative powers.  It also lets you burn things, since apparently your temperature can go up to 3000 Kelvin or something .  You should also careful while doing it, since you’re now made of explodium if you go too hot.

Aside from the obvious design flaws, there’s a critical, rather obvious biological problem.  People don’t just become immune to heat like that.  As you warm up a person, they’ll start having issues with hyperthermia and heat stroke.  Warm them up a bit more, and depending on how fast you do it, we can start talking about burns and denaturing all the proteins in your body.  (Denaturing of proteins is why cooked steak is a lot easier to eat than raw — the proteins have come apart to some degree, making it easier to take the steak apart.)  As we continue to increase the temperature, we rapidly pass the point where even heat-loving bacteria called hyperthermophiles can survive.  And we’re not even to 400 K yet!  The surface temperature of the nearest extra-solar planet to us, Alpha Centauri Bb, is right next to its sun, and has a surface temperature of about 1500 K.  Which is hot enough that silicate-based rocks melt and turn into magma.  At 3000 K, you’re getting close to the vaporization temperature of iron.  Yes, that’s right, iron boils at about 3134 K.  Silicon dioxide, the main chemical component of things like glass, sand, and quartz, boils at around 2500 K.  The Extremis people are 500 K hotter than vaporized glass.

Suffice it to say, a person as hot as 3000 K would, indeed, be able to melt through a lot of things.  But it’d be hard to make a solid metallic robot that could safely be that hot, much less anything biological.

Your Intrigue Needs Work

This was… over-the-top at best.

I’ve seen another movie (RED — Retired, Extremely Dangerous) that had the VP be in on some delightfully over-the-top plot.  Deliberately over-the-top.

I liked that setup better.

There is the lead villain, the Mandarin, who is, initially, an extremist terrorist with Arab-style dress and accent, blowing stuff up and blaming the US for everything.

He is later revealed to be a perpetually intoxicated actor named Trevor who doesn’t really know what’s going on.  The obsessive scientist-CEO is the actual brains behind the operation — intending to supply terror to increase demands for his weapons tech, including Extremis.  He’s funded by the VP because the VP wants a treatment for his daughter’s amputations, and, presumably, doesn’t mind the plot to kill the US President too much.

Um.  Wow.  The degree of transparent conspiracy-theory trappings is pretty annoying.

I would have liked it much better if the Mandarin had actually been the mastermind all along, and not a British guy masquerading as one.  Let the Middle Eastern dude be cleverly manipulating the military-industrial complex and American anxieties for his own profit, rather than the stereotypical political and religious motivations.  Perhaps he has the obsessive scientist-CEO on a tight leash — blackmail, or threatening someone the CEO cares about.  And then, that character can do a heel-face turn at a critical moment.  Or perhaps the good guys can try to make a deal with the Mandarin, letting him show off his expert skills at social maneuvering.  Or something a little more interesting…

Choose Your Own Adventure 101: Good Things Come To Those Who Wait

2013/11/19 3 comments

The previous post in this series is here.

Having gotten caught in the previous installment, but not yet definitively identified, your decision was… to wait and see.

Wow, you are really cautious.  But anyway…

Part 101

You spend several more hours sitting your cell, apparently neglected by the constabulary.  Perhaps your own incident got lost in the business of the day.  You hear a few belligerent individuals and a few more drunks hauled down the hallway to other cells.  No one joins you in yours.

You end up sitting on your hands.  (Metaphorically.  The hardness of the accommodations makes doing so literally rather uncomfortable.)  With luck, someone will get to you eventually, and the whole problem will be blown off as a mistake.

Without it, someone will realize that it wasn’t a mistake at all.

The day drags on long enough that you are fairly certain it is quite late in the evening when you hear whispers and scratching at the door.  The door opens on none other than Jeneth Varnek, the academy student who was leading the display earlier this evening.  There are whispers from the shadows behind him — at least two other students are aiding and abetting.

While you sit there with your eyebrows raised, he says, “Come on, we don’t have a lot of time.  The guards could wake up at any moment.”

You nod, and stride forward.  He speaks a few precise words, and disappears into the shadows himself.  “I’m sure you can do your own illusion.”

In fact, you can do it with far less difficulty and far more practical experience than he realizes.  You spend a moment on the best invisibility spell you know.  You vanish utterly.

“Whoa.  You’re good.”

“Shush.”  You pull a circle of silence around the group, and pull the cell door closed behind you.  “No sound will escape now.  Leaving the door closed will mean they don’t notice I’m gone as quickly.”

One of your unseen allies adds, “Sorry it took so long.  We thought they might just let you back out.”

You choose the words of your reply carefully.  “Knowing the person they think I am, not likely.”

“Right.  We figured that out.”  Jenneth is the oldest of the group, and the ringleader.

You walk past the sleeping guards unobserved.  They sit, or stand, with their eyes entirely glazed over.  Nicely done, for amateurs.  The four of you are shortly in a nearby alleyway, shedding your illusions and leaving the vicinity as quickly as you can under cover of the natural darkness.

“Well, we’re out,” Jenneth said.  “Now what?”

A good question.  You could confront the emperor at any time with what you have learned, and attempt to determine (or forestall) whatever he is planning.  The main problem is that when you last spoke to Lehhev, he said it would likely be at least a fortnight before he understands the spell well enough to dismantle it safely.  You’re also going to have to do something about your new allies.

The Choices

Option 104:  Let your allies in on who you really are, and why you’re being called a traitor.  Encourage them in helping you to kidnap the Emperor as soon as Lehhev says he’s ready.

Option 105:  Let your allies in on who you really are, and why you’re being called a traitor.  Encourage them to leave town, since remaining here is likely to be dangerous for them.  Confront the Emperor on your own as soon as Lehhev is ready.

Option 106:  Send your new friends away with a warning that it’s going to be hot for a while, but that you are definitely not Severel Mazurek.  Go back to the academy to consult with Lehhev about your next step.

Option 107:  Waiting until Lehhev is ready is just going to get you caught and killed.  Send your new friends away with a warning that it’s going to be hot for a while, but that you are definitely not Severel Mazurek.  Plan on assassinating the Emperor at the earliest opportunity.

We Give Links 7: Listen to Anita Sarkeesian

There is an addition to her important series on sexist patterns in video games: