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.
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.
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 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.
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.