James White: Four Novels

Covers of four novels by James White
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I usually respond well to editorial criticism, and I invariably take notice of a constructive review. Generally speaking, however, those people who like my stories show great sensitivity and intelligence—those who don’t, don’t.

James White, quoted by Graham Andrews

James White was a Northern Irish science fiction author, who deserves to be better known than he is. He had this to say about himself in the author’s note to the Ace edition of his novel The Escape Orbit.

I first started writing for fan magazines, and wrote my first story partly as a joke and partly because I was fed up with all the atomic doom stories which were current at that time and wanted to write one with a happy ending. Submitted this first story to Ted Carnell of New Worlds who said he liked it and had I any other ideas … I’ve been writing professionally as a hobby ever since.

White continued to “write professionally as a hobby” for the next twenty years, retaining his day job until he was forced to retire through ill-health, and writing in the evenings in his loft conversion—his stories never seem to have made enough money to make a full-time writing career an option. Most of his novels and story collections are now long out of print, and (unlike so many other science-fiction authors of his vintage) he has yet to be granted a second life in e-book form. Which is a shame. In my view the world needs more exposure to White’s gentle humanity, deeply felt pacifism, and wry wit.

He is now mainly remembered for his “Sector General” series of novels, featuring the activities of a huge multi-species hospital on the edge of the galaxy. Most of the early novels in that series were assembled from short stories—at first published in New Worlds magazine, and later in the anthology series New Writings in S.F. And it was in New Writings, which regularly appeared on the shelves of my local public library, that White first came to my attention, with memorable Sector General short stories like “Vertigo” (1968), “Meatball” (1969) and “Spacebird” (1973).

I’m going to write something about Sector General another time, but for now I’ve been re-reading four of his (now largely forgotten) stand-alone novels, spanning a decade beginning in the early 1960s. They all manifest the things that people of “great sensitivity and intelligence” like about White’s stories. For one, his characters have vivid internal lives—we share their stress, fear and confusion as White’s intricate plots buffet them around. For another, almost all his stories (Open Prison a partial exception) feature antagonists who mean well—in White’s stories, conflict arises because people misunderstand each other or their situation, and conflict is resolved by good people making their best efforts to reach mutual understanding. And finally, there’s White’s gentle humour, sometimes exquisitely timed to place a beat of relief into a rampingly tense situation. And, interestingly, three of the four feature medics as principal characters, despite the fact the drama comes from something other than medical practice.

Here’s a quick summary of the four novels I recently dug out of the attic. (White, in his loft conversion in the sky, might find that amusing.)

Open Prison (1965) was original serialized in 1964 in New Worlds. UK publishers retained White’s original title, while in the USA it appeared under the slightly misleading title The Escape Orbit (but with much better cover art). It was nominated for the inaugural Nebula Award in 1966, losing to Frank Herbert’s Dune, so no shame in that.

The premise of the story is that humans have been involved in an inconclusive interstellar war against insectile aliens, predictably called “Bugs”, for sixty years. The chlorine-breathing Bugs have addressed the problem of dealing with thousands of oxygen-breathing prisoners-of-war by simply dumping their prisoners to fend for themselves on an uninhabited planet with an oxygen atmosphere. The story starts with the arrival of a senior officer, Sector Marshal Warren, on the prison planet. He discovers that the humans have divided themselves into two groups—the Committee, who have devoted themselves to formulating some method of escape (which they’ve been working on for decades with little success); and the Civilians, who have simply abandoned all pretext to military organization, and started making the best life for themselves that they can, under the circumstances. Warren aligns himself with the Committee, and starts driving the escape attempt forward towards a definite deadline.

At first, I couldn’t work out why this one had been nominated for a Nebula—the first half of the novel is a very slow burn, largely taken up with political manoeuvring, as well as some breath-takingly blithe sexism which serves as a reminder that even the relatively recent past is a foreign country. But when the escape attempt begins, with the humans luring down and then storming a Bug shuttle-craft, using cross-bows and improvised spacesuits, it really starts to rattle along. And there are two twists in the final few chapters, each of which recasts the context of the narrative, leading to an ending that is simultaneously downbeat and hopeful.

I kept thinking of other novels while reading The Watch Below (1966). It reminded me in turn of Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, then Andy Weir’s The Martian and then Robert Heinlein’s Orphans Of The Sky. (Heinlein’s novel, which predates White’s, gets an acknowledgement in The Watch Below when it is discussed, though not named, by some of the characters.)

The novel has two parallel story strands. The first, which dominates the narrative, involves the fate of five people (three men and two women) trapped below decks on a large oil tanker, the Gulf Trader, when it is torpedoed in 1942. The tanker is being transferred, empty of oil, from the USA to the UK, where it will be refitted for some vaguely hinted-at anti-submarine role. But for now its empty tanks have been crammed with food and equipment to aid Britain’s war effort. So the sunken survivors find themselves two hundred feet underwater, sealed into a very large watertight space that is packed with the necessities of survival. As they await rescue they set up a generator and lights, a still to desalinate water, and plant beans under artificial light to absorb carbon dioxide and replace oxygen. (While they wait for the beans to grow, they have access to cylinders of oxygen from multiple oxy-acetylene welding kits.) But rescue never comes.

The other strand deals with a crew of water-breathing aliens, fleeing the destruction of their home planet in a colony fleet. The flight to a new world will take many of their lifetimes, but the crew will spend most of that time in artificial hibernation, being woken only occasionally to serve watch duty and keep the fleet on course. Except they discover that repeated episodes of hibernation will cause brain damage, rendering the crew unfit to keep watch. Or indeed, feed themselves.

Both narratives then turn into distorted versions of the classic “generation ship gone wrong” science-fictional trope, of which Heinlein’s novel is a fine example. The alien crew decide to stay awake and produce children, who will, generation after generation, be trained to pilot the fleet and its hibernating passengers to their destination. And the five people trapped in the sunken tanker  … well, they start having children, too. And decades pass, and their children have children. (I know, I know. There is a point with this one at which you just need to take a deep breath and go along for the ride.)

The two stories then proceed in a sort of narrative lock-step, with successive generations of aliens and humans encountering progressively worsening problems as each group struggles to survive. Of course the two strands are going to converge eventually, and the rough outline of how they’re going to come together is fairly evident. But White pulls it all off neatly in a couple of chapters, with a fine plot development I didn’t see coming.

All Judgement Fled (1967) is a “First Contact” novel—a big mysterious spaceship enters the solar system, and a small band of humans travel out to investigate it and explore its interior. Yup, that is indeed the set-up for Arthur C. Clarke’s later and much more famous novel, Rendezvous With Rama (1973). Mike Resnick once wrote*:

I never knew quite how to describe [All Judgement Fled] until Rendezvous With Rama came out and won the 1974 Hugo. Now, I just tell people that if they want to read Rama done right (sorry, Arthur), pick up All Judgement Fled.

That’s a bit of a false dichotomy, I reckon—it’s possible to do “exploring giant mysterious alien artefact” right in more ways than one. Clarke’s beautiful “sense of wonder” novel won him a well-deserved Hugo award, but left his spacecraft as an open-ended mystery. White’s novel sets a puzzle, puts his characters through an emotional and physical wringer as they try to work out what’s going on, and then reaches a conclusion with the puzzle solved.

White’s astronauts are attacked on entering the alien spaceship, but are uncertain if they’re dealing with vicious alien animals or the builders of the craft, and their situation becomes increasingly perilous as some of their spacesuits are damaged, trapping some members of the exploratory group aboard the ship. They are forced to push deeper into its interior, fighting off repeated attacks with improvised weapons while attempting to understand what they’re dealing with. Meanwhile (in a marvellously prescient version of today’s social-media hate-storms), public opinion back on Earth turns against the astronauts, who are accused of slaughtering the ambassadors of an alien race. White evokes the emotional strain this imposes on the exploratory team very well, as they simultaneously fight for their lives, doubt their own decisions and deal with increasingly fatuous and bullying messages from their controllers on Earth. The whole thing eventually builds to an almost cinematic climax (and I’d certainly pay to see the film adaptation of this novel, if one is ever made).

Dark Inferno (1972) originally appeared in serial form in the magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, then had its title changed to the more literal Lifeboat when published in the USA by Ballantine. UK publishers retained White’s original (and in my view more pleasing) title.

This one made me think of the film Airport (1970), and I’m pretty sure that’s not merely a coincidence. White’s novel similarly introduces a cast of characters and then loads them aboard a doomed flight—on this occasion, the spaceship Eurydice, bound from Earth to the Jovian moons. (The spacecraft’s name refers to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and, like White’s original title, hints that its passengers are destined for a hellish experience.)

The point-of-view character is Mercer, the ship’s doctor, who mixes freely with both the crew and the passengers, and its through him we experience the gently ramping tension as the Eurydice‘s systems go from nigglingly not-quite-right, to very slightly wrong, to really pretty badly wrong, and then to an acute failure that precipitates the sudden chaotic abandonment of the ship in a tiny fleet of lifeboats. The crew are housed in individual cabins, detached from the body of the ship—Mercer’s “lifeboat” is the original ship’s sick-bay, in which he is tending the severely injured captain of the Eurydice. The passengers are housed in fragile inflatable pods, each designed to keep three people alive for a couple of weeks—but in the chaos of departure, some are overloaded with four passengers, and one contains only a ten-year-old boy.

The lifeboats must first move away from Eurydice while waiting for it to explode, but then turn around and make rendezvous in a group so that they can be picked up by a rescue mission. It’s Mercer’s job to talk the panic-stricken passengers through that complicated process, as well as helping them deal with a succession of emergencies, using a radio that broadcasts on an open channel to all the lifeboats simultaneously. The Eurydice‘s course had taken it inside the orbit of Venus, so the temperature starts to rise in all the lifeboats, particularly the overcrowded ones. And when the Eurydice takes longer to explode than anyone had predicted, resources begin to run low …

Again, White really ramps up the tension in the closing chapters, with a succession of skin-of-the-teeth rescues.

Although I enjoyed rereading all of these, I was least engaged by Open Prison. The alien Bugs, who serve little other purpose than to be shot, are a serious departure from White’s usual approach. Instead, his trademark “search for mutual understanding” is confined entirely to the opposing human factions on the prison planet. But it’s full of nicely observed moments, like this one:

With gestures which were an improbable combination of salute, cheery wave and thumbs-up sign, Kelso and Sloan disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel heading for Number Two Attack Point

The Watch Below is certainly strange, but oddly compulsive. The human decision to found an informal underwater colony is obviously bonkers, and it wouldn’t actually work, but White manages to usher his readers past all that, and engage them with the dramas that arise from the crazy premise. And in the middle of all the grim stuff, there’s always a little glimpse of humour:

With the passing years the doctor’s hair had gone white, Dickson’s had gone gray, and the lieutenant commander’s had gone completely.

All Judgement Fled is psychologically the most intense, as the humans fight for survival while being undermined by their own Mission Control. White constructs an exponential rise in tension, showing us in a series of cameos that the starfish-like aliens attack from ambush, that they are able to clutch a human being tightly in their tentacles, and that they also possess a central, stabbing horn at the base of those radiating tentacles. So the reader knows exactly what’s going to happen, but not when. The inevitable fatal attack occurs in zero gravity, and White stages it so that it’s almost off-screen, letting his readers draw their own pictures. This reader has had the picture in his head now for thirty years:

There were shouts, curses and a scream that jerked on and off regularly, as if someone was trying to hold a high note while his back was being clapped. McCullough swung round and raised his weapon, but the center of the room was a confused mass of twisting, struggling bodies which were rapidly becoming obscured by a growing red fog and there was nothing he could do.

But Dark Inferno is still my favourite. It has its problems—the organization of the lifeboats into well-appointed crew quarters and marginally equipped passenger compartments is designed to serve the needs of the story and doesn’t bear close examination; and there’s a little problem with conservation of angular momentum that drove me mad on first reading, back when I was a judgemental teenage physics nerd. But it’s beautifully paced and genuinely tense, shot through with memorable moments. The scene in which the doctor, Mercer, listens helplessly on his radio while two men start a murderous fight in one of the lifeboats, sticks in the mind, as does a classic “defuse the tension” moment during the fraught rescue sequence. Here’s the radio exchange between Mercer and one of the other crewmen, who is returning to the rendezvous point after being out of touch for hours while chasing down an errant lifeboat:

‘That was quite a chase, Mercer. It will take me five hours to get back there, but I have them aboard.’
‘Are they all right?’
‘Two of them are doing fine. But the other man, Saddler, is running a bluff with a pair of threes.’

So I’d recommend both All Judgement Fled and Dark Inferno as exciting and well-constructed reads, though a modern reader will wince from time to time at the authorial Male Gaze to which female characters are subjected. The Watch Below is marvellously odd, but probably not for everyone. And Open Prison is really too much of its time—although cleverly constructed and pacey in its second half, it very much shows its age.

* Resnick was writing in the introduction to NESFA Press’s The White Papers (1996), a celebration of White’s work

. I’ve now written about the “Sector General” stories, here.

3 thoughts on “James White: Four Novels”

  1. His name didn’t immediately ring a bell with me but when you mentioned the “Sector General” stories my memory of reading some of these in the 1970’s was restored.

    After reading your comments and thinking that he might be worth some re-reading I had a look to see what was on offer. However, I checked “Book Depository” which has three of the “Sector General” paperbacks for sale – but starting from A$50 ( £27) upwards nostalgia is not strong enough. I will have to hunt around some more.

  2. I’ve just finished writing my piece about White’s “Sector General” stories, which should appear next month. The first few stories, corresponding to the first two “fix-up” novels, are available on-line, courtesy of the Luminist archive of New Worlds magazine. I’ll give detailed links to what’s available.
    I also noticed that three compendium editions of Sector General, together containing the first eight novels, are available as Kindle e-books in the USA, but evidently not licenced for download in the UK (or Australia, it seems).

  3. Looking forward to the next instalment’. Second hand does seem the way to go for me as there are some cheap multi book offers on-line – one even in Western Australia.

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