James White: The Outlying “Sector General” Short Stories

Original publication covers of James White "Sector General" short stories
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Like a sprawling, misshapen Christmas tree the lights of Sector Twelve General Hospital blazed against the misty backdrop of the stars. From its view-ports shone lights that were yellow and red-orange and soft, liquid green, and others which were a searing actinic blue. There was darkness in places also. Behind these areas of opaque metal plating lay sections wherein the lighting was so viciously incandescent that the eyes of approaching ship’s pilots had to be protected from it, or compartments which were so dark and cold that not even the light which filtered in from the stars could be allowed to penetrate to their inhabitants.

James White “Sector General” (1957)

I’ve already introduced James White when I reviewed four of his stand-alone novels recently. At that time, I mentioned that he was best know for his series of twelve Sector General novels, and promised that I’d have more to say on Sector General in another post.

The Sector General series started life as a cluster of short stories (strictly, novelettes), published in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Almost all these stories ended up being incorporated into the early Sector General books, which were fix-up novels. That left only a few scattered stories sitting outside the novel sequence, which is what I’m referring to as the “outlying” stories in the title of this post.

But first, a little background. At the head of this post are the very first words of the first published Sector General story, which appeared in the November 1957 edition of New Worlds Science Fiction. It was introduced by the editor, John Carnell, with the following prescient words:

This month’s novelette is one of the most unusual and interesting plot ideas we have published for a long time. Undoubtedly, it is James White’s most powerful story to date and could well form the basis of further plots built round an intergalactic hospital ship.

Carnell eventually turned out to be right about the “intergalactic” bit, despite the complete lack of mention of anything beyond our own galaxy in the story he was introducing—after a few stories White did introduce visitors from another galaxy. He was certainly wrong about the “ship”—Sector Twelve General turns out to be a gigantic cylinder containing 384 decks, floating permanently at the edge of our galaxy. But he was undoubtedly right about the “further plots”—White went on to write Sector General stories for more than forty years, the last novel appearing in 1999, shortly before his death.

As the quote above makes clear, the multiple decks of White’s hospital station are designed to accommodate the many and varied species of the Galactic Federation. After a few stories, it becomes evident that, despite its name, Sector Twelve General Hospital is nothing less than the tertiary referral centre for the entire galaxy—there are other multienvironment hospitals, and other doctors trained in alien physiology, but Sector General takes on the trickiest cases.

In order to get a handle on the environmental requirements of patients (and staff), White’s medics assign each species four-letter physiological codes. In the first story we encounter the VTMX “energy eaters”, the elephantine FLGIs with their symbiotic OTSBs, the human DBDGs, the water-breathing AUGLs, the chlorine-breathing PVSJs, the low-gravity LSVOs … and so on. To accommodate all this different anatomy, physiology, pathology and psychology, the hospital’s medical staff use “Educator Tapes”—knowledge copied from the minds of alien experts, which is impressed temporarily on their brains so that they can deal with the illnesses of alien species. In his first Sector General story, White introduces the idea like this:

This was Conway’s first experience of an alien physiology tape, and he noted with interest the mental double vision which had increasingly begun to affect his mind—a sure sign that the tape had ‘taken’. By the time he had reached the Radiation Theatre he felt himself to be two people—an Earth-human called Conway and the great, five-hundred unit Telfi gestalt which had been formed to prepare a mental record of all that was known regarding the physiology of that race. That was the only disadvantage—if it was a disadvantage—of the Educator Tape system. Not only was the knowledge impressed on the mind undergoing ‘tuition’, the personalities of the entities who had possessed that knowledge was transferred as well. Small wonder then that the Diagnosticians, who held in their mind sometimes as many as ten different tapes, were a little bit queer.

In story after story, White went on to invent new pathological quirks for his burgeoning cast of aliens, which posed new diagnostic and therapeutic challenges for his medical staff (and sometimes put them in danger). And through all the stories runs White’s trademark sentiment that conflict comes from misunderstanding, and problems are solved when people (and aliens) work together with good intentions. Indeed, White was one of the very early proponents of “pacifist space opera”—although the military “Monitor Corps” features repeatedly in his stories, their job (prefiguring Star Trek by a decade) is one of peace-keeping and exploration. The stories are also suffused with White’s gentle humour, some of which might easily have graced Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

They were an old, wise and humble race, O’Mara concluded; intensely humble. So much so that they tended to look down on other races who were not so humble as they.

All the early Sector General stories appeared in New Worlds, and the relevant issues are all available through the Luminist Archives. (My links below will take you to the pdf files of the named issues.) The first five stories were “Sector General” (November 1957), “Trouble With Emily” (November 1958), “Visitor At Large” (June 1959), “O’Mara’s Orphan” (January 1960) and “Out-Patient” (June 1960). In these early stories, White introduced most of his major characters: the protagonist Dr Conway, who first appears as an intern, two months into the job, and who has reached the rank of Senior Physician by the start of “Out-Patient”; the constantly rude Chief Psychologist, Major O’Mara (“My job is to shrink heads, not swell ’em”); Dr Prilicla, the fragile, insectile empath from a low-gravity planet; and the elephantine Diagnostician-in-Charge of Pathology, Thornnastor. Even Conway’s later love-interest, Nurse Murchison, has a walk-on part (in “Visitor At Large”). These stories were fixed up into the first Sector General novel, Hospital Station, in 1962, with just a little light editing to provide linking text at the end of each story to lead into the next one. The story “O’Mara’s Orphan” was also bumped to the start of the novel (and renamed “Medic”), because it’s a prequel set during the construction of Sector General.

The next novel, Star Surgeon (1963) merged together the short story “Resident Physician” (September 1961) and the novel-length story “Field Hospital”, which had been serialized in the January, February and March issues of New Worlds in 1962. The stories work well together—the alien patient treated by Conway in “Resident Physician” goes on to precipitate the events of “Field Hospital”, in which Sector General becomes the focus of an intergalactic war (and Conway’s romance with Murchison blooms).

Shortly after the publication of Star Surgeon, John Carnell relinquished the editorship of New Worlds, and moved on to edit the paperback original-anthology series New Writings In SF. White’s outlet for Sector General stories moved with Carnell. Another series that followed Carnell from New Worlds to New Writings was Colin Kapp’s Unorthodox Engineers stories, which I’ve written about previously. And, as with Kapp’s work, it was my local public library’s regular subscription to New Writings In SF that gave me my first encounter with Sector General.

For New Writings, White produced a linked series of stories, all dealing with the unlikely denizens of the planet Meatball, which is entirely covered by continent-sized life-forms. These were “Invader” (New Writings 7, 1966), “Vertigo” (New Writings 12, 1968), “Blood Brother” (New Writings 14, 1969), “Meatball” (New Writings 16, 1969) and “Major Operation” (New Writings 18, 1971). By the end of that sequence, Murchison had managed to make an implausibly abrupt transition from nurse to senior pathologist, presumably because White wanted to give her a more major diagnostic role, and the role of nurses in hospital stories of this era was largely restricted to being caring, being alarmed, and handing things to doctors. It was “Vertigo” and “Major Operation” that first caught my teenage attention, and I was tantalized by the obvious fact that there must be more of these stories out there somewhere, while remaining ignorant of Hospital Station and Star Surgeon until their reissue by the Corgi SF Collector’s Library in 1976.

These five stories were brought together in the fix-up novel Major Operation (1971). White retained the format of interlinked episodes in his next two novels, Ambulance Ship (1979) and Sector General (1983), but the short stories featured in these novels were never individually published.


So that ends my gallop through the various short stories that White assembled to produce his first three Sector General novels. But there are other stories that link into the Sector General universe, and they’re what I really wanted to write about, since they’re a collection of curiosities.

The easiest one to describe is “Countercharm”. This is a comparatively short piece, written in haste to fill a slot in the hundredth issue of New Worlds (November 1960). There’s no diagnostic puzzle to be solved—it just describes Conway’s struggle with the personality he absorbs from an Educator tape, which not only turns him into an expert in ELNT medicine, but also leads him to fall in love with a crab-like alien, a predicament from which he is rescued with the aid of Nurse Murchison. Chronologically, the story lies between the end of Hospital Station and the start of Star Surgeon, and it provides the explanation for Murchison’s transformation from walk-on character in the former to love interest in the latter. But its light tone is inconsistent with the darker theme of Star Surgeon, and it’s clear why White, or his publisher, chose not to incorporate it.

Then there’s “Spacebird”, which appeared in New Writings In SF 22 (1973). This is a classic Sector General puzzle story, in which the crew of a Monitor Corps scoutship chance upon what appears to be a huge bird covered in barnacles, floating in interstellar space. And still, apparently, alive. Conway, Murchison and Prilicla are presented with this gigantic patient, and need to puzzle out not only what’s wrong with it, but how and why it ended up drifting between the stars. Depending on which edition of Ambulance Ship you buy, you may or may not discover “Spacebird” as its opening chapter. It wasn’t included in the first Ballantine editions in the United States, but turned up in the British Corgi edition of 1980. Then it disappeared again from the 1986 Orbit edition, before appearing again in the version of Ambulance Ship included in the Alien Emergencies anthology of 2002.

White also managed to draw a couple of his previous stories, unrelated to Sector General at the time they were written, into the Sector General universe retroactively. The first time he did this was with the opening story of the novel entitled Sector General. This was an “origins” story entitled “Accident”, which describes how Sector Twelve General Hospital came to be conceived, specifically as a way of promoting understanding between the different intelligent species of the Galactic Federation. It tells the story of two war veterans, one human and one Orligian, both painfully aware of how interspecies misunderstanding can lead to conflict, who are caught up in an major accident at a spaceport. The survivors, from multiple species, must cooperate to save the more critically injured, despite having next to no knowledge of how to administer first aid to alien beings. In this story White reuses characters from his story, “Tableau” (New Worlds May 1958). In this story, set many years prior to the events of “Accident”, the human and Orligian protagonists encounter each other on the battlefield. Both are severely injured, the human dying. They come to understand that they have been fighting a war based only on an interspecies misunderstanding, and then they become instrumental in ending the conflict. It’s a poignant and rather shocking story, albeit one that needs a rather contrived set-up to work. And I can see why White wanted to place these same characters, now allies championing the cause of peace, in the story of “Accident”—it works very well in narrative terms. But it sits uneasily as part of the history of the Sector General universe, invoking as it does a raft of exotic technologies that are absent from the other stories, including an interspecies telepathy device that would have made life a great deal easier for the medics of Sector Twelve General.

In the tenth Sector General novel, Final Diagnosis (1997), White introduced a protagonist named Hewlitt, and a centaur-like alien race called the Duthans. Hewlitt runs Hewlitt the Tailor, which is a “small but very exclusive company that can charge the Earth and moon for its services, which is to provide handcrafted, custom-built garments made from the original, handwoven or spun tweeds and fine worsted materials.” This is a reference to one of my favourite White short stories, “Custom Fitting” (1976), which first appeared in the paperback original anthology Stellar #2. (And inspired its memorable cover illustration by The Brothers Hildebrandt.) In this story the Duthan ambassador has arrived in London to welcome humanity into the Galactic Federation, but needs some appropriate formal dress to wear when attending the royal reception in his honour. And so a traditional tailor named Hewlitt finds himself designing a morning suit for a centaur. It’s a gentle tale, full of humour, and it draws on White’s experience working as a tailor in his early life. It’s nice to know that the original Hewlitt spawned a successful dynasty, and “Custom Fitting” sits slightly more easily in Sector General’s early history than does “Tableau”, though it’s not entirely consistent with the history of the Galactic Federation as depicted in the novels.

Finally, there’s the oddity of “Occupation: Warrior” (1959), which deals with a peace-keeping force called the Guard who seem to have a role very similar to that of Sector General’s Monitor Corps (and wear the same green uniforms). When interspecies conflict arises in the Galactic Union of the story (which seems to be similar to the Galactic Federation of Sector General) and cannot be resolved politically, the Guard oversees a sort of sanitized and carefully even-handed version of war, on planets carefully set aside for that purpose, fought by carefully picked soldiers who don’t really want to be involved, and subject to continuous psychological intervention by the Guards which is designed to highlight the horrors of war. The story is set during one such stage-managed war, between humans and Kelgians (a caterpillar-like race that also features in the Sector General novels), and features the efforts of one officer, Major Dermod, to turn the pantomime war into a real war. For those who know the Sector General novels, “Occupation: Warrior” is an oddly dislocating read, clearly not part of the Sector General story, but full of links to it.

The explanation for this comes in White’s essay “The Secret History of Sector General”, which appeared at the start of Ambulance Ship. In it he describes writing a long novelette entitled “Classification: Warrior”, intended to be the fourth of the Sector General stories. It explored the peace-keeping role of the Monitor Corps. Editor John Carnell thought it was far too serious a piece to accord with the established lightness and humour of the three previous Sector General stories, and persuaded White to lightly rewrite it. Carnell then placed it, retitled “Occupation: Warrior”, in the UK incarnation of Science Fiction Adventures, a magazine which he also edited—almost as if quarantining it from the main stream of Sector General stories running in New Worlds.

White doesn’t seem to have been happy with this outcome, and writes:

In “Occupation: Warrior,” which should have been the fourth Sector General story, “Classification: Warrior,” the leading character was a tactician called Dermod; and the same character turned up again as the Monitor Corps Fleet Commander who defended the hospital in Star Surgeon as well as having an important part to play in Major Operation. I don’t know why I went to the trouble of establishing this tenuous connection between the series proper and the Sector General story that had been deliberately de-Sector Generalized, but it seemed important to me at the time.

And that’s it. Those are the five “Sector General” stories that sit outside the run of twelve novels. “Countercharm” is a minor piece, but solidly part of the canon. You can find it in White’s short story collection The Aliens Among Us (1969), and also in the expensive hardback tribute to White from NESFA Press, The White Papers (1996), which is a book for White completists only. “Spacebird” is a typical Sector General story. As well as appearing in British editions of Ambulance Ship, it was included in White’s collection Futures Past (1982). Both “Tableau” and “Occupation: Warrior” are too bleak to sit easily in the Sector General universe. Both feel slightly contrived in their set-up, but both have striking endings that reflect White’s commitment to pacifism. They’re both also collected in The Aliens Among Us. “Custom Fitting” is a delight, and has very much the same light and humorous tone as the Sector General series—it’s included in Futures Past, as well as being widely anthologized elsewhere. So you can read all five of these stories if you track down copies of The Aliens Among Us and Futures Past. Unfortunately, unlike almost every other classic science fiction author I’ve written about here, White seems not to have been the subject of a major e-book revival, which I find rather sad. There is a Kindle edition of The Aliens Among Us, but not of Futures Past.

And if you’re looking for the novels in e-book format, some of the later ones are available for the Kindle in the USA, as well as three anthology editions which together include the first eight in the series, but these are mysteriously unavailable in the UK at time of writing, which is a shame.

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2 thoughts on “James White: The Outlying “Sector General” Short Stories”

  1. I had forgotten all about “New Writings in SF” but I am certain that I read some of them in the 1970’s -via the Public Library system here. It is possible that I also first ran across White’s work in of of these anthologies.

    It was a nice point that “White was one of the very early proponents of “pacifist space opera”. it certainly wouldn’t do any harm for there to be more authors with this attitude.

  2. Yes, New Writings … was a good, reliable series, under Carnell and then Bulmer, and it seemed to be popular with the public library system in the UK, too.

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