Hospital Station

by James White

Cover image

Series: Sector General #1
Publisher: Orb
Copyright: 1962
Printing: 2001
ISBN: 0-312-87544-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 180

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Sector General ran for 12 novels and 37 years until James White's death. This is the first of the series, previously long out of print but recently reprinted in the Beginning Operations omnibus by Orb (which is what the publication information is for). I've seen the last few novels around, but it was a delight to see the start of the series show up in bookstores.

Sector General is a giant interspecies hospital in the dark outer rim of the galaxy. The series is built on the challenge of diagnosing and solving medical problems in a stunning variety of aliens who need far different environments. The staff of the hospital is also multi-species, including chlorine breathers and creatures who need far less, or more, gravity than earth-normal. To support such variety in a single facility, there is a semi-magical translator system, locks and protective suits everywhere, memory tapes that can temporarily teach a doctor how to treat an alien species, and a four-letter classification system to sort species into understandable categories.

Hospital Station, the start of the series, is actually a fix-up novel of five novelettes that were originally published in the SF magazines. The first story is a prequel, set during the construction of the hospital and explaining how O'Mara becomes involved with Sector General (he's an important figure in later stories). The rest follow the initial incidents of the career of Dr. Conway, an idealistic and rather sheltered young doctor who has been looking forward to working at Sector General for much of his career.

As a novel, Hospital Station does suffer from being a fix-up. The plot holds up fairly well; the nature of the work in the hospital is diagnosis of separate cases and it lends itself naturally to an episodic structure. The problem is rather that the introduction to the hospital, the classification, system, introductions of major characters, and the like are repeated four times through each of Conway's stories. Since this is frequently done via essentially cut and paste, using exactly the same wording, it gets a bit tiresome. The formula of the story, each following the diagnosis of a strange alien, also becomes a touch repetitive. White does add some subtlety in Conway's idealistic pacifism and his discomfort with the military wing of the Galactic Federation.

One of the unique aspects to the Sector General series is its spin on the stock space exploration, engineer-with-a-wrench material of classic SF. White uses the general setting and tropes of far-future military or engineering SF, but the plot generators have more in common with House or one of the other current TV medical dramas. The characters have a deep and strong dislike of violence and any form of war, the infrastructure of their society is built around attempting to avoid or defuse war whenever possible, and the drama and occasional violence comes from medical drama, misunderstanding, and unavoidable cultural clashes rather than the us versus them militarism of so many of White's contemporaries. I think this is one of the reasons why White's stories hold up as well as they do. In some ways, he's decades ahead of his time; this type of story, albeit in a contemporary setting, took off with ER many years later.

The first story of this collection, the prequel (not the first written) that sets up O'Mara as a character, is the most engineer-with-a-wrench of the collection. Don't let it turn you off; Conway's stories are more subtle. In the short story format, even glued together, White doesn't have much chance to do character development, but he does take advantage of the chances he has and Conway becomes a much more likeable and thoughtful character by the end of the book.

There isn't a lot of psychological depth or literary complexity here, but there is a nice collection of well-written puzzle stories, classic stories that suffer a bit from macho characters and stereotyped gender roles but which hold up far better than most of what was written at the same time.

Followed by Star Surgeon.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-12-24

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21