Major Operation

by James White

Cover image

Series: Sector General #3
Publisher: Orb
Copyright: 1971
Printing: 2001
ISBN: 0-312-87544-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 147

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This is the third novel in the Sector General series, but like the previous novel it doesn't assume knowledge of the rest of the series and can be read independently. The publication information is for the Beginning Operations omnibus that includes this and the first two entries in the series.

Like Hospital Station and unlike the more successful Star Surgeon, this is a fixup of novelettes instead of a novelette and novella. It's not, however, as fragmented as Hospital Station, since all five stories deal with aspects of a single bizarre world. This helps by adding a bit more continuity and making Major Operation feel more like a novel, but unfortunately I didn't find that world particularly interesting.

The best section of this book is the start. His friend and another of the senior surgeons has apparently become dangerously incompetent. Conway is convinced that there's an external cause, but no one can find any sign of one. This is a great example of the SF puzzle story, with just enough characterization to add motivation and narrative energy put into keeping the plot moving rather than trying to justify the details of the technology. The second story, a classic Sector General story of analysis and diagnosis of a bizarre alien, is almost as good.

After that point, I started losing interest as the story focused on a bizarre, life-rich world with several massive single organisms the size of contintents. It's from here that the book draws its title, and the idea of performing surgery at such scale is an amusing one, but mild amusement is all the idea mustered for me. I didn't find the aliens as believable as some of White's others (perhaps because we were shown enough of them to see the holes in simple descriptions), the planetary exploration and constant fending-off of yet another attack felt tedious, and the exploration of this enormous creature mostly just seemed gross. I think I would have been fine with it for a single story, but since two and part of a third and fourth all focus on the same general problem, I got tired of it.

Another difficulty I had with this installment is that Sector General and more generally the Monitor Corps expends quite a bit of human life on attempting to explore and understand this bizarre world. In an ethical system where preservation of life is given as the highest ideal, this seems weird, and at least is a missed opportunity for some hard questions about medical ethics. Doctors are devoted to saving the lives of their patients, yes, but not at the cost of killing other people. Conway's willingness to see many men lose their lives while trying to explore and cure an alien strikes me as a serious contradiction of the principle "first, do no harm." There have been glimmers of this in previous stories, but it's the most clear here.

Gender roles are, thankfully, a tiny bit better, but only because there are few romantic scenes. Nurse is still used synonymously with female, and Conway and Murchison are constantly switching between a relationship dynamic and a doctor/nurse hierarchical working relationship, involving a fair bit of suspicion (apparently unwarranted) by Conway's co-workers that he's seeking out that nurse in particular regardless of qualification. At the time White was writing, this was probably unremarkable, but it didn't age well and it grates on my enjoyment of the story. I prefer living at a time where this sort of conflict of interest isn't considered just entertaining fodder for some ribbing.

I think this is the weakest of the first three novels, although I still enjoyed it. If it contained only the last three stories, I'm not sure it would be worth reading, but the first two are much better. I recommend the whole first omnibus for quick reading when one is in the mood for puzzle-solving SF, although I hope the series develops more depth and characterization.

Followed by Ambulance Ship.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-12-28

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21