Sector General

by James White

Cover image

Series: Sector General #5
Publisher: Orb
Copyright: 1983
Printing: 2002
ISBN: 0-312-87770-6
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 187

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Sector General is the fifth book (or, probably more accurately, collection) in the Sector General series. I blame the original publishers for the confusion. The publication information is for the Alien Emergencies omnibus, which includes the fourth through the sixth books in the series.

Looking back on my previous reviews of this series (wow, it's been eight years since I read the last one?), I see I was reviewing them as novels rather than as short story collections. In retrospect, that was a mistake, since they're composed of clearly stand-alone stories with a very loose arc. I'm not going to go back and re-read the earlier collections to give them proper per-story reviews, but may as well do this properly here.

Overall, this collection is more of the same, so if that's what you want, there won't be any negative surprises. It's another four engineer-with-a-wrench stories about biological and medical puzzles, with only a tiny bit of characterization and little hint to any personal life for any of the characters outside of the job. Some stories are forgettable, but White does create some memorable aliens. Sadly, the stories don't take us to the point of real communication, so those aliens stop at biological puzzles and guesswork. "Combined Operation" is probably the best, although "Accident" is the most philosophical and an interesting look at the founding principle of Sector General.

"Accident": MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are human and alien brought together by a tragic war, and forever linked by a rather bizarre war monument. (It's a very neat SF concept, although the implications and undiscussed consequences don't bear thinking about too deeply.) The result of that war was a general recognition that such things should not be allowed to happen again, and it brought about a new, deep commitment to inter-species tolerance and politeness. Which is, in a rather fascinating philosophical twist, exactly what MacEwan and Grawlya-Ki are fighting against: not the lack of aggression, which they completely agree with, but with the layers of politeness that result in every species treating all others as if they were eggshells. Their conviction is that this cannot create a lasting peace.

This insight is one of the most profound bits I've read in the Sector General novels and supports quite a lot of philosophical debate. (Sadly, there isn't a lot of that in the story itself.) The backdrop against which it plays out is an accidental crash in a spaceport facility, creating a dangerous and potentially deadly environment for a variety of aliens. Given the collection in which this is included and the philosophical bent described above, you can probably guess where this goes, although I'll leave it unspoiled if you can't. It's an idea that could have been presented with more subtlety, but it's a really great piece of setting background that makes the whole series snap into focus. A much better story in context than its surface plot. (7)

"Survivor": The hospital ship Rhabwar rescues a sole survivor from the wreck of an alien ship caused by incomplete safeguards on hyperdrive generators. The alien is very badly injured and unconscious and needs the full attention of Sector General, but on the way back, the empath Prilicla also begins suffering from empathic hypersensitivity. Conway, the protagonist of most of this series, devotes most of his attention to that problem, having delivered the rescued alien to competent surgical hands. But it will surprise no regular reader that the problems turn out to be linked (making it a bit improbable that it takes the doctors so long to figure that out). A very typical entry in the series. (6)

"Investigation": Another very typical entry, although this time the crashed spaceship is on a planet. The scattered, unconscious bodies of the survivors, plus signs of starvation and recent amputation on all of them, convinces the military (well, police is probably more accurate) escort that this is may be a crime scene. The doctors are unconvinced, but cautious, and local sand storms and mobile vegetation add to the threat. I thought this alien design was a bit less interesting (and a lot creepier). (6)

"Combined Operation": The best (and longest) story of this collection. Another crashed alien spacecraft, but this time it's huge, large enough (and, as they quickly realize, of a design) to indicate a space station rather than a ship, except that it's in the middle of nowhere and each segment contains a giant alien worm creature. Here, piecing together the biology and the nature of the vehicle is only the beginning; the conclusion points to an even larger problem, one that requires drawing on rather significant resources to solve. (On a deadline, of course, to add some drama.) This story requires the doctors to go unusually deep into the biology and extrapolated culture of the alien they're attempting to rescue, which made it more intellectually satisfying for me. (7)

Followed by Star Healer.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-05-21

Last modified and spun 2017-06-06