Beginning Operations, A Sector General Omnibus – three novels by James White, Orb Books 2001 trade paper (3 novel omnibus volume), Sector General series, science fiction
Every once in a while I’m amazed to learn of an author completely new to me, that in all logic I should have at least heard of and more likely would have read. It’s happened again with James White. He was writing these hard science fiction stories in the early 1960s, a time when I was reading that kind of thing a lot, and he continued writing this series for decades, all through the time I was spending a lot of time in book stores browsing the SF and fantasy shelves and buying a good deal of it. So why didn’t I ever see any of White’s books? I have no idea, not even the faintest wisp of a theory.
The good news is I did find these books, through a fortuitous chain of events. A woman posted a comment on my blog that she was reading this collection, George Kelley said the books were great. So I asked George if these were similar to Murray Leinster’s Med Series, which I liked. Yes he said, so I bought this omnibus collection of the first three Sector General novels, of which this is the first.
Hospital Station (1962)
The first novel in the series, and in this omnibus, is Hospital Station. This novel (and the following two) are identified in the introduction as “mosaic novels”, that is they began as several short stories which were combined into a novel. In the transition from short stories to novel, the stories simply became chapters, and though I haven’t read the separate stories, there no obvious sings of editing to unify them. This could just as easily been a large collection of short stories using the same cast of characters.
Regardless of origin, these are well written, interesting stories involving a small cast of the vast staff of Sector General, a huge deep space hospital which caters to the needs of every conceivable alien and human patient, with specialized atmospheric sections able to provide any needed combination of gravity and breathable environment required. The stories take on the aspect of problem-solving puzzles, with main character Dr. Conway and other staff, human and alien, trying to understand what is wrong with the patient, how to heal it.
After reading Hospital Station I bought the second and third omnibus volumes as well. Wonderful stuff!
Star Surgeon (1963)
The second novel in the Sector General series is less of a mosiac. It was initially published as a novelette and a short story, and these were edited together so that it’s difficult to see the join.
In this one, Dr. Conway, the continuing hero of the series, is called to a distant planet to help curb a series of epidemics. Unfortunately, politics come into play, and a heretofore unknown “Empire” of nearly 40 worlds is threatened by the humanitarian efforts. To say more would be to give spoilers, but I found myself seeing some parallels to some present-day situations both in terms of disaster relief and political politics. Imigine what might happen if a large Red Cross hospital in some desert country was identified by that county’s government as a secret munitions factory for the imperialist Americans. The red cross on the side of the building might not be much protection for the staff inside.
This novel is a little more serious than the first one, and there’s quite a bit of military SF added to the medical scene, which is handled very nicely by the author. There are a few corny moments, when White introduces a love story, but it’s minimal. This is another good one, I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it.
Major Operation (1971)
This third novel in the Sector General series, and in this omnibus edition, is, like the first novel in the book, Hospital Station a composite of several short stories, strung together end edited into a novel.
For me this novel was less successful than the first two, primarily because the patients in this one, island-sized intelligent vegetable beasts were something I couldn’t buy, and most of the action, such as it is, takes place away from Sector General hospital, which is a far more interesting location. I got the impression White had to reach for a plotline here, and there are several Seventies themes creeping in, including the horror of dirty nuclear bombs, the gung-ho military acting on it’s own behalf and a “Give Peace a Chance” mentality.
Still, I kept turning the pages, and read right through the somewhat abrupt ending. I’d bet a lot the ending to Major Operation matches the ending to the short story that spawned it. None of these things keeps me from recommending the novel, just not quite as enthusiastically as the first two. The ending is slam-bang full of action.
Overall impressions of this Omnibus
Three novels by White, the first three he wrote in the Sector General series, collected with an introduction and a killer cover by John Harris. What’s not to like? These are three very enjoyable if different in plot and premise novels. Each has strengths, the third is perhaps the weakest. There are two more of these anthologies of the Sector General books, and they all have the nice Harris covers on them. There are additional books in the series beyond that as well, and they have all garnered favorable comment. A nice addition to any SF reader’s shelves, and something to pick up when weary of the current more hard-nosed, tech-centric version of the genre. Very nice.
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