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White, James

Entry updated 14 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1928-1999) UK author from Ulster who initially worked for various Belfast tailoring firms, as assistant manager of a department store, and from 1965 in various capacities for an aircraft company, ultimately as publicity officer 1968-1984; this mixed occupational experience is reflected in several of his works. His visible involvement with Fandom began with Slant (1948-1953); his articles appeared in many other Fanzines. He began to publish sf with "Assisted Passage" for New Worlds in 1953. To many readers (though his singleton novels are equally engaging) he is known almost exclusively for the tales about galactic Medicine comprising the Sector General sequence, set in a 384-level Space-Habitat hospital located "far out on the galactic Rim" and designed to accommodate all known kinds of Xenobiological problems; its facilities include a computerized Universal Translator. Early stories in this sequence appeared in New Worlds – the first of all being "Sector General" (November 1957 New Worlds) – and several others in New Writings in SF. Through the first six volumes Dr Conway (who long seemed to have no first name; late in the series it is revealed to be Peter), a human member of the 10,000-strong multi-species staff, solves alone or with colleagues a series of medical crises with humour, ingenuity and an underlying Hippocratic sense of decency or Altruism; equally sympathetic Alien protagonists begin to appear with volume seven. The sequence comprises Hospital Station (stories November 1957-June 1960 New Worlds; coll of linked stories 1962), Star Surgeon (September 1961, January-March 1962 New Worlds as "Resident Physician" and "Field Hospital"; fixup 1963), Major Operation (stories 1966-1971 New Writings in SF; fixup 1971), Ambulance Ship (coll of linked stories 1979; exp 1980 UK with one added story), Sector General (coll of linked stories 1983), Star Healer (1985), Code Blue – Emergency (1987), The Genocidal Healer (1992), The Galactic Gourmet (1996), Final Diagnosis (1997), Mind Changer (1998) and Double Contact (1999).

Some further Sector General tales, along with stories showing similar cross-species medical concerns, can be found in The Aliens Among Us (coll 1969; cut 1979), Futures Past (coll 1982; with one story dropped and one added rev 1988) and The White Papers (coll 1996): in particular, the series prequel "Tableau" (May 1958 New Worlds), the tangential "Occupation: Warrior" (March 1959 Science Fiction Adventures UK) and the Conway episode "Countercharm" (November 1960 New Worlds) – all included in The Aliens Among Us – do not appear in any volume of the main Sector General sequence. Throughout, White's capacity to conceive and make plausible a wide range of Alien anatomies and their failure modes seemed unflagging. The Sector General series has a strong undercurrent of pacifism (its military "Monitor Corps" exists chiefly to prevent or halt Wars using non-lethal weaponry) and includes numerous instances of successful First Contact achieved by giving medical aid to injured and distressed Aliens, usually spacefaring ones – a trope which recurs in several of White's non-series stories. The hospital's system of "Educator tapes", whereby doctors absorb the memories and skills of other-species medical experts via theoretically reversible Identity Transfer, is a fruitful source of complications in Psychology.

Other collections include Deadly Litter (coll 1964) and Monsters and Medics (coll 1977; cut 1977), but their contents are generally less appealing than his series tales, though they share an ease with sf hardware and a quickness of plot. His singleton novels are more impressive. Second Ending (June-July 1961 Fantastic; 1962 dos) encompasses in a few pages the end of humanity, an aeons-long Time-Abyss perspective via repeated periods of Suspended Animation, forced Evolution starting with preserved grass seeds, and new hope for a sole surviving Last Man, though not until the Robots who have succoured him give up on Earth and transport him to another planet now inhabited by their unwarlike recreation of humanity. Open Prison (February-April 1964 New Worlds; 1965; vt The Escape Orbit 1965) is exhilarating adventure sf, featuring the escape plans of human prisoners-of-War left to fend for themselves on a Prison world with only mediaeval Technology, guarded by an orbiting Alien Spaceship. Perhaps the most successful singleton is the ingenious The Watch Below (1966), a tale whose two narrative lines dovetail cleverly. In one a World War Two merchant vessel sinks, leaving three men and two women to survive in a large air pocket, work out life-maintenance systems and eventually breed there Under the Sea while 100 years pass. In the other, water-dwelling Aliens, who have long been seeking a wet world like Earth to inhabit peacefully, land their Generation Starship in the sea in time to save the descendants of the five twentieth-century survivors. The various correspondences between the two sets of "prisoners" are neatly and humanely stressed.

All Judgement Fled (December 1967-February 1968 If; 1968) describes a fraught First Contact situation – not unlike a Sector General episode – aboard an uncommunicative alien Spaceship that has arrived in Earth's solar system. In The Dream Millennium (October-December 1973 Galaxy: 1974) a physician dreams a Jungian version of the human story in Suspended Animation as his slower-than-light ship takes him and other passengers to a paradisal planet. Underkill (1979) marks a grim contrast, suggesting that an Alien race's response to the internecine savageries of humanity might be the just extirpation of almost the entire species. It might be noted that White tended to grow more genial the further from the present he set his stories; if some of the Sector General tales seem at times almost wilfully upbeat, their ebullience may have been palliative in nature. Underkill clearly represents a vision any writer might be glad to step around.

Cheerier standalone novels followed. Federation World (stories August 1980, 4 January 1982 Analog; exp as fixup 1988) returns to the longer view, dealing episodically with issues of first and renewed contact while recruiting settlers for a planned multi-species Utopia located in a Dyson Sphere which is the legacy of galactic Forerunners; the various problems are perhaps too easily solved. The Silent Stars Go By (1991) is an Alternate-History tale in which an Earth dominated by imperial Ireland's "Pax Hibernia" (and associated traditional Religion) sends out a colonizing Starship whose mission is complicated by various intrigues.

Though never ambitious in a literary sense, all White's mature work is illuminated by clear compassion and controlled anger at every form of intentional violence. The James White Award, for an unpublished story by a non-professional author, was established in his memory in the year 2000. [DRL/JC]

see also: Arrested Development; Cryonics; Dinosaurs; Eastercon; Games and Sports; Gravity; Hyphen; Living Worlds; Mythology; New Worlds; New Writings in SF; Pollution; Quandry; Shapeshifters; Singularity; Skylark Award; Stasis Field; Telepathy; Tractor Beam; Worldcon.

James White

born Belfast, Northern Ireland: 7 April 1928

died Portstewart, Northern Ireland: 23 August 1999



Sector General

individual titles

collections and stories

  • Deadly Litter (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964) [coll: pb/Paul Lehr]
  • The Aliens Among Us (New York: Ballantine Books, 1969) [coll: pb/Paul Lehr]
    • The Aliens Among Us (Hornchurch, Essex: Ian Henry Publications, 1979) [cut version of the above, omitting the long "Occupation: Warrior" (March 1959 Science Fiction Adventures UK), which had been included in the 1970 UK Corgi edition: hb/uncredited]
  • Monsters and Medics (New York: Ballantine Books, 1977) [coll: includes Second Ending: pb/Chris Achilleos]
    • Monsters and Medics (London: Corgi, 1977) [coll: cut version of the above, two stories omitted: includes Second Ending: pb/Chris Achilleos]
  • Futures Past (New York: Ballantine Books, 1982) [coll: pb/Rick Sternbach]
    • Futures Past (London: Orbit, 1988) [coll: rev of the above with one story, "Spacebird", dropped and "Custom Fitting" (in Stellar #2, anth 1976, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey) added: pb/uncredited]
  • The Interpreters (Birmingham, England: The Birmingham Science Fiction Group, 1985) [story: chap: dos: pb/nonpictorial]
  • The White Papers (Boston, Massachusetts: NESFA Press, 1996) [coll: includes stories and Fanzine articles by White plus appreciations by others: hb/Vincent Di Fate]

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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