Literature: Sector General
... In SPACE!!!
A twelve-book series by James White, about a huge hospital space station serving a sector of space populated by dozens of sentient races. White grew up in Belfast
, and wished to create a science fiction
series that did not rely on violence to provide excitement. Since "known space" is largely an oxymoron
, new species are often introduced.
These are medical mystery stories, with the focus on figuring out what's wrong and what's right
with a variety of fantastical patients. The first half dozen books are predominantly collections of short stories that revolve around their medical maladies, mysteries and miracles. The second half dozen are full-length novels that add fresh perspectives, such as a nurse's or a patient's, and occasionally even feature Character Development
.That Other Wiki
describes the series as "a manifestation of White's pacifistic philosophy," and it certainly has a charm that extends past the actual quality of writing.
Tropes covered in this series include:
- Alien Lunch - Averted somewhat, as none of the meat dishes served are actually meat, in order to avoid squicking out patients or staff who might happen to resemble some other individual's meal. Any atmospheric condition worth its salt has several species eating together, though, and those people quickly learn to keep all eyes on their own plates. Unless they have the misfortune to be carrying other-species tapes in which case they are reduced to looking vaguely upward or keeping their optical organs tight shut.
- Alien Non-Interference Clause - The Monitor Corps conducts psychological assessment of pre-spaceflight civilizations before presenting them with alien monsters dropping out of the sky. This doesn't really constrain the protagonists, since involving the hospital station is shorthand for 'screw it':
"It had never been the Federation's policy to do nothing while another intelligent species tried to commit suicide."
- Ambiguous Gender and Gender Neutral Writing - In order to avoid confusion, aliens are properly referred to as "it"; characters thus only have their gender specified if they appear in a novel written from the point of view of a member of their species.
- As You Know - Setting exposition is often delivered this way, sometimes justified as a test of knowledge.
- BFG - hospital security staff is equipped with these. The large size is required to hold a variety of tranquillizers for different species in the hospital. They also carry small sidearms. For blowing things up. Naturally, everyone prefers the BFG.
- Big Creepy-Crawlies - Averted. Stop blathering and check the wear on those mandibles.
- Bizarre Alien Biology, of course. And oh, what spectacularly bizarre biology it is.
- Brain in a Jar - the VUXG, who make up for their lack of physical anatomy with extremely strong psi powers.
- Buxom Is Better - Again, Murchison receives attention due to her anatomy, especially when she puts on a skintight diving suit to visit the aquatic wards. Subverted and Lampshaded later on, as most of the aliens wonder how human females can stand upright, let alone walk with such a top-heavy, imbalanced design ...Despite the fact that adult men generally have greater upper-body mass than women and are thus literally more top-heavy.
- Yes, but it's rather differently distributed. No doubt it's the front/back asymmetry of Human females that makes them look 'unbalanced' to aliens.
- Casual Interstellar Travel - Otherwise, what would be the point of having a hospital serve an entire sector of the galaxy containing hundreds-to-thousands of star systems?
- Changing of the Guard - The shift away from Conway as protagonist after Star Healer.
- Courtroom Episode - The first few chapters of The Genocidal Healer.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus - explicitly so, and only not literally because the crystalline lifeforms aren't dragons. White reveals in The Genocidal Healer that every sentient culture has a figure in its history exactly analogous to Jesus Christ.
- Deadpan Snarker - Major O'Mara, the hospital's chief of psychology. According to himself, his abrasiveness means he's relaxed and untroubled, free to be his own foul self. If O'Mara is being nice to you, panic.
- Which is nothing to Major O'Mara expressing concern. The last time O'Mara expressed concern a spaceship had just crashed into the station.
- Defeat Equals Friendship: MacEwan observes that beating the crap out of each other has led to excellent relations between Orligia and Earth, "but there's got to be a better way of making friends."
- Distress Call - There are two ways of communicating faster-than-light. One is by targeting one specific recipient and adding massive amounts of compression and redundance to let any of the signal get through past the background noise. The other is by forgetting all of that and plugging the transmitter into a nuclear reactor, causing what amounts to a traceable, incoherent, omnidirectional scream.
- Dr. Jerk: O'Mara.
- Eat That - People who try to eat while carrying an Educator tape will find out what it feels like to have a part of you screaming that your dish isn't even for the right species. People who are Educated six ways to Sunday will find it out several times over, simultaneously.
- Hospital food even gets its own feature-length novel, in The Galactic Gourmet. You thought Jello and creamed chicken were bad? Just wait till you see what they're serving on the PVSJ ward.
- The Empath - Dr. Prilicla, a GLNO Cinrusskin who vaguely resembles a meter-long mayfly. Noted for being the best liar in the hospital, as while it is never exactly untruthful, it always manipulates its responses to "make the emotional radiation around itself as pleasant as possible."
- Exposed Extraterrestrials - Played with when Dr. Conway muses that he should be able to easily find the Earth Humans among the crowd at the space station's "beach" by the fact that only they would be wearing clothing.
- Face of a Thug - O'Mara; before Sector General he kept getting assigned to heavy construction jobs because no one could believe anyone who looked so brutish could be very bright. He wound up doing amateur therapy on a psychologically damaged crewmate out of sheer intellectual boredom.
- Fake Memories - No doctor can learn all that's needed to treat hundreds of species in a single lifetime, so they upload and copy knowledge in the form of Educator tapes. These grant the entire memories and mindset of another being, with the slight side effect of a Split Personality. The most advanced personnel can keep multiple sets on indefinitely; being able to take it is the biggest challenge in such advancement.
- Fantastic Caste System - Sommaradvan society has "worker", "warrior" and "leader" castes, which are applied to their medical profession: physicians are worker caste, surgeons warrior caste, and psychotherapists leader caste.
- There's also the really weird species who appear in one of the stories in the book called Sector General who either have detachable limbs that can also exist as separate beings, or are actually a handful of closely related species with extremely inter-dependent symbiotic relationships.
- The Final Frontier
- Gaia's Vengeance - interestingly inverted. The doughnut rollers of planet Meatball have been terrorized and eaten by biomass covering most of their planet. It's really no surprise that once they discovered nuclear weapons, they started lobbing them into wilderness. Sill had to be stopped, though.
- Generican Empire / The Federation - The Galactic Federation.
- Genius Loci - (Major Operation) Try diagnosing a sapient living continent. Even worse, try treating one. Who knew you could use a warship as a tourniquet?
- Gentle Giant - Most every massive race. This seems to be presented as half social necessity, half an universal quirk. For the adults, anyway. When a half-ton toddler charges at you wanting to play, the best option is to make for the ceiling.
- Heavyworlder - Several species, notably FROB Hudlar (spherical body plan with six radially symmetric tentacles) and FGLI Tralthan (resembling a hexapedal elephant), represent the "short and wide" version of this trope. On the flipside, LSVO Nallajim and GLNO Cinrusskin both hail from very low-gravity worlds and exemplify the "big and skinny" version (LSVO are avian, while GLNO are insectile).
- Hello, Nurse! - The way male humans respond to Nurse Murchison, you'd think she was the only human female in the sector. Oh, wait...
- Hive Mind - The radiation-eating
and individually bug-like lizard-like keep notes, White Telfi.
- Honor Before Reason - Cha Thrat's very strict sense of medical ethics is one of the reasons she's not very popular on Sommaradva, and it gets her in hot water at Sector General as well in Code Blue - Emergency!. (It doesn't help that her ideas of ethical behavior are considerably more extreme than what Sector General practices.)
- And by extreme, we mean she refuses to do anything to her patient that she doesn't do to herself. It hits the fan when she's required to do an amputation.
- Hot Doctor - Murchison goes back to medical school, eventually becoming one of the best pathologists in the hospital.
- Hospital Paradiso - Thoroughly averted. Sector General is a nightmare of a facility that caters to the sickest patients in the galaxy, but people come there precisely because of that. A physician or surgeon who can survive a residency at Sector General can pretty much take its pick of attending positions throughout the galaxy, and a patient won't dare die once it arrives on account of all the high-powered talent devoted to its care.
- Humans Are Special - Averted. Humans have done well for themselves after getting over war, but their only real exceptional features are incidental and culture-specific (a nudity taboo, the female life-mate often assuming part of the male's name). Mankind is depicted as an equal among many, such as when an ambulance ship displays "the Occluded Sun, the Brown Leaf, the Red Cross, and the many other symbols".
- Not entirely true. In the early books the Monitor Corps is described as almost entirely Human because only we have the intestinal fortitude to do 'wrong' things in a good cause, like kill in defense of The Federation. Later aliens are shown as members, possibly in auxiliary and support roles.
- Humans Through Alien Eyes - Pretty incidental, but we have viewpoint characters wondering idly why humans bark and show their teeth when they're amused, or deciding that humans probably don't scratch their heads to dislodge parasites.
- Infodump - Every book re-explains a range of details relating to the setting, the hospital, and at least some of the species in it (occasionally just cutting and pasting passages from previous explanations).
- Lampshaded in the later novels, with the character delivering the Infodump apologizing to those who had heard it before.
- The Intern - many of these, including but not limited to Drs. Conway, Cha Thrat, and massive piles of new PGY-1 students whom Conway later shepherds through orientation. This is very much Truth in Television, however, as anyone who's ever been in a teaching hospital can attest.
- Interspecies Romance - Thoroughly subverted. There are no cross-species romantic relationships, but since Educator tapes transfer the donor's personality as well as its medical knowledge, a tape carrier might find itself cued in to members of the donor's species in addition to its own. Dr. Conway runs afoul of this with a ELNT Melfan tape: "Half of (Conway's mind) insisted that the whole affair was ridiculous, while the other half thought lovingly of that gorgeously marked carapace and generally felt like baying at the moon." Cue Squick or Fetish, as appropriate.
- But see O'Mara's retirement where the effects of a tape long-held show a softer side
- An exception is made for the Human Alien Etlans, who intermarry with Earth-humans, though no Half Human Hybrids result.
- The early books explicitly state that inter-species sexual attraction is considered a mental illness, which was probably passed over later because of worries that readers might interpret it as a racist metaphorical condemnation of real-world inter-ethnic relations.
- It Is Dehumanising: Averted, as all characters of a different species to a novel's point-of-view character are referred to as "it" throughout. Gender should be irrelevant to people of a different species, as Interspecies Romance is strongly deprecated and other species' definitions of gender might be outright confusing or incomprehensible.
- Kraken and Leviathan: CRLT, which is even explicitly compared to the Midgard Serpent. It's not malevolent, but it is over five km long, and it's mentioned that it was hundreds of times longer than that.
- Language Of Truth - DBLF Kelgians. Their rippling fur spells out their emotions at all times, so they just never developed the concept of the lie and are always brutally, bluntly honest.
- Last Name Basis - Most characters' first names are never mentioned, or learned only late in the series.
- The fact that Conway and Murchison continue to refer to each other as such years into their marriage is lampshaded.
- Loads and Loads of Races - The hospital was originally built for at least sixty species, and they keep discovering more. They have so many, they have a four-letter coding system to classify them. Even at that, humans have to share the "DBDG" classification with two other (vaguely humanoid) species.
- Martial Pacifist - Every member of the Monitor Corps we've ever met. Nobody uses lethal force, and the Monitors would much rather talk a bad guy down rather than resort to some less-savory means, like stun gas. This pacifistic attitude is even lampshaded in Star Surgeon, where a full-blown nuclear war in space, involving fifty-odd planets, one hospital station and thousands of ships, is described as a "police action."
- Later books seem somewhat cynical of the Monitor Corps defining of everything they do as police actions, up to and including the Etlan War and planetary invasions.
- Mind Hive: The CRLT species; each segment of its body has an individual personality and can separate from the whole, and its length is unlimited.
- Mr. Exposition - Sometimes Thornnastor and O'Mara, but mostly Dr. Conway. He talks in whole pages of exposition. It's even lampshaded by O'Mara when he says that one of the reasons why Prilicla is promoted is because he's not a bore.
- Na´ve Newcomer - Cha Thrat in Code Blue - Emergency! - and to an extent the Great Gurronsevas in The Galactic Gourmet.
- Nightmare Fuel - In-universe, every species in the hospital is acutely terrifying to at least one other species. Since there are 65 of them at last count, that's an awful lot of permutations. However, nobody lets it get in the way of their work and uncontrollable xenophobia is grounds for immediate dismissal. (This is also why Sector General does not treat psychiatric patients, even if they have physical problems; there is simply no way to provide a nonthreatening environment for them.)
- No Biochemical Barriers - On one hand, there are no cross-species diseases (a virus from one species simply will not infect or affect a creature from another, though the entire station still jumps whenever someone but mentions that term) and every kind of environment up to and including the reactor core is inhabited. On another, there's no mention of beings that require a different mix of a particular type of atmosphere, and some foodstuffs are cross-species.
- Noodle Incident: Exactly how Braithewaite ended up in Other-Species Psychology is never clearly explained. We know he got thrown out of the Monitor Corps' First Contact division after doing something starting a religious riot amongst a newly contacted species, then got thrown out of a a bunch of other MC postings, before finally being tossed out of Sector General's Maintenance department for doing something to the hospital's translation computer, but what precisely what he did on those occasions, and what he did in-between, is never explained.
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions - Played around with repeatedly. On the one hand, only a few of the humans seem to believe in (or at least mention believing in) a god or gods; on the other hand, more than a few of the other species do. To that end, the hospital's present chaplain is a BRLH Tarlan who gave up a promising surgical career out of guilt over dead patients and now handles the religious concerns - or at least, psychological problems / ethical conflicts with a religious element - of all species. His predecessor was an earth-human, probably a Monitor Corps Chaplain, who was killed years ago when a spaceship collided with the station.
- The chaplain character is also an agnostic, which probably helps him deal with all religions equally.
- Patchwork Story - The novels are nearly all stitched together from short stories, causing them to be relatively episodic.
- Petting Zoo People - Orligians and Nidians, the only species that share their head/body/limb arrangement, and hence the classification DBDG, with Earth-humans, look respectively like anthropomorphic dogs and bears.
- Planet of Hats - There's waffling about this, as one species is vain only for the sake of irony, but most species-wide traits have physiological reasons. Large, heavy aliens tend to be gentle and careful because of the fragility of everyone else, and empaths are conciliators and peacemakers if their abilities don't turn off. Newly encountered species are flatter, but "concerned about the missing ozone layer" or "dying of the plague" are valid generalizable traits.
- For example, the "rollers" from Drambo (in Major Operation) are incredibly boastful, but this is explained as being because they can never stop moving (their circulation is powered by their movement), so they have very little time to impress mates.
- Psychic Powers - A few alien species have abilities outside the norm. All are classed under V in the species classification system. Humanity has telepathic potential... in its evolutionary history. The faculty was never used and is now atrophied and nonfunctional, only serving to make humans a bit more susceptible. It goes up to the VUXG, who look like prunes and are teleportive, telepathic, and telekinetic. One of them attempted to give sentience to a race of plant-eating dinosaurs by giving them the power to fly telekinetically. Apparently that ability is inherent and dormant in any large enough brain and needs only to be activated, but the VUXG refused to give it to humans when asked by one, saying they did not need it.
- Reassigned to Antarctica - Basically the entirety of Code Blue: Emergency! is Cha Thrat shuttling through these, beginning when her home planet pressures her into going to Sector General and ending when she's kicked out of the Maintenance division for disobeying a direct order. She ultimately winds up working in the only place she hasn't yet been exiled from, the Psych department, but since O'Mara actually wants her there it doesn't qualify as this.
- Ridiculously Cute Critter - Sommaradvans look like this to Gogleskans. This ends up as a plot point.
- Rousseau Was Right - Watching what White has pulled off with alien biologies is half of the draw of the series. The other half is its use as comfort literature. Ultimately we can all get along, understand one another and make things out all right with some hard work. "Wouldn't it be nice if everyone was nice" is a fairly generic message, but it has the advantage that White doesn't need to lecture the reader about it and can just have characters not be jerks to each other.
- Running Gag - Dr. Thornnastor's fascination with gossip from the SNLU ward. What scandalous goings-on might be occurring among crystalline creatures who live in a cryogenic methane tank is left to the reader's imagination, which is probably exactly where it belongs.
- The ordeal of eating in the multi-species cafeteria. See Alien Lunch above.
- Sentient Popsicle - see the Dead Guy on Display example.
- Space Police - Again, the Monitor Corps. Don't let the military ranks fool you.
- Starfish Aliens - Everywhere. The author's imagination never met the words "special effects budget." Three other "humanoid" (bipedal with two arms and a head) races are known to exist, but these are bit players or make no appearances at all.
- Stay in the Kitchen - Women can't take Educator tapes. They just can't stand the experience. Yes, the series did start in the 1950s. This was too large to Retcon away, so the backpedalling gets downright weird in a later book's subversion. There a female nonhuman is told this... and then proceeds to have several extensive telepathic merges, with no serious ill effects.
- Apparently male and female brains are wired differently in real life, so this could be plausible.
- The nonhuman thing is odd, because in a very early book (the first time it comes up), it's mentioned as a specifically Earth-human trait.
- Nurse Murchison later becomes Pathologist Murchison, when the author realizes that hospital women don't all have to be nurses.
- Stock Footage - Some of the blocks of setting exposition start to look extremely familiar once you've read a few of the books.
- Supreme Chef - the Great Gurronsevas in The Galactic Gourmet, who pulls strings to become Chief Dietician of Sector General for the sake of the professional challenge.
- The Symbiote: The DTRC Rhumians live symbiotically as benevolent Puppeteer Parasites, and are usually linked with a stronger non-sentient lifeform from the same planet in a Brains and Brawn partnership.
- Uncanny Valley - invoked in-canon. Late on a species is introduced who look very like Kelgians, but don't have their mobile emotion-indicating fur. They appear acutely disturbing to Kelgians because they seem like emotionless zombies to them.
- Unspoken Plan Guarantee - In an unfortunate variant, Conway is known to withhold his brilliant-yet-insane plans not only from the reader but from his fellow doctors. This gets dropped some distance into the series, as fairly good Character Development.
- Viewers Are Goldfish - since earlier stories were published separately, each one explains the logistics of a multi-environment hospital, alien classification, memory tapes, etc. Identical language is used in every story. Reading all stories together, it gets rather repetitive.
- War Memorial - When the Earth-human/Orligian war ended, two mortally wounded soldiers from a battlefield were put into suspended animation and put on display as a war memorial. They were revived when medical science had progressed to the point that their lives could both be saved.
- We Are as Mayflies - Some of these aliens could hardly gather the biomass involved during one human lifetime. On the other side of the scales we have a recurring sentient viral colony, which needs a host and acts as a symbiote by performing excellent maintenance. It trades up from a Time Abyss to a Hive Mind, and plans to eventually obtain the longest-lived host possible by fashioning a metabolism and sentience onto a star.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human? - Averted. Exactly the same as a human, thank you very much.