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Literature / Sector General

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Medical Drama ... 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.

The series began in 1957 with a series of short stories published in New Worlds magazine, which transitioned to novels (starting with a collection of the five New Worlds stories as Hospital Station) that ran from 1962 to 1999. A series of omnibus editions were published beginning in 2001.

Tropes covered in this series include:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: O'Mara invented Diagnosticians by accident. He suggested a doctor run with multiple tapes at once during an operation so that the interactions between the personalities would cancel out their individual quirks so that he could concentrate on the skillsets needed to do the task at hand. It ended up allowing the doctor to combine surgical techniques from the different tapes as well, resulting in a more successful operation than anyone expected.
  • 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: In order to avoid confusion (or inadvertently giving offense by referring to an individual as the incorrect gender), 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.
  • Beast Man: 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 baboons and teddy bears.
  • 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.
  • Brain in a Jar: The VUXG, who make up for their lack of physical development with extremely strong psi powers.
  • Buxom Beauty Standard: 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 imbalanced, asymmetric masses of tissue hanging off their chest walls.
  • 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?
  • Cordon Bleugh Chef: Some species like to eat foods from other races in combinations that make nutritional and gustatory sense to them, but wouldn't to the race(s) the food originally came from. For example, Prilicla was noted in the early books to enjoy spaghetti with carrots.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Explicitly so, and only not literally because the crystalline lifeforms aren't dragons. White reveals in The Genocidal Healer that every sapient culture has a figure in its history exactly analogous to Jesus Christ: a "teacher" who brings a new and often gentler perspective to a culture, but is slain — in a specifically shameful and painful fashion — by those who do not share this perspective.
  • Crystalline Creature: One sapient species species, coded SNLU, are ultra-low temperature lifeforms chiefly made from crystals of frozen methane.
  • 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.
  • Dead Guy on Display:
    • In a twist on the revered icon version, the bodies of the Orligian and Human who initiated the peace process that ended the Orligian-Human War were displayed in stasis as part of a war memorial for two hundred years. The twist is that they weren't dead — Grawlya-Ki and MacEwan met as the sole survivors of a space battle, and MacEwan was dying of his injuries when an Orligian rescue party arrived. After Grawlya-Ki explained what he'd learned, a decision was made to put MacEwan into stasis until medical science had advanced enough to save his life, and Grawlya-Ki insisted on going into stasis too so he could see for himself that his new friend was all right.
    • A short story prequel "Tableau" explains that Orligians have been using stasis devices as weapons against humans by default. Unfortunately, mishandled objects in stasis were extremely prone to spontaneous explosion; no surprise humans considered this weapon a particularly deadly and devious implement that not only "froze" anything with one shot, but also prevented any attempt at recovery.
  • 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 an incoherent, but traceable and omnidirectional scream.
  • 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 Jell-O and creamed chicken were bad? Just wait until 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.
  • Extremophile Lifeforms: There's a species of sapient crystals of frozen methane that can only survive close to absolute zero, another who is only comfortable at molten-rock temperature (these two require very heavily-insulated encounter suits to interact with other sentient species), and a culture of hive minded radiation-eaters who live inside the space station's main reactor pile.
  • 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.
  • Fantastically Challenging Patient: The series is about a multi-species far-future hospital in deep space, whose staff are regularly confronted with the need to use either medicine or surgery to save the life of a member of a previously-unknown sentient species, who is either too medically ignorant or too unconscious to explain the correct treatment to them.
  • Fantastic Caste System:
    • Sommaradvan society has "worker", "warrior" and "ruler" castes, which are applied to their medical profession: physicians are worker caste, surgeons are warrior caste, and wizards (psychotherapists) are ruler 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.
  • First Contact Faux Pas: The Orligian-Human War started with the first face-to-face meeting between the two races, when a friendly gesture by one of the humans was misinterpreted as an attack by the Orligians, resulting in a fight that each side believed had started with an unprovoked attack by the other side.
  • Fragile Flyer: Two sentient species — GLNO Cinrusskin (Big Creepy-Crawlies) and LSVO Nallajim (Bird People) — are lightworlders who are capable of flight on their own planet (or on Sector General with antigravity equipment) and are extremely fragile compared to other species.
  • Gaia's Vengeance: Interestingly inverted. The doughnut rollers of planet Meatball have been terrorized and eaten by the biomass covering most of their planet. It's really no surprise that once they discovered nuclear weapons, they started lobbing them into wilderness. Still had to be stopped, though.
  • 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 of the physically massive races. This seems to be presented as half social necessity, half 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.
  • 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!. And by extreme, we mean she refuses to do anything to her patient that she doesn't do to herself. After completing an amputation of a gangrenous extremity, she calmly takes the bone saw and lops off one of her own limbs, in full view of a horrified operating theatre full of staff and trainees.
  • Hospital Hottie: The way male humans respond to Nurse Murchison, you'd think she was the only human female in the sector. Oh, wait...
  • Hospital Paradiso: Thoroughly averted. In spite of having top notch equipment and comfort provisions on par with luxury hotels, Sector General routinely has to deal with sickest patients in the galaxy and nightmarish emergency scenarios. This is the entire reason for it existence; people come there precisely because a patient won't dare die once it arrives on account of all the high-powered talent devoted to its care. A physician or surgeon who can survive a residency at Sector General can pretty much take its pick of attending positions throughout the galaxy.
  • Human Popsicle: The Orligians have a technology for freezing objects (including people) into stasis. It was first used during the Orligian-Human War as a weapon — not only would an enemy ship in stasis no longer be a threat, but giving it a big enough bump would cause the stasis to fail catastrophically and the ship to explode — but it was later adapted and refined as a medical tool, used to halt the deterioration of a patient in critical condition until assistance was available.
  • 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".
  • 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 Doctors 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."
    • 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. Or as a Nidian male teaching doctor explains to his students: alien gender issues are a subject it is safest to avoid altogether.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: It's buried very, very deep, but O'Mara does care more than he bothers to let on. After all, someone who didn't care wouldn't have taken care of an alien infant until members of its own race could come for it.
  • 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. To those who can't read the nuances of fur patterns, speaking with a Kelgian is rather like communicating by text without any body language cues.
  • 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.
  • Lightworlder: 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).
  • 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 (technically the codes go longer, but most classifications narrow down to one unique species within four letters) to classify them. Even at that, humans have to share the "DBDG" (which translates roughly to something like "two-gendered bipedal mammal") 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.
  • Moment Killer: Conway gripes about the time he tried take Murchison back to her room, only for a robot to trundle up and inform that its scans have shown them to be two people of the same species yet of opposite sex which is forbidden in the Nurses Quarters under Section (etc).
  • 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.)
    • An immature member of a protean shapeshifting species comes to the station for a farewell visit to its dying parent, and is panicked into flight by the assembly of strange aliens who greet it. How do you find a frightened teenager who can look like anything from a patient to a piece of equipment?
  • 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 (Menus on the station clearly label what species can eat what foods, though there isn't anything that can be eaten by everybody).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Series Continuity Error: The ionising-radiation metabolising and Hive Minded Telfi are described as insectoid in one book and reptilian in another.
  • Shout-Out: The FOKT code for the Gogleskans is a Shout Out to a Scottish SF fan organisation called the Friends Of Kilgore Trout.
  • Space Police: Again, the Monitor Corps. Don't let the military ranks fool you.
  • Space Sector: The eponymous hospital space station (in full, Sector Twelve General Hospital) is naturally enough located in Galactic Sector Twelve.
  • 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.
    • 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: Many of the books use exactly the same expository paragraph to describe the setting. Since it often appears a page or two in, it creates an odd prose version of the TV Cold Open - Opening Narration - main body of episode structure.
  • 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.
  • Universal Translator: Sector General has one, but it requires a massive computer core to function. In one novel, a battle raging around the station knocks out the translation computer, requiring the staff to improvise by using educator tapes to temporarily pick up extra languages so that everyone on a multi-species surgical team can understand each other. The translator does have the quirk of translating the name of every known race in their own language to the same word, which is why everyone uses the four-letter biological descriptors to identify patient species.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "I'm not myself", in Sector General parlance, means that the person saying that has one or more tape personalities active that could be influencing their decision making process.
  • 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, a memorial was erected on the Orligian homeworld (and subsequently replicated elsewhere) depicting the greatest victory of the war: not a battle, but the aftermath of one, and two marooned pilots who chose to start a conversation instead of finish each other off, thereby initiating the peace process.
  • 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.
  • Weird World, Weird Food: Downplayed. None of the meat dishes served are ever sourced from once-living food animals, 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.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Averted. Exactly the same as a human, thank you very much.