Lonely Hospital at the Edge of Space: A Return to Sector General

In the far reaches of Sector 12, a massive interspecies hospital drifts in space, home to a diverse cast of doctors and patients from every intelligent race in the galaxy. Sector 12 General Hospital was once a popular stop for thousands of science fiction readers who were drawn in by author James White’s fast-paced medical mysteries and his inventive cast of novel-yet-relatable aliens. Despite their seemingly monstrous appearances, White’s aliens are highly professional and noble healers, fearlessly treating the sick and injured while confronting a host of complications with ingenuity and insight.

In 1962, while his contemporaries were envisioning a future where cities were flooded by global warming, overrun by violent hooligans, or bombed into a radioactive crisp, James White brought readers a vision of a peaceful and cooperative future with Hospital Station, the first volume of the Sector General series. Eleven more books would follow over the next 37 years, essentially defining the genre of medical science fiction.

The series takes place in Sector 12 General Hospital, a sprawling 384-floor hospital space station built in order to cement a lasting peace after humanity’s disastrous first interstellar war. A notable departure from the militaristic space operas of the time, the story of Sector General is explicitly pacifistic, eschewing conquest and combat in favor of the struggle of doctors to understand and heal their alien patients.

The Sector General series is often commended for its depiction of extraterrestrials that are more than just humans with cosmetic differences. White’s aliens are physiologically far outside of the human experience, with asymmetrical bodies, unusual metabolisms, and strange and often monstrous appearances. Critically, they are also psychologically different. Empathic Cinrusskin aliens are aggressively agreeable peacemakers as they find negative emotional radiation physically painful. Predatory Chalder become too bored to eat when given food they don’t have to chase down and devour alive. White’s aliens are bemused by the human nudity taboo, described as unique to the species.

Designed to treat patients from all the intelligent races in the galaxy, Sector General has wards that replicate living conditions for a vast array of life forms. There are murky undersea wards for the forty-foot long, armored, crocodile-like Chalder, poisonous sections for the chlorine-breathing kelplike Illensans, sub-zero wards for the crystalline methane-breathing Vosans and superheated wards near the hospital’s reactor for radiation-eating Telfi hive-mind beetles.

With such a wide assortment of species seeking treatment, it’s critical for staff to rapidly identify patients. A key construct of Sector General is the four-letter classification system White uses to catalog his cast. Species are classified according to their appearance, metabolic system, number of limbs, and other factors. Familiar Earth humans receive the classification DBDG as warm-blooded oxygen breathers. The water-breathing Chalder are classified AUGL, the chlorine-breathing Illensans are PVSJ, and more exotic combinations appear as well, like the telepathic VUXG or the polymorphic SRTT. The shorthand not only helps readers quickly familiarize themselves with the many types of aliens on Sector General, it is also reminiscent of the barrage of initialisms real life medical professionals deal with each day.

Facing this incredible menagerie of patients, no doctor could be expected to know how to treat them all. On Sector General, physicians overcome this impossibility by using “educator tapes,” the stored experience of famous alien specialists which the doctors download directly into their brains. The genius psyche temporarily shares space with the doctor’s own persona and advises them as they aid patients. The process is described as intensely jarring, since the educator tapes contain not only the expertise, but the entire personality of its donor. Inexperienced doctors find themselves struggling to eat food that the taped personality disliked, suddenly enamored with members of the expert’s species to whom they wouldn’t normally be attracted, and in some cases they must struggle to maintain control of their own bodies in the face of a personality stronger than their own.

Most doctors hurriedly have their educator tapes “erased” when the emergency at hand has run its course, but some working closely with patients from another species will retain tapes for long periods. The highest ranked medical staff in the hospital are the lordly diagnosticians—senior physicians capable of permanently retaining as many as ten educator tapes in a sort of intentional multiple personality disorder.

In addition to addressing the challenge of treating so many different types of patients, the educator tape system frequently reinforces one of the main themes of the Sector General series: learning to understand the viewpoints of those unlike ourselves, and working together with them in the service of a greater goal. While some of the terminology White used may not have aged well since 1962, a surprising amount of the material in the series is still very relevant. The focus on diversity and nonviolence are not only refreshing for their era, they are ahead of their time, foreshadowing the tremendous drive towards inclusion and acceptance so often foregrounded in modern culture.

Over the thirty-seven-year run of the series, readers can see the evolution of White’s talent and his ideas. His primary female character, Nurse Murchinson, starts out so threadbare that she is nearly insubstantial, but in later books she becomes a real character as she is promoted and gains significant status as one of the best pathologists in Sector General. The initial books in the series are collections of related short stories told from the perspective of author stand-in Dr. Conway. Later books are more complete novels with stronger characters and narrative development, often told from the unique viewpoint of an alien specialist.

Throughout the series, White’s authorial voice is friendly and patient. Characters face challenges with humor and optimism, and interpersonal drama is largely good-natured. Doctors try to dine alongside each other without being disgusted by the seemingly bizarre eating habits of their colleagues; they also wedge themselves into uncomfortable chairs meant for different anatomies, and they gossip enthusiastically about the scandalous drama of the multi-sexed, methane-breathing Vosans. Though tragedy is all too common in the hospital, characters are frequently shown doing their best to support one another.

As a pacifist who was greatly influenced by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, White deftly manages to condemn violence without demonizing its practitioners. The antagonists of the series are largely acting out of ignorance instead of evil. Much of the series revolves around the struggle to educate newly-discovered species in the face of barbarism and superstition. Wars in the series are always met with a sense of profound disappointment by bleary doctors struggling to patch together those who could not bridge their differences peacefully.

White dreamed of being a doctor himself, and his admiration for the medical profession shines through in the Sector General books. His characters, no matter how alien, all share the most noble trait of humanity: the desire to help others even at cost to themselves. The doctors of Sector General work at a feverish pace with little regard for their own safety, remaining on the station as it is bombarded by a hostile empire, and continue to treat not only their own patients, but also the wounded of the aggressors.

For thirty-seven years and twelve books, the Sector General series brought readers a uniquely nonviolent, inclusive vision of future medicine. Sixteen years after the passing of author James White, the space docks of Sector General no longer see the busy traffic they once did, and fewer new readers are making it through the airlocks. But for the curious souls who do find their way inside, Sector General is as busy as ever. Doctors still scramble to treat an incredible variety of weird and wonderful aliens, they still grapple with difficult ethical choices, and they still overcome tremendous differences to work together for the greater good. Whether you’re a new admission or a returning patient, there’s plenty worth investigating in the 384 levels of Sector General.

The Sector General novels are available in omnibus editions from Tor Books.

Zak Zyz is a writer and Systems Administrator living in Brooklyn, New York. He co-founded the Strategically Correct board gaming society and is definitely a spy. His first novella SURVIVAL MODE is available from Gutpunch Press, and his first novel, Xan & Ink will be released on 4/20/2016.

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