Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Scifi for Beginners: Beginning Operations by James White

About a year ago I had decided to broaden my horizons by attempting to read one science fiction book a month, in addition to my regular fantasy reading. But a year after beginning this project I find that I still prefer reading fantasy and each month I approach my chosen scifi book without much enthusiasm. This month, when I realized that it was time to choose another scifi book to read I determined that I would only read a book that I would actually enjoy. So after browsing a wide selection of books I settled on one that looked less intense and more fun than many of the other scifi books I have read, Beginning Operations by James White.

Beginning Operations is an omnibus made up of the first three books in White’s General Sector series, all of which were originally published as magazine stories between the years 1957 and 1971. The first book, Hospital Station, is made up of short stories introducing the different characters that the later stories will revolve around. The other two books are novellas chronicling different adventures that take place at the Sector General Hospital.

    Far out on the galactic rim, where star systems were sparse and the darkness nearly absolute, Sector Twelve General Hospital hung in space. In its three hundred and eighty-four levels were reproduced in the environments of all the intelligent life-forms known to the Galactic Federation, a biological spectrum ranging from the ultra-frigid methane life-forms through the more normal oxygon and chlorine breathing types up to the exotic beings who existed by the direct conversion of hard radiation. ..

    Sector General represented a two-fold miracle of engineering and psychology. Its supply and maintenance was handled by the Monitor Corps…but the traditional friction between the military and civilian members of its staff did not occur. Neither were there any serious squabbles among its ten-thousand-odd medical personnel, who were composed of over sixty different life-forms with sixty differing sets of mannerisms, body odors and ways of looking at life. Perhaps their one and only common denominator was the need of all doctors, regardless of size, shape or number of legs, to cure the sick.

Sector General is a hospital station located in deep space which caters to all manner of aliens. The hospital staff is made up of both human and alien doctors and nurses and the building itself is designed to accommodate creatures from every conceivable environment. The first book of the omnibus, Hospital Station, is divided into five short stories which introduce readers to the hospital and the central characters. In the first story we meet O’Mara, who later becomes the chief psychologist, but is originally brought in as a laborer in the building of the hospital. Due to his involvement in an accident that caused the death of two aliens, O’Mara is given a baby alien to care for while his case is being tried. The second story introduces Conway, a new doctor at the hospital who has trouble adjusting to his new environment due to personal prejudices which he must overcome if he wants to stay. The rest of the stories are about different cases that Conway deals with at the hospital involving various alien creatures, and some of the other doctors that he works with.

In the omnibus's second book, Star Surgeon, a drifting spacecraft is discovered containing an unconscious alien from an unfamiliar species, who is believed to have killed and eaten its fellow crew member. The Monitor Corps, who discovered the ship, believe the alien is a dangerous criminal but the truth about him won’t be discovered until he is brought back to consciousness. Dr. Conway is given the job of figuring out what is wrong with this patient and healing it, a puzzle which only he can solve. In the second part of the novella, the recovered alien leads the Sector General to discover a new planet where everyone is desperately ill. Sector General eagerly attempts to reach out to the inhabitants in order to help them but their good-will is misinterpreted and leads to an interseller war.

In the third novella, Major Operation, Conway is informed that a particular doctor who he is close with is in severe trouble with the hospital authorities for a careless mistake he made while operating on a patient. Conway is convinced that there are extenuating circumstances that led to his friend’s behavior and sets out to prove it. Conway’s investigation leads him to a newly discovered planet where his medical skills will be challenged by one of the strangest patients he has ever encountered.

Reading Beginning Operations is the most fun I have had with a scifi book in a long time. It was like M.A.S.H in space, though with a furry, teddy bear-like creature instead of Radar. The General Sector hospital is definitely a place I would love to visit, with its fascinating setup, interesting characters and exciting adventures. The aliens are creative and well-drawn and the whole concept of the hospital and its working really intrigued me. There is translation equipment for all patients and staff so that everyone can easily communicate with each other and a cafeteria built to accommodate the different eating habits of each alien species. I particularly enjoyed reading about the various hospital wards and how they are suited up for the needs of each individual patient and their unique environments, since what is necessary for one patient to live can be deadly for another. And since it is impossible for any doctor to remember how to care for each existing alien species, there are educational tapes that can be downloaded into a doctor’s brain, feeding him all the information he needs about the creature he is caring for. I felt like each of these elements really made the deep-space hospital a believable place for me. And while I would recommend that readers of Beginning Operations space out their reading of the stories, and perhaps takes breaks between them, I personally couldn’t stop myself from reading one story after the other because I was enjoying them so much.

But despite my enjoyment of Beginning Operations I have to admit that the book was not without its faults. While I quickly breezed through the first two books, the last one dragged for me. Part of it might have been because the stories do tend to repeat themselves and I should have really taken a break between each book before continuing on to the other, in order to enjoy the stories more fully. But the main problem was that the last story just didn’t interest me as much as the others. The story begins with Conway’s investigation into his friend’s erratic behavior but then it veers in a completely different direction and never really returns to the original story line. I also had a really hard time following what was going on and I just couldn’t picture the new situation that Conway had stepped into. After enjoying the previous books in the omnibus so much I was disappointed with the last story, which I could barely bring myself to finish.

The second problem is a bit trickier because I recognize that it is due to the time period in which the stories were written, but the condescending attitude towards women really bothered me. A couple of times, in the second story of the omnibus, nurses are spoken to or about in a very degrading manner by the doctors. One nurse is told not to worry her “pretty little head” about something and another one is told not to strain her “pretty little brain,” which made me want to throttle the doctors who spoke. I also think it’s strange that White was able to imagine a hospital in deep-space, full of exotic alien creatures, but the idea of a female doctor was beyond him. And while I do take into consideration that this has to do with the fact the story was written in the 1960’s, it still really irritated me.

And finally, I would have really liked for there to have been more of a focus on the head psychologist, O’Mara, who is relegated to the background after the first short story. I found him to be the most interesting of all the characters and I was really hoping to learn more about him.

Beginning Operation
is one of the few scifi books that I enjoyed reading as much as I enjoy reading fantasy. It was lighthearted, fun and engaging and though it was easy to put down when I needed to, due the way the stories were divided, I was always eager to pick it up again. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a good scifi romp though I suggest you take your time reading the book and take breaks between each story for maximum enjoyment.


I'm quite a sci-fi virgin, read the one and only sci-fi book just recently: Touched by an Alien yb Gini Koch. I would definitely recommend this one, it is light space opera, laugh out loud funny, a fantastic book!

Stella: I had actually started Touched by an Alien after reading a number of positive reviews of it but the book just didn't appeal to me. All the flirting that went on in the beginning just seemed inappropriately out of place and annoyed me so much that I couldn't continue. But many other people seem to have enjoyed it.

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