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Yet another of James White's Sector General books. These novels set in a multi-species space hospital and centered around problem-solving through intelligence and compassion have quickly become a comfort-read mainstay for me.

This one is unusual in that in the other Sector General books I have read, the protagonist has been a medical professional or a member of the staff in some other capacity. Here, the protagonist is a patient-- a human patient, which is also odd, as Sector General protagonists are frequently something different-- and his medical problem is so outré that he's gone more than half his life with everyone telling him it's all in his head. In addition to his understandable annoyance at the entire medical profession and everyone associated with it on those grounds, he's never interacted with aliens before coming to Sector General, and finds them both frightening and distressing.

In fact, he's the most unsympathetic protagonist I have yet seen in one of these, because he spends a lot of his time being extremely rude either on purpose or accidentally. But White makes him comprehensible enough not to be annoying, or at least only as annoying as he is to the people around him.

The medical problem, as usual, is complex and interesting and requires a lot of thinking around corners; unusually, it's sufficiently complex that the book has no subplots, meaning that unlike several others in the series it must have been conceived as a novel and not a fix-up.

I enjoyed it, of course, although it's certainly not as good as The Genocidal Healer, but saying that something is not as good as an author's best book does not mean it isn't good. It struck me as mid-range, pleasant, reliable performance of the ground White traditionally covers, and if you like his others you will like it. If you don't know whether you like White, I'm not sure this is where you start; my suggestion there is probably Code Blue: Emergency, which will give you White's strengths and weaknesses without having the reading-an-author's-best-book-first-so-it's-all-downhill-from-here problem.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Yesterday's review, due to twenty-two hours in an airport without wireless.

This is yet another of James White's Sector General novels, which are quickly becoming some of my most reliable comfort reads. This one is not, of course, as good as The Genocidal Healer, but it's quite good, especially if you've read previous works in the series.

The Chief Psychologist of Sector General, O'Mara, bears the responsibility for the mental and emotional well-being of the many extremely intelligent and highly-strung minds of the thousands of staff and patients at the galaxy's largest multi-species hospital. He has appeared in the background of several of the other books being very good at his job. He is also renowned as one of the most abrasive, difficult to work with, and generally blunt people in the entire medical service.

This is O'Mara's book, the one about his life (in flashback, from close to his arrival at Sector General), his non-public personality, and the things he has really devoted himself to. Unsurprisingly, he is a good and devoted and dutiful and intelligent man-- but the details are not, quite, what one might expect.

I found this, as with all of White, a pleasant read about people who mean well and are very bright solving interesting intellectual problems with the best resources at their disposal. I found it slightly more emotionally involving than other White, though it will probably read best if you know O'Mara as a background character already and know his staff. In short, this is just a consistently pleasant, bright, readable, cheerful set of books, with one bona fide Really Good One, and I look forward contentedly to more of them.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
Multiple people have told me on multiple occasions that this is the best of James White's Sector General series, and I have to say I agree. This is a lovely book.

The title is misleading, but I have no idea what else it could be called. At the Sector General Hospital, which is a hub of medicine for many, many species, the brilliant doctor Lioren has to deal with having made a mistake which did, in fact, basically wipe out a planet. He wants to die, but the courts refuse to kill him. The book's primary concern is Lioren trying to figure out what to do with himself, now, and what to do with his guilt, and the way everyone treats him. And Lioren isn't human, either, he's an alien and he has a plausibly alien mindset, which means he's not dealing with this quite the way a human being would.

This has all the pleasures of the two other books in its series I've read (The Galactic Gourmet and Code Blue: Emergency). I recommend reading both of those first, because there are recurring characters who were lent emotional resonance here by my previous awareness of them, but you could certainly read this as a standalone and I don't think that would actively hurt anything. It has the alien medicine with its unique and peculiar issues (how do you do surgery on an octopus the size of the Titanic?), the sense of problems as solvable, the large and complex wrangle of cultures: but unlike the other two, this one also has at its heart a genuine moral dilemma without an immediate answer, and I found the ending both unexpected and obviously right.

This is also structurally more of a piece than the other two, more evidently constructed as a novel instead of a fixup from short stories, and as a result its pacing is genuinely good. It manages the trick several times of switching ongoing problems suddenly without resolving the initial set of issues-- so that it feels as though this ought to be a series of cliffhangers, except that the new things that start happening are so interesting that it isn't annoying to wait for more about the previous, and therefore the resolutions to the various problems can cascade and interlock. I frequently find structures that depend on repeated cliffhangers aggravating because usually one thread is more intriguing or suspenseful and you have to wait for it to come round again, but not here.

It's fascinating seeing a difference in quality like this in the same writer, the same series, the same characters-- it's as though someone gently turned a dial somewhere from the setting marked Awesome Comfort Read to the setting marked Actual Novel. Of course that someone was James White, and I'm glad he did it, once. This book makes me happy.
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When I'm sick, I do a lot of rereading, and I particularly do a lot of rereading of the books I read as a kid; it's comforting, familiar, and doesn't require much brain. So I went back this week and reread almost all of Lois Lowry's Anastasia books. They hold up pretty well, actually. Anastasia Krupnik, the not-quite-teenage protagonist, lives with her parents and brother in Boston (a Boston I realize as an adult is recognizable; as a kid I didn't care) and gets into the sort of gently humorous situation that happens to intelligent, well-loved, interesting children. There are many books out there that try to do this sort of thing, but most of them are painfully twee. Lowry's succeed for me because, as a kid, they caught something about how I thought. For example, when Anastasia's parents tell her that she doesn't need to see a psychologist because she's not badly adjusted, she's just being a teenager (they're right, by the way), her response is to buy a plaster bust of Freud at a yard sale and start trying to use it as an analyst. This made total sense to me at thirteen, and there are levels on which it still does now. Since these were written in the eighties, some things about these have dated-- the technology, of course, but also the way that people treat Anastasia's mother for working, and some of the social things at Anastasia's school-- but basically they continue the same pleasant, funny things they've always been, only now I understand the parents better.

Anyway, after writing several books about Anastasia, Lowry switched audiences and main characters and started writing about Anastasia's younger brother Sam, who is in nursery school. I generally don't like the Sam books as well because I do think they veer into twee, and because that age of child is much less interesting and much less relatable to me. But I did include them in the reread, and found to my surprise that there was one I'd never read at all, namely Attaboy, Sam.

The plot of this one centers around Sam's mother's birthday, for which she has announced she wants homemade presents. Anastasia tries to write a poem, their father tries to paint an oil portrait of his wife, and Sam attempts to make perfume by combining all of his mother's favorite smells, such as yeast from freshly baked bread, and geranium clippings, and ash from his father's pipe, and you see the problem. I enjoyed this because I do vividly remember the desperation of realizing that a homemade present is not only not the spectacular thing it was intended to be, but is in fact a total and complete disaster, and watching that desperation times three is pretty impressive. And of course it works out all right in the end. If you like gently funny, short, naturalistic kids' books, this is the sort of thing you will like.

Then the next day I read another Sector General book by James White-- Code Blue: Emergency, which I gather is a fix-up of several short stories about its principal character. The protagonist here is a fully qualified surgeon for her own species, who winds up at the interspecies Sector General hospital for diplomatic reasons and turns out to be idiosyncratically useful but totally incapable of working with others because of some of her cultural tenets. The thing that amazed me here was how very much this resembled the previous White I'd read, The Galactic Gourmet; the books have precisely the same structure (misfit comes to hospital, does some good things while messing up spectacularly, is shifted through various niches in search of the right one, is eventually sent out on an ambulance ship-- it's even the same ambulance ship). It's just that the main character here is a surgeon, not a chef. The knowledge of which characters are recurring explains to me some of the idiosyncrasies of the previous, because of course the recurring people have more narrative weight. The recurring characters here pretty much do and say exactly what they do and say in The Galactic Gourmet, even.

However, despite the repetitiveness, this was still very entertaining and readable, and I don't think adhering to its formula hurt it at all. What one wants of this sort of book is problem-solving with an sf-medical bent, and that's very present and none of the medical mysteries repeat or are similar to one another, so far. And the arc of how the characters interact may be completely predictable, but honestly it isn't the point. So I still recommend this if you like the medical-sf thing conceptually, although I should note that this book is not as good at gender as the previous, though it didn't make me want to throw it across a room or anything.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This is a very specific subgenre of fiction: the hospital novel. James White's Sector General books combine the hospital novel with hard SF; they're set at a space hospital which has to medically handle many, many different species.

I had never read any of them but this sounded like a recipe for good light reading, so I picked up the one which had additional interest for me, in that the main character is a chef whose mission, or obsession, is to improve the hospital food. For everybody, including that guy who eats high-intensity radiation.

And indeed, this was good soothing light reading, in the 'problems come up and we solve them through intelligent discussion' direction. The book was a bit oddly structured, in that the first half works through a bunch of food solutions for hospital-dwelling aliens and the second half is a first-contact story, and while there is some emotional arc to tie the two together, there isn't much, because this sort of book never has much emotional arc. So it feels kind of like a fix-up, even though I don't think it is, or as though it really wanted to be two novellas with a large page in between them reading 'Part Two'. But whatever. I enjoyed the viewpoint character, who is not human and does not really understand humans and does not want to because he is cooking here, dammit, and who is plausible as a chef not in the technical sense that the book knows much about actual food prep-- it's okay to middling on that-- but in the sense that he has no other life and is an obsessed workaholic who is convinced he is the universe's gift to food, which summarizes most chefs I've known (and I am not saying that as a bad thing; I sometimes wish I were more like that).

The prose is a bit clunky and overly polysyllabic but it is clear and readable, so I don't much care, because again, this is not the sort of book you read for style.

This is the sort of book you read if you want to read about people intelligently fixing interesting technical issues which don't have much danger to them, concerning fields you care about, with aliens. If that is what you want, this is exactly what you would like. I shall keep the rest of them in mind for the next time I want that, because sometimes I really just do. You know, like the day after turning my brain inside out over a book I found difficult and rewarding.


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