Saturday, April 11, 2009

Old Friends and Aliens

I visited some old friends the other day. Picked up a book I've owned since 1971 but never read yet, MAJOR OPERATION by James White, one of his Sector general series.

White didn't write about star wars or space battles. He was a humantistic author apalled by the troubles in his native Northern Ireland, more concerned with helping and healing. The Sector General series has been called "the first explicitly pacifist space opera." He also wrote THE DREAM MILLENIUM, in which human and alien "dreamers," fleeing from their own violent worlds, form a peaceful community.

Sector General is a gigantic hospital in space, founded to promote galactic harmony among diverse species. It's staffed by humans and aliens with different forms, environmental needs and psychologies. The books are collections of related short stories. Despite their lack of battles the tales are exciting and fun. They are problem-solving stories with a lot of human (and alien) characterization. Usually before the doctors can figure out how to cure an exotic alien visitor, they must determine if it's condition is a disease or part of its normal life cycle.

The first books in the series, SECTOR GENERAL (1962) and STAR SURGEON (1963), have special meaning for me as I remember they were among the first books my parents bought for me. Reading MAJOR OPERATION was like meeting old friends again. It felt like no time had passed since I last visited Dr Conway, surgeon and Major O'Mara, Chief Psychologist and it was good to see them again.

I think White's works have influenced me more than I knew, both in my own pacifist leanings and my respect for diversity. They show my the modern myths of science fiction are important. It's hard to hate people because their skin is a different shade when you've palled around and worked with Dr Prilicla, a large, fragile empathic insect or Chief Diagnostician Thornnastor, who resembled a six-legged elephant or Charge Nurse Naydrad, a huge furred caterpillar, or to disapprove anyone's sexual preferences when you've known asexual Eddorians and multi-sexed methane-breathers. That's not just in White's stories either: science fiction readers grew up with Tar Tarkas, a 15-foot, green, four-armed, tusked Martian warrior, Tregonsee the Lensman from Rigel, an eyeless tentacled Galactic Patrolman, and Puppeteers with four legs and two sock-puppet-like heads.

Another reason why science fiction and fantasy stories (as long as we remember that they are only stories) make perfect myths for reflecting the values of the 21st century.