It's a shame because my feeling is that the series didn't start to get really interesting until that final run of novels. Once they had relegated Conway and the main cast to colorful supporting characters, like wacky neighbors on a hit sitcom, it's like suddenly White had the freedom to tell the stories he really wanted to tell about all these alien hospital doctor people. I had wondered initially if the reason these were never reprinted as part of the current run was because perhaps these stories weren't as popular or the quality wasn't as high as the earlier novels. Titles like "The Galactic Gourmet" didn't give me much cause for hope either.
But as it turns out, White does his best to keep the streak alive. The first novel deals with the aforementioned cook from space, an chef renowned across the solar system who finagles his way onto the Sector General because he sees the environment as a challenge worthy of his culinary skills. While a step down from the weightier topics tackled in the last two books, it's a clever twist on an age-old complaint about hospital food and highlights the unique problems that the staff had to deal with. It's not an invalid question either, how you efficiently feed a whole hospital full of aliens with wildly varying nutritional needs, not to mention the staff.
This one comes across as lighter and a bit more fun. It never feels like anything is at stake until toward the very end but White has a way of making you root for the characters, somehow imbuing top chef Gurronsevas with the arrogance that comes from knowing you're the best but tempering that with an actual desire to helpful and be useful. Sure, he's at Sector General because he feels it's worthy of his talents but he does genuinely want to improve things.
This does mean that White basically trades one groove for another in terms of structure and the new format that worked so well with the last two stories basically gets repeated here. Gurronsevas helps out in various sections, ticks them off to some extent but things are going so swimmingly that the plot almost has to contrive a reason to get him off the hospital, this time with an accident that isn't quite his fault but still makes everyone mad. O'Mara then dumps him on the ambulance ship (just like the last two stories) where he hangs out with Prilicla, Murchison and company and tries to stay out of trouble. It seems like the book is going to coast until they wind up on a world where everyone is starving mostly because they are being very stubborn and suddenly having a master chef on board comes in handy. These scenes bring the book back to life and add a sense of urgency and emotion that was missing earlier, highlighting what the series always did best, the notion that we can all make some kind of connection no matter how different we are and that every people can be solved as long as everyone works together. Again, there's some degree of plot contrivance afoot but also a marked attempt to see things through an alien viewpoint and bridge the gap. The last chunk of the book makes for a decent short story but overall it winds up being an unexpectedly fun experience. Some fans apparently aren't fond of this one but it's just novel enough in its subject matter that the creeping sense of stagnation can't ruin it for him.
The fourth time wasn't quite the charm the next time out however, as White attempted the new format yet again, but steering the book back toward medical issues. "Final Diagnosis" marks the first time in a while that a human is the main character, with the difference is that he's the patient this time. Marked for a hypochondriac with psychological delusions, he's eventually brought to Sector General when no one else can help him. Seems that he reacts poorly to every drug and has a heart attack every time someone attempts to help him. Oh, and he can't have good relations with women. It's an interesting problem but if any of the Sector General stories can be accused of taking a short story's worth of material and stretching it out, it's probably this one, as the staff runs in place not quite seeing what was clear to me early on might have been a problem, so we get lots of scenes of people killing time and not seeing the obvious until the team starts to believe that something else is up.
This means yet another trip aboard the ambulance ship with our stalwart team of ambulance people (and can I at least say it's a little strange that White goes out of his way to have the narration and characters point out how hot Murchinson is every time she first appears but never seems to do that for any of the men . . . did he base her on his wife?) as they attempt to solve the mystery. The book then pads itself out with a pretty complete runthrough of the plot of "Star Surgeon" that takes up way more space than it should considering that pretty much every character involved in this novel was around for it. It does give you a sense of how far we've come with these people but when the summary goes on for pages you wonder if it's just his way of upping the page count. But once all that's dealt with we go back to Sector General for another evacuation as the patient and Padre Lorien conduct the least efficient search for a virus ever (you wonder why Lorien doesn't just retrace his own steps instead of all the hoops they jump through) before everything ends well. It's never unpleasant but it's the first novel that really feels like it's going through the motion.
White rebounds a bit for the penultimate Sector General novel, "Mind Changer", which for the first time throws the focus purely on the Chief Psychologist O'Mara. It's both farewell and origin story, as O'Mara is made Administrator just in time to be told he has to retire and choose his own successor. This gives him an opportunity to reflect on his own life, which has almost been entirely focused on Sector General. On some level this one becomes a victory lap, and it's a well deserved one. O'Mara has been the one constant in Sector General since the series began and to get a better peek at him is welcome. But it doesn't seem like White had a coherent structure for the plot, with chapters flashing back to his early days as a psychologist almost stream of consciousness style, without any real rhyme or reason or even relevance. As the flashback chapters pile up, you start to wonder which is the main plot, especially as the flashbacks start going on for multiple chapters.
All of it is interesting, though, especially the glimpses into Sector General under construction and before most of the main cast arrived. Seeing the differences between the styles of O'Mara and his predecessor. It's just with the constant whiplash it's not clear if White figured this was his last chance to tell O'Mara stories and decided to just shove every fragment of ideas he had about the character into this tale. In true retrospective fashion, he gives explanations for things that didn't need to be explained (like why O'Mara is blunt and sarcastic . . . why can't that just be his personality), and it all swirls about pleasantly in that patented Sector General style, where everyone is so pleasant and decent that you really can't get mad. But any break from the format, no matter how haphazardly done, is welcome and as both history and summing up it works rather well, as we and the staff get to say goodbye to someone who does feel like an old friend after all this time. Even if we can all say his catchphrases by heart ("I'm here to shrink heads not swell them" and the bit about how you should watch out if he's nice to you because it means he's treating you like a patient . . . you keep waiting for White to tweak us and have someone point out how often O'Mara has mentioned these facts).
And it all ends on a surprisingly emotional note, as a character who has been gruff and clinical all these novels finally uncorks his sensitive side in an unexpected place and fashion, getting again to the very heart of the series (decency and healing transcend all boundaries) and proving that even toward the end of his life, even as the series was getting creaky, it was still vital in the important places and could still remind us how obvious the important stuff should be, and almost make you promise before closing the book and leaving the hospital not to overlook it again.
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|Title||Tales of Sector General (Sector General, #9-11)|
|Publisher||Science Fiction Book Club|
|File size||3.3 Mb|
|eBook format||Hardcover, (torrent)|
|Book rating||4.27 (49 votes)
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