The Last White Papers

At the World SF Convention in Melbourne this September – where I'm glad to report that I picked up a couple more Hugo awards – there was the usual sad programme item remembering recent deaths. The most shockingly recent, just ten days before Worldcon, was the passing of the much-loved Irish sf writer James White.

James had deep roots in science fiction fandom, and co-edited one of the legendary early fanzines. This was the 1948-1953 Slant, produced with Walt Willis, which – incredible as it seems today – was typeset by hand. Each page would be slowly assembled letter by letter and printed on a tiny press that wasn't meant for anything bigger than invitation cards. No wonder Slant is now rare and expensive. As Willis liked to say, "My grandfather was a printer and I simply reverted to type." Another major contributor was Bob Shaw.

Outside the frog-pond of fandom, James made his name with classy sf stories that are well worth hunting for. His short 1962 novel Second Ending applied a clever new spin to the already old sf dilemma of being the last human being alive, and The Watch Below (1966) has twin storylines of desperate struggles for survival under pressure in a deep-sea wreck and an interstellar ship – stories that resonate and eventually collide.

His most popular sequence boosted medical drama into space with many shorts and novels about Sector Twelve General Hospital, a vast interstellar habitat where teams of human and alien doctors struggle to cope with the weird health problems of our whole galaxy. Cases tackled by wisecracking series hero Dr Conway include intelligent diseases, beasties without hearts who must keep rolling forever or their circulation will stop, a levitating brontosaurus nicknamed Emily, and a continent-sized patient whose surgical treatment amounts to full-scale military action.

Worryingly for psychiatrists, Conway's closest friend is a giant, intelligent and painfully diplomatic dragonfly. His most embarrassing difficulty comes when, in order to understand and operate on the alien Melfans, he downloads the personality of an eminent Melfan specialist into his mind and suffers the side effect of uncontrollable lust for a shapely nurse of this species – who are giant crabs.

Besides being ingenious, the Sector General stories are compassionate and often funny. Unusually in sf, they convey a deep horror of war, fuelled by the author's loathing for events in his home town of Belfast ... I remember one sf convention that put on a hugely noisy fireworks display, and amid the enormous bangs and flashes his gentle Irish voice whispered into my ear: "They're trying to make me feel at home." Running jokes and comic episodes also abound in Sector General. One late volume, The Galactic Gourmet, features an alien masterchef suffering farcical problems as he tackles the ultimate culinary challenge of making hospital food eatable. Alas, owing to cutbacks in British publishing, 1990s Sector General novels appeared only in America. The last, published this October, was Double Contact.

Also available in the USA – try – is James's final story collection The White Papers, including not only some nifty sf but a selection of the wildly funny and sometimes moving articles he wrote for fanzines.

In person, James White was tall, kindly, balding, very gentlemanly and very short-sighted – he used a huge magnifying glass to read the already large type on his computer screen. Happily, one of his honours was the Skylark Award, presented in memory of "Lensman" author Doc Smith and consisting of an absolutely enormous magnifying lens. (A former winner, Jane Yolen, suffered a small fire thanks to sunlight focused through her Skylark, and warned that this is one award you should take care to put where the sun does not shine.) By coincidence, James's first-ever published words, in Slant 4, were firmly inserted into a columnist's article that was being horrid to Doc Smith: "[These opinions of the great Smith are not those of the typesetter, J. White.]"

James was a highly popular sf convention guest whom everyone liked and whose kindliness extended even to loathed creatures like parodists and critics. I know, because I wrote both a parody and a critical essay on Sector General, and each time James replied with a letter too embarrassingly generous for even egotist Langford to quote. His death from a stroke at age 71 came too soon but was mercifully quick. Already, a lot of us miss him badly.

David Langford is still proud to have been admitted to six-foot-six James White's "Society of Persons of Average Height".