March 25, 2009

One Shot Over the Fence: The Geek Wins Again

When Colleen of Chasing Ray had the idea to organize us into a community of over-the-back-fence book-sharing neighbors, I was torn, of course, as to what book to pass on to the neighbors.

Book choices are so... telling. I mean, there's a copy of The Thornbirds the people in the pink house across the street have been passing back along since the seventies. The cover is taped, and there are parts underlined. The couple in the house next door have been forcing How Things Work into the hands of anyone under five for ever. Should I pull out my Muriel Spark, and nudge Memento Mori through the back fence for the older man back there batting around croquet balls and chuckling on the phone to his cronies in the mystery club? Or is that too English major-y? Should I peer over at the neighbor to my left, who is staring morosely at a picture of his ex, and hand him my copy of The Shipping News, which I must read every single year when it gets foggy and stormy, and I need a story of imperfect redemption?

Or, should I just ...give up and out myself yet one more time as the big geek I really am?

Look: it's not my fault. My mother watched Star Trek. The original one. My great-grandmother loved the Monkees. Geek happens. If I can identify the sound of the doors on the Enterprise in my sleep, so be it. If I can watch (and rewatch) episodes of Babylon 5 (until that last season) and weep, and wish they had chosen to revive it instead of Battlestar Galatica, so be it. We know who we are. We are geeks, and we live large, with our fanfic and our cons, our cosplaying and our filking... or, we live undercover, in our closets with our lamps and our stacks of paperbacks and Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathons, and our microwaved popcorn. Whichever. Whatever.

I know what I am, and as such, the only books I can pass across the fence or tuck in through the boxwood hedge for the girl next door are the ones I really, really love... ancient, sexist science fiction.

Yes, I had to get the sexist right out there.

I'm rereading Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, and boy, there's a history of misogyny for you! In spite of that, though, even as far back as the forties, women were reading science fiction, and loving it. So I join a proud tradition of not seeing myself in the work, and imagining myself there anyway -- don't we all do that? Today I'm passing a stack of James White's Sector General novels over the fence to you. You'll see in a moment there's more than one reason you might not see yourself right off in the cast of characters.

James White's Sector General books combine my love of Other Worlds with a very concrete link into humanity -- doctors. Nurses. Hospitals. Sector General is a hospital station, floating through space (cue the music for General Hospital, the other show my mother watched.) administered by a stern human doctor, and staffed by...


Yep. Humans are just another classification in the universe - one head, four mobile appendages, unfurred, except for strategic points. Humans are DGDB -- bipedal, oxygen breathing, warm-blooded. You'll find plenty of DGDB types at work at Sector General, but they aren't, by any means, the only people -- er, beings -- who have lives and cultures and traditions. These books explore xenophobia, racism, sexism and classism in surprising ways, always with a pacifist angle, to which the Belfast-born White was committed. Sexism amongst the humans isn't exactly turned on its head, but the most important human female in the books is the head of nursing... who has an exceptional bust and stunning blonde hair, but we'll consider the time and be grateful that girls show up at all.

The first chapter of the first novel, published in 1962, begins this way:

"The alien occupying O'Mara's sleeping compartment weighed roughly half a ton, possessed six, short appendages which served both as arms or legs and had a hide like a flexible armor plate. Coming as it did from Hudlar, a four-G world with an atmospheric pressure nearly seven times Earth normal, such ruggedness of physique was to be expected. But despite its enormous strength the being was helpless, O'Mara knew, because it was barely six months old, it had just seen its parents die in a construction accident, and its brain was sufficiently well developed for the sight to have frightened it badly.

It's the babysitting job from hell. O'Mara is accused of causing the accident which killed the huge being's parents, and so he is forced to share living space with this creature, feed it every few hours, and figure out how to bring it -- alive -- to its destination, or face consequences.

O'Mara is not at all a likable character, to begin with. One of his coworkers, a victim of an accident aboard a space-going vehicle has a nervous system which was shattered by radiation, and so he twitches and stammers. O'Mara mocks him, teases him about his stammer, and needles him, much to the disgust of all the other workers. In the beginning, readers might wonder why White chooses someone like O'Mara as a main character -- he's certainly not sympathetic. And yet...

O'Mara is young, muscular and was gorgeous, but now is disabled, very bitter, and seems angry. No one on board likes him, and now there's no one who will believe his story about how the accident happened. O'Mara knows next to nothing about Hudlars, but he's got a First Aid book of sorts... and that will have to do. Of course, while he's figuring out how not to let the baby die, he's got to see the Monitor, who is investigating the accident, and determining whether or not O'Mara still has a job and his freedom.

You will no longer find these books for sale as single editions unless you aver very lucky indeed, they are way out of print. All of the novels in the series appear in omnibus form, as you can see to your left, and were reprinted by popular demand. (Yay! Geek power!) The Sector General novels have compelling characters and storylines which are by turns playful and serious. The drama of meeting all new beings -- classifying them so that the hospital knows what kind they are, and what will work with them -- the medical staff keeping their own prejudices under wraps -- the frustration of seeing patients die because of what you don't know -- all of this creates memorable, eminently readable books. The political undertones of these novels came from White's frustration with the years of violence in Belfast, and the great lengths to which the ambulance personnel, xenobiologists, doctors and medical staff go to avoid having to injure or kill in the field or back at the station -- even when under attack -- speak of his deep desire for the world he knew to work a little harder at preserving lives.

These books remind me of the 1957 Murray Leinster Med Ship series, which is less like General Hospital, and more like M*A*S*H. The Sector General series has also been compared with Alan Nourse's 1959 YA novel Star Surgeon, which I'm still tracking down. If you like S.L. Viehl's StarDoc books, you may like these, but Sector General includes less relationship stuff than Viehl does, less violence, but definitely more weird aliens.

So, at the next block party, look for the absent geeky girl with the massive, sun-defying straw hat and dark sunglasses, lounging with pillows and blanket in a shady back corner of her own backyard. She's the one with the stack of paperbacks and she doesn't actually hear you when you walk up to her and ask her what she's reading. As long as you bring a plate of brownies or something to go with her bottle of lemonade, you're welcome to sit down, pick up a book, shut up, and read.

There are other fences and other neighbors and other books going by. Grab a few from:

The new neighbors we might not know, but don't let that stop you from grabbing a book from them. Check with Chasing Ray for the full lineup.

Buy the Sector General omnibuses from an independent bookstore near you!


Charlotte said...

I'm almost sold....just a bit doubtful about aliens...and space...I don't generally do aliens and space,unless it's Ursula Le Guin or Sheri Tepper..but I'll look around for the first one. After all, I love the Sue Barton books. And Star Trek.

tanita✿davis said...

I know! Aliens! Only to make fun of and/or escape from and/or fight/make peace with, ala Star Trek. I know. Aliens. And yet... the human aliens plus the ones enveloped in methane so that they can breathe - are fascinating.

Oh, wow. Sue Barton -- the grown-up Cherry Ames!

Anonymous said...

My initial response was to say that outing yourself as a geek seemed redundant, but as it takes one to know one, there was no negativity behind that statement. Really.

Great graphic, btw, for the one-shot event!

Sarah Stevenson said...

I'll have to wait until later today to read this in detail...and it's going to drive me nuts!! :)

Ethel Rohan said...

I'm still back at the part where you shared that your neighbor lends out an underlined copy of The Thorn Birds. I love it! Reminds me of how I used to dog-ear my books as a teen and drive my friends crazy. Can't remember what I dog-earred, hopefully the "good" verus the naughty parts. If what we read reveals us, then how do we as writers stand a chance? Exposed as newborns. People will make all sorts of assumptions regardless, though, won't they? Ah, well, we can't fight it. And we most certainly can't let it stop us putting our best work out there.
Thanks for another terrific post. I don't know where you find the time! You go.

Colleen said...

Oh Lord - The Thorn Birds. I can't begin to tell you what a big deal that whole miniseries was in my life and yes - read the book a million times in junior times.

That Richard Chamberlain - he sure did the tortured hero thing well didn't he?

Love this post - love the aliens, love outing your mom as a Star Trek fan. You so rock!!!

Anonymous said...

Tanita, I, like, swooned over here when I read that you watch Babylon 5, BECAUSE I DO, TOO. And I also cry. Even with that last season, I just sobbed and sobbed when the show was over because I thought I was just never going to love a TV show that much again ever.

And I haven't.

When I was a teen and first started reading SF, I felt like I couldn't tell anyone, because it was so boy-centered. Luckily, the stay-at-home mom who lived across the street turned out to be a big SF reader who let me borrow her books and made me feel less like a freak. Now, of course, I'm just like, "Whatever, I'm a geek. Leave me alone."

jama said...

I have never heard of James White, nor am I a SF fan, but I could read about your geeky love all day long.

And your great grandmother loved the Monkees? I hope she was a late bloomer, or else I'm a lot older than I thought I was.

tanita✿davis said...

Hah! Jama, my great-grandma died in her early nineties. I remember being very, very small when Monkees reruns still played (she was probably in her seventies), and her enjoying them. I thought it was a very weird show where everyone ran around a lot all the time. And sang.

I have a special love for the Monkees just because of her.

jama said...

Phew! At first, I thought your great grandma watched the original series, not reruns. I was sitting here thinking, am I old enough to be a great grandma, because I remember well loving that series when it first aired.

It was a wacky show, but I loved it. Even met the Monkees on the beach near the hotel they were staying at in Hawaii. *still carrying torch for Peter Tork*

tanita✿davis said...

Adrienne! You and I are possibly twins separated at birth. You, however, got all the fashion sense. I admit a grudging love for even the last season of B5 -- I think I mostly was angry the whole time because I knew it was going away. And truly: never has there been another show like that. *sigh*

Jama, I think -- think -- my grandma watched the original series AS AN ADULT, since it aired in 1966-68, quite a bit before I was on scene. She was a quirky person.

Laini Taylor said...

"Geek happens." !!! So true :-) And I don't even have my parents to blame. These books sound great. I'll see if I can find them.