Slugger Seasonal Book Club: Vol. 2

It’s getting to be the time of year when you have to start thinking about gifts. Bah. For others. Humbug. Or maybe just because the November weather is giving you the perfect opportunity to explore like in the Great Indoors. Perhaps you are just a bibliobibuli, c.f. someone who reads too much. Or maybe the dispatches from SDLP party conference have whetted your appetite for escapism. Either way, this seasonal Slugger book club is for you. So pull up an armchair while we discuss classic NI books, past and present.

This week….James White’s Sector General Series.

Sector General

Who dunnit: James White, born in Belfast 1928. After a few years in Canada, White returned to Belfast, and lived with foster parents while he was a teenager. He worked first in the clothing industry, then as an assistant manager at the Co Op and then at Short Brothers Ltd. from 1965. He moved to Portstewart in the 1980s. White was a member of the famous not so well known “Belfast Triangle” along with Bob Shaw and Walt Willis.  A lifelong pacifist, White was a Council Member of the British Science Fiction Association for many years and a Patron of the Irish Science Fiction Association.

Hospital station

Why is it a classic: Although nominated four times for Hugo / Nebula awards, White never took home the honours. Paul Kincaid, British sci-fi critic and recipient of the Clareson Award for outstanding service in the field of science fiction, described White as second-rank writer who occasionally produced first-rank works. Miaow. Yet, while not consistently well regarded by critics, White’s Sector General Series “defined the sub-genre of multi-species medical stories” and was “the first explicitly pacifist space opera” series. So if a gigantic multi-species hospital space station founded as a peace-making project by two heroes from opposite sides of humanity’s only full interstellar war tickles your fancy, you could do worse than start here. Plus…telepathic dinosaur experiments.

Reasons to Give it a Miss: Telepathic dinosaur experiments.




Three words to sum up the plot: Interspecies medical drama? Interstellar Holby City? Pacifist space opera?

Can I just watch the movie?: Nope. There is no shortcut to reading all 12 novels plus four additional short stories. If you haven’t made it past the first book in Wheel of Time, abandon, abort! This is not an undertaking for any but the most committed sci fi / medical / pacifist armchair warriors.

Who to buy it for: Obviously sci-fi fans. Anyone still watching Grey’s Anatomy, which is bearing less and less resemblance to life on earth. A friend working in a less than creatively inspiring field with dreams of future artistic success. A technophobe who eschews ebooks, because Sector General is hard copy only (in this galaxy anyway). This series is also for anyone likely to appreciate profound yet zany aphorisms, exemplified in Double Contact:

“There is nothing entirely new under this or any other sun.”

What do you think? Top of the gift list or would you rather get coal in your stocking? Back every week from now til Christmas…ho ho ho etc.

  • Starviking

    Having known James during his later year, through SF Fandom, I can certainly recommend his works. He was a gentle, decent man, and his writings ejected violence from its usual key role of setting the pace of a story.

    He certainly is a local man who should have more recognition. We need more of his ilk these days.

    As an aside, recently there was mention of the homophobic murder of The Rev. David Templeton, with a starring role from our gutter press in his death. James lost one of his sons in a similar fashion, hounded into suicide by copy-hungry journos.

  • I did a phd in local writing, looking particularly at gender and also genre so I did quite a lot of sci fi reading and this always struck me about James White, how no one ever has a bad word to say about him as a person. I really enjoyed a few of his books, but he really isn’t very well known. A Sector General set would make a great gift for anyone who has yet to experience it!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    No indeed, “he really isn’t very well known”. As a science fiction reader myself, I’m surprised that he has not come into my orbit (sorry!). Thank you for pointing his work out!

    But this has long been something of a gripe of mine. We have a plethora of high quality work that in any other place would have attracted strong local interest and might even be used as a bit of a tourism draw. I have the uncomfortable feeling that if writing, or culture in general, is seen as being of no direct use to our highly politicised culture, then it is being left to quietly die off.

    Thank you, W[r]ite Noise for your efforts to break the silence. As something from the same field have you come across:

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    The only way a writer can get any modern recognition is if he/she is ‘boord’ approved:

    If someone is from ‘Ulster’ and contributes to the arts or culture in any way in a far off country then they are a source of pride.

    Whereas if they remain in the Grim North then they are a source of suspicion for their ‘arty’ tendencies (and other subversive streaks)….

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Much obliged Noise, this is now on the old radar.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Gary Mitchell is at least political enough to be noticed, even if rather negitively! Anyone involved in any art activity that has “no political content” could be working on another planet for all the locals care! Accordingly, the entire place is something of a cultural desert and no one is able to develop any serious critical sense about what is presented to them as “creativity”:

    “The Cathedral Church of St. Vlad the Empailer”?

    And we have a few writers from the Cultural Revival who, if born in Dublin, would be seen as writers of European stature, but having been born locally are now entirely forgotten.

    But thanks for the first link, I now know at least one of the directions Flann is coming from in “At Swim Two Birds”. Eat your heart out Zane Grey, but, justa minute… is this actually Ulster Scots?

  • I think you are exactly right, and of course it extends beyond the written word and into visual arts as well. Musicians seem to get a bit more support locally, which is great, but I don’t know why it doesn’t extend to our really rather varied and talented stable of local writers too.

    Perhaps it stems from an inherent suspicion of too much education, a mistrust of the written word? Certainly anything far outside the vaunted QUB circle of writers is not well known. Maybe because a lot of creative output undermines the notion that nothing exists here except a sectarian metanarrative, there is something of a reluctance to celebrate the subversive? You only have to look at the local political scene to see how far down the agenda issues for ethnic minorities, women, cultural organisations are and now it looks like upwards of £94m might be cut from our education budget. It is not a rosy time to be wanting to talk about something different, new or unexpected.

    But if I can in any small way to raise the profile of local writers and help Slugger readers out with their xmas shopping or just adding to their own ‘to read’ pile, then I am more than happy to be doing it!

  • Thank you Seaan for reading! I entirely agree that “writing, or culture in general, is seen as being of no direct use to our
    highly politicised culture, then it is being left to quietly die off”. I think it is a little more subtle than that – writers like C.S. Lewis are celebrated in local festivals, writers clustered around the QUB scene (Heaney, Longley, Morrissey etc) are all celebrated in ‘Literary Belfast’ or made a poet laureate for the city. Writers who are happy to more or less be ambassadors for Northern Ireland Tourist Board (for example, Glenn Patterson) are chosen to be authors for One City, One Book.

    It seems if you don’t fit comfortably into one of the pre-approved categories of what an Ulster / NI writer ‘should’ be then you are off the menu when it comes to local recognition, inclusion on the curriculum, on the programme of local festivals etc.

    But hopefully this is something that we can change, by rediscovering these authors and supporting our local presses, Blackstaff, Lagan etc., and local literary journals and magazines. The talent is unquestionably there but it needs to find an audience

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you W[r]iteNoise! At least the problem can be addressed by anyone who is still the well lit side of the sod, and I get the occasional invite to live poetry being read at QUB, to hear occasional names and new names. But it’s not simply the living talent who are in need of an audience! For the many dead writers such as (one example, just, I must hold to one example only) Samuel Beckett’s friend and fellow melancholic, the entirely forgotten Larne modernist poet John Lyle Donaghy, it takes those who still care enough, such as yourself, to give such neglected writers any voice still, across the unfeeling silence in which they are being left unread. That’s why I put up the Ardrigh Books link, as another attempt to shout back at the silence!

    My uncle knew the county Down painter Arthur Greaves, and through him had some acquaintance with C.S.Lewis. I occasionally wonder what that man of very strong views about the dangers of popular celebrations for any writer would think of how he is being presented here!

    I now await next week’s writer with anticipated delight!

  • “the entirely forgotten Larne modernist poet John Lyle Donaghy” – I have never heard of this writer, thanks for the tip!

    “I now await next week’s writer with anticipated delight!”
    You are too kind…*no pressure*

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Good hunting!

    This record on Ricorso is a bit unclear about his death, but this is just weak research, it was in fact 1949 and there are a few obituaries to prove it along with a commemorative edition of RANN dedicated to his “recent death” that year.

    The bit of bio at the top mentions George Buchanan also. Lyle Donaghy was the son of Mrs Ros’s hero the Presbyterian Minister John Lyle Donaghy Sr and his friend Buchanan was the son of the C of I vicar, the original of the Rev, Goliath Ginbottle who is lambasted in Amanda’s poetry. Both were naissant Celtic Revival enthusiasts and fledgling poets as adolescents. Buchanan went on to develop a career as a London journalist, producing seven novels, and some books of poetry. He also wrote quite a bit of autobiography, describing his friendship with Lyle Donaghy in his 1959 memoir, “Green Seacoast.”

    As Am Ghobsmacht mentions below, the fact that neither is, or probably could be, “boord” approved, should ensure their continued obscurity. Pity…..