The White Stuff
James White (Mark L. Olson & Bruce Pelz, eds.), The White Papers (NESFA Press, 1996)
To mark James White's appearance as Author Guest of Honor at the 1996 World Science Fiction Convention (L.A.Con III, in Los Angeles), NESFA Press published this collection of nine of his novelettes and an equal number of his fanzine contributions (mostly from Walt Willis's legendary Hyphen). The balance is fitting and proper, for White was equally eminent as a "vile pro" (his term) and a dedicated fan - one of the few successful authors who sprang from, but never very far away from, the fannish milieu.
Though never ranking with a Heinlein or Asimov or Niven in popular acclaim, White compiled an impressive body of work. Best known is his "Sector General" series, set in an interstellar hospital whose multi-species physicians find their ingenuity challenged by the strange ailments of some of the weirdest patients ever imagined. The White Papers includes four Sector General stories, plus the author's account of the origin and development of the series as a whole. The problems presented range from caring for a half-ton alien infant who has to be sprayed with food every four hours to treating a shape-changing amoeboid's catatonia to preventing a young human doctor from falling in love with his crustacean counterpart. All cleverly turn the superficially bizarre into narratives that are sometimes funny and often moving.
The non-Sector General stories likewise maintain a high standard. The gems are "Custom Fitting", which addresses the question of where the centaur-like first ambassador from the Galactic Federation is to find suitable garments for his audience at the Court of St. James, and "Christmas Treason", in which a gang of telekinetic toddlers tracks down Santa Claus. One story, "House Sitter", appears here for the first time. We are not told when it was written; its neutral treatment of homosexuality would not have been welcome in most science fiction outlets until very recently. The other stories are "Commuter", a clever time travel yarn whose only weakness is an unsurprising surprise ending, and "Sanctuary", where Irish nuns protect an alien explorer from the attentions of a 60 Minutes style television program.
In general, it should be noted, White is a somewhat "old-fashioned" (that is, Campbellian) writer. Faster-than-light travel, instantaneous communications, anti-gravity devices and even "stasis boxes" (long before Larry Niven exploited the concept) are taken for granted. The plotting is careful, and the characterization vigorous, if not always subtle. The are no experimental literary techniques, no sexual banter, no casual obscenities and nothing suggestive of drugs, New Age-ism or cyberpunk. Readers immersed in the latest SF trends may find this mix a bit stodgy.
The fan writings that make up the second part of the book represent a good sampling of one of the great times and places of amateur science fiction enthusiasm: the Irish Fandom ("IF") created by Walt Willis, Bob Shaw, George Charters, John Berry, Chuch Harris, White himself and others. IF flourished in a less than salubrious clime, the tension-wracked Northern Ireland of the 1950's and later. The contrast between IF's wacky, good-natured, effervescent worlds and the stark reality round about is captured in the nostalgic nonfactual essay, "The Exorcists of IF". White's own role in cultivating this garden of sanity and cross-tribal friendship (he was a Roman Catholic; most of the rest of IF were Protestants) is portrayed in a memoir, "Fester on the Fringe".
Other pieces fall into distinctive fannish genres: the "trip report" ("The Beacon, or Through Darkest Ireland Carrying a Torch for Bea Mahaffey"), the "con report" ("The Long Afternoon of Harrogate" and "The Quinze-y Report", the latter title being a Walt Willis pun that requires a quarter-page explanation), the fannish history ("A History of IF, Chapter 3") and the unserious personal invective against pretended enemies ("The Last Time I Saw Harris" and "The Not-So-Hot Gospeller"). Whatever the nominal topic, all of these sketches are light-hearted, pun-filled and witty. The nonfan may stumble over an occasional obscure reference (to, e. g., Roscoe or the sawing of Courtney's boat), but the argot is not so thick as to be unintelligible, and the meanings of the most frequently used terms, such as "egoboo" and "BNF", soon become clear from the context.
Rounding out the volume are a Sector General timeline and catalogue of alien species, both prepared by the late Gary Louie, a talented and deeply missed Los Angeles fan.
Even before James White’s recent death, his fiction was becoming hard to find. His fan pieces were always ephemera, of course. Happily, NESFA Press does a good job of keeping its backlist in print, giving another generation the opportunity to sample the writings of one of the field's underrated stars.