This short collection—just 266 pages, 109 of which are taken up by a single short novel—will always have a special place in my heart. This was the second White I encountered , but it was this collection that turned me into a James White fan.
Introduction: Reality in Science Fiction (Monsters and Medics); (1977), essay
The introductory essay comments on the background of each story. I have to admit I am totally addicted to material like this. If ebooks came with commentary tracks, I would read the heck out of them. White comes across as a charming man here, although there is a flash of steel when he discusses what happens after governments kill innocent bystanders. The official reaction isn’t to try to make amends, but to attack the character of the dead in order to justify the killing. Decades later, I realized Bloody Sunday was likely in White’s mind when he wrote that section. Of course, what he complains about is something that occurs with appalling regularity.
Second Ending; (1962), novel
Ross, whose plan to become a doctor (a profession much valued on post-World War III Earth) is derailed by potentially terminal illness, wakes from cold sleep to discover that he is fully cured. The bad news is that while he was asleep, humanity carried out a global thermonuclear war that made WWIII (which killed nine out of every ten humans) look like a squabble between children. Ross may be healthy, but he is also the sole living thing on a dead world.
Ross is not totally without resources. He is intelligent and determined, has grand plans, and commands a small army of robots. Thanks to the tailoring customs of his time, some dumb luck befalls him (no spoilers). Because he can return to cold sleep to wile away the years, he also has enormous spans of time in which to bring life to Earth a second time. He directs his increasingly intelligent robot servants to create a second race of humans.
As years stretch into millennia and millennia into geological ages, Ross discovers that time is as much an enemy as it is an ally. The sun and its solar system are not static and eternal. Given enough time, all of Ross’s efforts may come to nothing as the brightening sun boils the seas and kills all life from Earth, not to mention what happens as the Moon spirals towards Earth.
I am pretty sure this is the first SF story I read that presented the idea that the Sun will grow brighter with age, rather than cooling off as predicted by olden time astronomy and golden age SF. White gets various details of lunar and solar evolution wrong here, but on the whole he does a pretty good job of showing that what we think of as the natural condition of Earth is natural only for a specific period of time, a span than might in the end prove to be only a fraction of Earth’s life.
This short novel was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo in 1963, losing out to Stranger in a Strange Land.
Counter Security; (1963), novelette
A bright but unambitious department store security guard is confronted by what could very easily prove to be a horrific puzzle. Not only is someone leaving gruesomely mutilated dolls all around the store, but the perpetrator only mutilates dark-skinned dolls—an eerie detail that has not escaped the dark-skinned sales clerks. Is this the work of a racially-obsessed psychopath who can wander the store at will and unobserved, or is there some other explanation?
At the risk of spoiling the story, White is about as likely to whip back the cloth to reveal an ax-wielding Enoch Powell as Clifford D. Simak was to have one of his amiable protagonists found a sundown town. The answer is, of course, “some other explanation.” Even if you can predict that ending well before you get there (which sixteen-year-old James could not), White does a nice job of creating a creepy atmosphere.
Some years after I read this, I did a stint as a security guard. While a lot of the job was boring, there were some eerie moments (such as the time when I read King’s “The Mangler” ten feet from a machine of the type featured in the story). There were also some just plain weird moments (like having a small rabbit hop up to me in a closed mall at 3 AM). White was never a security guard, but during his stint as a salesman for a bespoke tailor, he picked up enough knowledge about what it might be like to spend the night in dark and shuttered store to write this short but vivid piece.
Dogfight; (1959), novelette
An alien spy disguised as a human tries to discover the secret of RK9, the mysterious robot brain responsible for humanity’s slow but inexorable triumph over the Semran empire.
Every collection has to have a story on which I am least keen. For this collection, this is that story. Spoiler: the big secret is that humanity’s advantage over the enemy is humanity’s greater capacity for empathy. Nice thought, but … the idea that humans would be sentimental about their military computer (or rather, that they would waste vast resources coddling that sentimentality) seems unlikely. I did find it interesting that one of the plot points White uses here (settling POWs on empty worlds and giving them the means to make a new home for themselves) is later recycled in “Escape Orbit.” Only in that story, the aliens are the ones resettling human POWs.
” Nuisance Value”; (1975), short story
The fall of civilization and the (mercifully brief) dark age that followed fail to prevent one man from trying to tear away the official lies about the death of his father—an astronaut who died in the days when the light was failing on Earth.
I would poke a bit of fun at White for using the tired old trope of “surely we are in the Crazy Years! Join in my lamentations!” but A: the chaos isn’t really the point of the story, and B: it’s possible that, from the perspective of someone living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the general arc of change did not seem to be headed in the direction of peace and the brotherhood of humankind.
” In Loving Memory”; (1956), short story
The discovery of faster-than-light travel is followed by the revelation that there was an earlier human interstellar culture, one limited to sub-light travel. As there were only a few colonizable planets within their reach, they could not be picky. They shaped the settlers to suit the world. Our young hero has fallen for a sweet Kallec girl from one of those early-settled worlds; Terran policy has thrown barriers between them. Can true love overcome profound political differences?
This is a sweet, sentimental love story (inspired by White’s romance with Margaret (“Peggy”) Sarah Martin, to whom he was married until death parted them). But it also raises an issue with broader implications (too broad to fully unpack in a short story): forced conformity . The Terrans have decided to deal with the non-standard—Well, non-Terran; who is to say Terran is standard?—humans by using advanced biotechnology to turn them into standard Terrans, as far as is possible. The sweet miss from Kallec objects to being transformed. She does not care to see her people’s unique attributes erased or reduced to mere curiosities.
The Apprentice; (1960), novelette
This novelette is another work based on White’s retail experience. A long-suffering senior staffer is tasked with finding a suitable job for a young alien, a new Earth resident who is all too eager to please. Human-alien relations may depend on how well the senior staffer can manage his new employee. Unfortunately, the alien means well but is far more energetic than wise.
The problems inherent in fitting a square peg into a round hole return in one of the later Sector General novels. The aliens of this story are also revisited in 1976’s “Custom Fitting”—another tale that draws upon White’s experiences in the tailoring biz.
Answer Came There None; (1974), short story
This rather gloomy narrative answers Fermi’s query, “where are they?” Answer: the average lifespan of a technological species is so short that even if explorers have FTL, by the time they reach the source of an alien signal the beings responsible for the signal are long dead.
It is only fair to add that even White’s gloomiest stories are not entirely lacking in moments of hope.
Fifty-three-going-on-fifty-four-year-old James is a much more demanding and judgmental reader than the sixteen-year-old James who first read this book. I am glad to report that the aging James still enjoyed this book. I would recommend it to readers who encounter a copy. Sadly, while Tor has done a nice job of keeping some White in print, this collection was from Del Rey and is long, long out of print. Your only option will be to look for used copies.
1: The first White I read was Major Operation, which seems to have made little impression on me. I didn’t realize it was by the same author as Monsters and Medics until that fateful day when I alphabetized my library.
2: I seem to recall that the late F.M. Busby’s Demu trilogy had aliens with similar policies as the Terrans. Busby was quite clear that the aliens were the baddies.