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James White (1928 - 1999):

James White

James White was a prolific writer of science fiction, known especially for a sub-genre known as medical science fiction, and generally for a corpus where violence was at a minimum, which was rather against the grain of the genre as a whole.

Many thought this was the influence of his life, times and locations; he was born in Belfast, though grew up in Canada, but as a teenager in 1941 won a scholarship from St John's primary school in Belfast to St Joseph's Technical High School, which was soon afterwards destroyed in the German air raids of 1941, which were particularly destructive in the relatively compact city. The school survived as an institution but decamped to Cushendun in north County Antrim. White spent a year there, but circumstances were such that he became a tailor, a trade he pursued for two decades, before eventually joining the public relations department of Short Brothers and Harland, the prominent Belfast aerospace company where he was publicity assistant (1966-8) and publicity officer (1968-84); a diabetic condition affecting his eyesight caused his early retirement and he moved from Andersonstown, west Belfast, to Portstewart, on the north coast of County Londonderry. Andersonstown was an area of Belfast which saw a lot of violence during the Northern Ireland Troubles; White's universe was a kind of inverse.

White had been interested in science as well as science fiction all his life. In regard to the latter, even before the Second World War, he was reading HG Wells and after the war profited from the many American science fiction magazines available in Smithfield in central Belfast (an area well known for second-hand bookshops), thanks to the large number of US military personnel stationed in Northern Ireland during the war. After the war, he himself, along with another enthusiast Walter Willis, founded the group "Irish Fandom", which produced two "fanzines", Slant and Hyphen. Another Belfast science fiction aficionado to join them was Robert Shaw, who like White was to have an international profile.  

White's first published story appeared in the British science fiction magazine New Worlds in 1952; his first novel, The Secret Visitors (in which flying saucers land at Portballintrae in north Antrim, a small coastal village known better for being invaded every summer by wealthy professionals from south Belfast), was published in the United States in 1957. The "medical science fiction" sub-genre was based on his "Sector General" series of books (there were 12, and further short stories), set in a hospital treating a wide variety of aliens, and written with expert medical advice from a friend who was an animal biologist (on Earth). In all he published over 20 novels, plus short stories in various science fiction magazines, and was himself  very much a fan of the genre, being member of various science fiction clubs and societies, and a speaker much in demand at fan conventions; he was Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles in 1996, on which occasion he was described in an Introduction (by Mike Resnick, the world-famous science fiction author) as effectively being a better writer in the genre than Arthur C Clarke.

White was the first science fiction writer to include specifically Ulster locations in this work (as well as Portballintrae, also Portstewart, where he lived). There are also background clues to his own occupations in the clothing and aerospace trades. Critical appraisal of his work was generally positive and he won several awards including the Europa Prize, the Analog Analytical Laboratory Award (from an American science fiction magazine), a Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award and  the New England Science Fiction Association's Skylark Award. He died of a stroke aged 71.

Born: 7 April 1928
Died: 23 August 1999
Richard Froggatt

Dictionary of Irish Biography; The Guardian obituary, 29 September 1999; SF Revu November 1998 Vol. 2.11