Second Ending (1961), by James White

I read science fiction from an early age. Among the first works I read were a series of novels by the late Sir Patrick Moore, set on the Moon and on Mars. But much of what I read was short stories: by the age of ten I had read many of the classic short stories of Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Isaac Asimov. Other stories I read are less well-known, and three stories I read as a schoolboy between 1970 and 1971 remained lost to me until the internet age three decades later.

One of these was Second Ending, a novella/short novel by Belfast-born British author James White, best known for his Sector General series. It was the first story he wrote, though not the first to be published. As was common at the time, it made its first appearance in magazine form, serialised in between June and July 1961 in the US publication Fantastic. In 1963, it was paired with Samuel Delany’s The Jewels of Aptor in an Ace Double paperback (F-173). An abridged version appeared in 1970 in the anthology Out of this world 8; and its sole appearance in a publication containing only work by James White was in the 1977 omnibus Monsters and Medics. It has been out of print ever since.

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On a Sunday morning in the summer of 1970, I was working my way through the Out of this world 8 anthology, which I had borrowed from the local library. With the characteristic short attention span of a teenager, I had first read all the shorter stories in the volume. Even abridged, Second Ending was considerably longer than anything else in the book.

Second Ending is described by White as a story about the last man on Earth with an upbeat ending. If I remember correctly, this description also appeared in the anthology.

Ross (whose first name we never learn) is a 22-year-old medical student who is diagnosed with an incurable form of leukaemia and placed in Deep Sleep (suspended animation) to await the discovery of a cure. He enters Deep Sleep in 2017 (then 56 years in the future) and is revived 291 years later in 2308 to find that he is the last man alive. He is five miles underground, in the lowest level of a hospital designed to survive a nuclear war (the ‘nervous tendency to build down’ followed the First Atomic War, which killed 90 percent of the world’s population). A second war has indeed occurred, killing all life on the surface. His leukaemia has been cured by a treatment that required 75 years to take effect – but in the meantime, all the human staff in the hospital including Ross’s fiancée Alice have died of old age, leaving only robots.

Ross is constantly attended by 5B, a Mark 5 Ward Sister who was upgraded by a terminally-ill cyberneticist named Courtland. Taken out of Deep Sleep, Courtland  selflessly agreed to spend the last months of his life modifying the robot rather than go back into hibernation. After studying Courtland’s notes, Ross has the 5B modifications extended to all the other robots and equips them with trailers containing additional memory banks. He then sets about building robots that can search for survivors on the surface.

Ross forms a friendship with 5B and discusses telling lies, doing a kindness, and making puns with her. He explains that circumstances might arise in which the kindest course of action might involve telling a lie. 5B replies that it against her basic programming to give false or incomplete information. Ross spend three hours trying to explain puns, apparently without success.

After two years, Ross is forced to return to Deep Sleep when his food supply runs out. He instructs to robots to produce a new food supply from grass seeds that were caught up in the turn-ups of his trousers before he entered Deep Sleep for the first time. The project is successful, but it takes 43,000 years to complete. In the meantime, the robots have made considerable technical advances with the aid of books, engineering blueprints, and pictorial data salvaged from underground installations. Despite now being intellectually far superior to Ross, 5B explains that the robots still exist only to serve humans, and without humans they will have no reason to exist. Unfortunately, they have so far failed to find any human survivors or indeed life of any kind on Earth, the Moon, or Mars. Ross’s attempts to recreate intelligent life from the grass are only partially successful.

Ross becomes depressed and spends long periods in Deep Sleep while Sun heats up and the Moon spirals in towards the Earth where it breaks up after entering Roche’s Limit. Eventually Earth’s oceans boil away into space as the Sun enters a period of instability preceding a sub-nova detonation. Despite Ross’s seemingly hopeless situation, the story takes an unexpected twist leading to the promised upbeat ending (click HERE for spoiler).

I wanted to read the full version, but never came across it. The title Second Ending stuck in my mind, but the name of the author did not. In 1974, now a first-year science student, I read another of James White’s books, The Dream Millennium, which also features Deep Sleep (or in this case Cold Sleep) technology. From this, I correctly guessed that White was also the author of Second Ending, though it was not until 1988 that I conformed this after reading his entry in The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction (again borrowed from a local library). I then tried to buy Second Ending from the Science Fiction Bookshop in London. At that time, much of White’s oeuvre was still in print, but – as I now know – Second Ending was not. It was a further twelve years before the quest came to an end. In the first weeks of 2000, by now possessing a laptop and dialup internet access, I learned the publication history of Second Ending, and was able to source a 38-year-old copy of the Ace Double paperback.

The story hasn’t aged particularly well: the premise that Earth could be sterilised down to microbial level by a nuclear war seems implausible; White’s description of the war predates the discovery that it would trigger a ‘nuclear winter’; and his description of the long-term fates of the Moon and the Sun are now known to be inaccurate. There are numerous editing errors: for example, the earlier nuclear war is said to have occurred fifty years before Ross was born: he enters Deep Sleep in 2017 aged 22, which would put the war in 1945 (possibly an early draft of the story referenced the use of nuclear weapons at the end of WWII rather than a new conflict). Ross recalls working on the hospital’s 31st Level when he awakens, but we later learn that the hospital has only five levels. Courtland, the inventor of the 5B modification, suddenly has his name changed to Courtney.

Its limitations notwithstanding, Second Ending was shortlisted for a Hugo Award in 1962, but it had the misfortune to be up against Robert Heinlein’s magnum opus Stranger in a Strange Land. James White went on to be an acclaimed science fiction author, but he was never able to make enough from his writing to give up his day job at the aircraft company Short Brothers. He died in 1999 aged 71.

Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author