The novel “Second Ending” by James White was published for the first time in the magazine “Fantastic” in June and July 1961. This novel was a finalist at the 1962 Hugo Award in the best novel of the year category.
Ross has a rude awakening from Hypersleep, a form of suspended animation. In the hospital where he was a patient there seems to be only robots and soon he discovers that three centuries have passed and he’s the only remaining human being. The nuclear war seems to have caused the sterilization of the Earth.
Trying to overcome moments of despair, Ross instructs the robots to seek all over the world hoping that some other human beings have survived like him in suspended animation in a place dug deep enough to protect them from radiation, but with no success.
Ross’s last hope is to revive the Earth but to do so he must improve the robots though he doesn’t have a real knowledge of cybernetics. His goal is very long term and that forces him to remain in suspended animation for many millennia before he can see any progress.
James White is best known for the Sector General series, set in a space hospital where members of various species are treated according to their different needs in terms of atmosphere and food. White was a pacifist and his dream was to become a doctor but he had to give it up because his family hadn’t enough money to allow him to go to college. Therefore it was quite obvious for him to write stories set in a hospital. Those were considered the first example of pacifist space opera in a time when stories of that kind were in most cases war tales.
“Second Ending” contains elements typical of James White. The first part is set in a hospital, even though there are only service robots working there. In the novel the Earth has been devastated by such a large amount of atomic bombs that the surface has been sterilized. Even the survivors who managed to escape deep enough to avoid deadly levels of radiation had to surrender to the drop in fertility.
In 1961 nuclear war was a real possibility and in “Second Ending” James White describes Ross’s horror when he discovers that even microscopic life forms have been eliminated on the surface by radiation. To bring the planet back to life Ross must use the few forms of life that had the luck to survive deep underground.
“Second Ending” is also a story of robots. James White is partly inspired by Isaac Asimov so his robots’s goal is to take care of human beings and in the novel Ross is the last of his kind. However White doesn’t offer us highly intelligent androids with positronic brains like Asimov, on the contrary his robots are rather clumsy and of limited skills. Part of the story consists in Ross’s efforts to increase the robots skills to the point where they become capable of improving themselves and to design more advanced models.
The nurse who interacts with Ross in his wake periods is an example of the robots evolution through various upgrades until they reach an unpredictable level. Even when nothing remains of the original robot however its imperative is to protect Ross when he wakes up again in a very remote future.
James White brings together the topics of the new beginning and the relationship between humans and robots to reach a particular end, perhaps a bit naive, certainly derived from the search for utopia.
Despite the enormous amount of time that passes during “Second Ending” its length is that of a novella. It participated to the Hugo Award in the best novel of the year category because today’s definition of the categories was reached only after several years.
“Second Ending” is a story terrible but at the same time beautiful that I think deserves to be considered a classic. Of course I recommend it for reading.