Agent of Vega and other Stories by James H. Schmitz
Edited by Eric Flint & Guy Gordon
Cover art by Bob Eggleton
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Agent of Vega does not precisely belong in the Hub universe, but is in many ways a precursor to it, both in the order of composition and within the fictional universe itself. Not only were the stories of the Vegan confederation written before those taking place in the Hub, but they also represented a preliminary working out of certain themes and concepts that would be developed more fully in the Hub novels. In addition, there are hints within both these stories and the stories of the Hub that the Vegan confederation's fall was followed by the rise of the Hub civilization, much as the Vegan Confederation was supposed to have been one of many successor states to a fallen Galactic Empire of which he appears to have never written.
The Zone Agents are a group of highly-trained operatives that work both overtly and covertly to protect the interests of the loose polity of human worlds that have organized around Vega. Such is their skill that a single Zone Agent can be a match for an entire organization of Vega's enemies, using subtle and innovative techniques to disrupt their activities often before they even realize that they have been infiltrated.
However, the Zone Agents are an exclusively human organization, the Vegan Confederation being somewhat xenophobic as a result of some unpleasant events only alluded to, which occurred shortly after humanity first began leaving its home system for the larger galaxy. Even human-descended races who have mutated as a result of extreme environments on the worlds upon which they have settled are treated as being somewhat suspect. This exclusivity has not settled well upon many of the other races who are falling under the umbrella of Vega's power. They feel at some level disenfranchised, treated as subject races rather than full citizens.
Thus the title story, "Agent of Vega," deals with the first non-human candidate for the post of Zone Agent, the lovely Pagadan whose portrait graces the cover. She is a Lannai, a member of an ancient humanoid culture who have long held a rather ambivalent stance toward the Vegan Confederation, but recently have become more interested in full membership. Her human partner is Iiff, an apparently unremarkable little man with yellow eyes whose record as a Zone Agent has recommended him as the right person to partner with this controversial new member of the force.
Their first case together involves a man who originally appeared to be a harmless merchant, but recently has come to bear an increasing resemblance to a notorious space pirate. At first it seems to be a simple case of mind transference and the subsequent murder of the unfortunate merchant whose mind was being used to provide cover for a man who'd already murdered the populace of entire planets. But there were things that didn't fit, and Pagadan insisted that they should investigate deeper -- until they discovered an alien menace that was attempting to infiltrate the entire Vegan Confederation.
In the next story, "The Illusionists," Pagadan has made Zone Agent and is working on her own, investigating the Bjanta raids against Ulphi, which at first seem to be relatively small nuisances. But then she discovers evidence of something known as the Pyramid Effect, by which a directing mind is able to suborn a large number of other minds and create a sort of mass psychosis. Such a situation can be very destructive, since people under such control can be driven to do all kinds of things. Worse, the drain of establishing control over so many other minds will almost inevitably lead to the deterioration of the controlling mind, which thus creates a downward spiral into destruction.
Evidence points to a telepathic ruler who specialized in illusions and who had a deep phobia against space travel. Since the situation is deemed too complicated for Pagadan to handle, her boss comes in. System Chief Jasse is quite a woman, eight foot tall, found as an infant in a space suit made for an adult, amidst the shattered wreckage of a destroyed ship of undeterminable origin. Adopted by strictly observant Traditionalists, she's always shared their nice cozy view of how the universe ought to go round -- until her encounter with the mind of the long-dead yet somehow immortal Illusionist shatters her own tidy little illusions. It's all Pagadan can manage to do to rescue her, and then there's going to be some considerable cleanup work to do.
Interestingly enough, I found this story made me think of the old Doctor Who serial Snakedance. In both, the introduction of a malign mentality leads to the progressive destruction of a society, and remains a menace for the protagonists to face centuries later. The Mara, the vile snake-spirit the Doctor has to face, isn't quite the same as the immortal mad mind of the Illusionist, but there's a definite thematic resonance.
"The Second Night of Summer" takes us to the planet Noorhut, a rather bucolic world, if exotic to our Terran eyes. But it's not going to be staying that way for long, for the Halpa are on their way. A mysterious and almost incredibly hostile race, they have never been cornered into an actual stand-up battle. Instead there have been a series of ugly massacres, and as far as the Vegan Confederacy is concerned, they're all on the wrong side of the fence. And now these vicious aliens are on their way to Noorhut.
But where armed forces have succeeded only in saving planets by destroying them, the Department of Galactic Zones believes that it can find another solution, one that will spare Noorhut the horror of both a Halpa massacre and human liberation. There are plenty of clues for the alert, especially coming as it does in a collection rather than by itself in a magazine as it would originally have been published, but the ending is still a delightful surprise.
The last of the stories of the Vegan Confederation is "The Truth about Cushgar." When the Vegan Confederation decided to move against Cushgar, the operation went from rumor to accomplished fact with such rapidity as to leave neighboring star nations quite at a loss as to how it could be brought into being. In fact, it was so swift that anyone who might have wished to dispute it had little choice save to accept it as a done deed.
The answer to the accomplishment lies of course in the role of the Zone Agents in that sudden and overwhelming victory. In fact, Zone Agent Zamm had been working in another area when she came across the activities of Cushgar's semi-piratical forces. From there it was a matter of subtle psionic manipulation until Cushgar was about as effective as a kitten chasing its own tail.
In addition to the four stories of the Vegan Confederation, this volume includes a number of other stories that don't belong to any particular fictional universe, yet contain many of James H. Schmitz's favorite themes. For instance, "The Custodians" deals with the theme of aliens and covert operations, but in a universe in which Earth is still very much an active part of the galactic political scene. A planet very much under attack by the mysterious Rilfs, who intend to attack it by use of a terrible weapon known as a tozien. But Earth has a surprise waiting for them, in the form of an artificial Counter-Earth, not to mention Solar University's long-term project to create saving remnants not only of humanity, but of the Terran ecosystem tucked away throughout the Solar System in asteroids small enough to appear insignificant to intruding aliens.
"Gone Fishing" is the story of a would-be con artist and a scientist who outwitted him. Dr. McAllen invented the McAllen Tube, a device of most fascinating capabilities, and Barney Chard intends to acquire it. However, McAllen turns the tables on him, stranding him in a distant cabin on a lake where the scientist formerly took his vacations pursuing his favorite sport. McAllen and his allies had simply assumed that, given all the indications of Chard's personality type, the con artist would have responded to the enforced isolation by taking his own life. Instead, the opportunity for self-reflection has opened the door to the possibility of self-reform.
In "The Beacon to Elsewhere" we have reference to an Overgovernment, which is a term used in the Hub stories -- however, the Interstellar Police Authority and its search for a stolen rare element known as YM-400 belongs in a time or universe in which Terra is still known, having the status of a Freehold. It is one of a number of Freehold worlds which greatly resent the Overgovernment as having intruded upon its title to its own land by legal chicancery, and there is suggestion that relatively few people remain on it, although the precise history which led to that situation is never quite explained, particularly since there is a strong indication that it is fighting pressure from the other worlds to permit immigration that would soon turn it into another overpopulated slumworld like them. But the political situation is of less import than the intrusion of unwelcome aliens into the situation, attempting to manipulate the situation behind the scenes.
"The End of the Line" deals with telepathy and its uses and abuses, although the human polity that is described in it, the Central Government, seems to be connected with no other stories. The bits about food and cooking are rather amusing, but I tripped over the female character named Klim. I am so used to Russian names that to me Klim is the diminutive of the very masculine name Klimenty, and the resulting cognitive dissonance kept me from really sinking into the story.
"Watch the Sky" is another story of Earth's early efforts to colonize the galaxy and its encounters with inimical aliens. On the planet Roye there is evidence of a civilization that was just reaching technological adeptness when it suddenly vanished, leaving only ruins. What exactly happened to it had been open to debate, until an ancient artifact was found in one of the runs by one of the colonists. An artifact that bears a striking resemblance to the weapons used by humanity's current enemies, the Geest. However, the powers that be don't exactly want to have to acknowledge a discovery by one of the despised colonial farmers, until they literally have no choice but to face the facts.
"Greenface" takes place here on old Earth, and is a cryptobiology story that also incorporates Schmitz's beloved theme of fishing. When the owner of a fishing camp discovers a strange green thing that resembles a human face but otherwise seems to have more plantlike characteristics, he doesn't think much about it. But slowly the evidence mounts that it came from somewhere else, and now that it's been removed from the natural restraints of its home ecology, it is now growing. And growing. And growing. With some kind of primitive awareness, enough to know that a man has tried to kill it and that it must somehow defend itself.
"Rogue Psi" is yet another story of the uses and abuses of telepathy, and the danger presented by a telepath unwilling or unable to be restrained by the usages of polite society. It too is set here on Earth, in a future near enough that there is still a recognizable US government rather than something transformed beyond any connection to present-day political forms, but it is far enough in the future that there is a working spaceport which plays a critical role in the story.
On the whole, it is an excellent capstone to the effort to collect and republish the short stories of James H. Schmitz. Even if many of these last stories were unrelated to one another, they all partake of themes that run throughout his work.
Table of Contents
- Preface by Mercedes Lackey
- The Confederacy of Vega
- Agent of Vega
- The Illusionists
- The Second Night of Summer
- The Truth About Cushgar
- Other Stories
- The Custodians
- Gone Fishing
- The Beacon to Elsewhere
- The End of the Line
- Watch the Sky
- Rogue Psi
Review posted January 14, 2010
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