The Hub: Dangerous Territory by James H. Schmitz
Edited by Eric Flint
Cover art by Bob Eggleton
Published by Baen Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the first three volumes of Baen's new set of collections reissuing the Federation of the Hub stories of James H. Schmitz -- Telzey Amberdon", T'nT: Telzey and Trigger, and Trigger and Friends -- we got to meet the two major characters of the universe and their friends. However, there were also a number of excellent stories of the Federation of the Hub which didn't deal with Telzey Amberdon or Trigger Argee, and they will be found in this, the fourth volume of the reissue of the stories of James M. Schmitz. However, this should not be taken to mean that the stories in this volume are sloppy seconds or leftovers, of lesser quality than the materials in the first part. It just means that they don't center on those two key characters, instead dealing with other characters, albeit ones that are often every bit as fascinating as Telzey or Trigger.
Before we say good-bye to "the Hub's ten million stars" (as the filk song goes), we will get to meet a number of fascinating characters -- and several fascinating ecologies. Although Frank Herbert is often credited with introducing science fiction readers to carefully built alien ecologies, particularly in Dune and its various sequels, Schmitz wrote a number of stories centered around ecological relationships and how they were altered for good or ill by the arrival of human beings -- and often managed to pack almost as much information about those ecologies into a short story of a few thousand words as Frank Herbert did into a novel of a hundred thousand.
Unlike the case in the earlier three volumes, there are no recurring characters like Telzey Amberdon or Trigger Argee to tie them together. But that does not mean that the stories are completely unrelated. Rather, there tend to be common themes, particularly that of ecology and the importance of understanding the life of an alien world on its own terms rather than trying to impose one's own understanding on it.
The first story, "The Searcher," takes place in the famous Life Banks, which were mentioned in several earlier stories. These facilities, operated by the University League, are designed to preserve samples of the genetic material of as many species from as many ecosystems throughout explored space. They are apparently the only place where some Terrestrial organisms are preserved after the destruction of Earth during the War Centuries.
The Unclassified Specimens Depot on Mezmiali is a receiving station for the Life Banks, taking in samples of new species to be classified and preserved. Once the building was a fortress, but in these settled times it has become little more than a warehouse. However, someone or something has been attempting an incursion upon it, which has brought it to the attention of Danestar Gems and Corvin Wergard of the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency.
At first they think it is an inside job. After all, some of the organisms collected here may have tremendous commercial value, and someone greedy and corruptible, or simply willing to take the easy way out of financial difficulties, may well decide that a little abuse of the privileges they enjoy as an employee can be turned into cold cash. But as Danestar and Corvin investigate further, they see increasing evidence that their adversary is not human. As they pin it down, they learn the story of an alien people destroyed by their own creation, the entity they created to explore where they could not go.
The next story, "Grandpa," takes us to Sutang, a newly discovered world that is being explored by a Colonial Team. Unlike most of the Hub stories, it takes place in a time when Earth is still an important part of the galactic scene, and people from Earth still have a certain status just by being from the mother-world. The protagonist, Cord, was born on one of the colony worlds, and as such continually feels a certain insecurity and inadequacy around his Earth-born teammates. Yet at the same time he feels more than a little annoyance that his personal accomplishments should always have to play catch-up, simply because of his origins.
Then comes the day when the Terran scientists who had previously looked down upon him ignore changes in the behavior of one of the living rafts, organisms superficially resembling lily pads but mobile. This giant, nicknamed Grandpa for its presumed advanced age, typically is docile and tractable, but today it seems to have a mind of its own. Or maybe something else is controlling it, since Cord has already shown us the complex ways in which the native species of this world use one another through the example of the bug riders.
The next story, "Balanced Ecology," takes us to the diamondwood forests of Wrake and the complex web of interrelated species with which Ilf Cholm and his family interact. When offworld corporate interests think it should be easy to take in these backworld rubes, they get a surprising lesson in what can happen when humans team up with the local ecology -- or maybe it's more a case of the local ecology recruiting likeminded humans into a symbiotic relationship, since Schmitz was never a human chauvinist.
Schmitz was known for injecting a horrific element into many of his stories -- for instance the body horror of a man left halfway through a wall by an alien being in "Lion Loose" (which you can find in the collection Trigger and Friends. However, in "A Nice Day for Screaming" Schmitz comes very close to cosmic horror in the tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, as our intrepid investigative reporter Keth Dieboll covers the efforts to explore Space Three, a sort of place alongside normal space-time. A place where there are mysterious entities that make our own worlds and works seem very small.
On reading this story, I immediately wondered if J. Michael Straczynski had read it, because there are a lot of similarities between it and the Babylon 5 made-for-TV movie Thirdspace. Not enough that anybody from the Schmitz estate could complain about copyright infringement -- the movie would never have been produced if there had been. On the other hand, it's quite possible that both writers drew upon the same set of cosmic horror tropes that Lovecraft first made famous -- certainly Straczynski has openly acknowledged his literary debt to Lovecraft in the making of Thirdspace.
"The Winds of Time" follows the common space opera of Space Is An Ocean and translates into space the seagoing ship cast adrift, and the mysterious passenger or cargo that the crew blames for their problems (a story that goes clear back to the book of Jonah in the Bible). However, in a James H. Schmitz story, things are not necessarily what they seem, particularly when they involve alien artifacts or specimens of alien lifeforms. Sometimes the human may turn out to be the servant rather than the master.
In "The Machmen" we have another story of a survey of a new planet -- except that in this one is under attack by the mysterious machmen or machine-men, human beings surgically altered to incorporate mechanical equipment, along the lines of the Cybermen of Doctor Who or the Borg of Star Trek. And like those two groups of nasties, the machine are so dangerous that our protagonists are under orders to make no effort to contact them or retake the base, just evade capture and hold out until rescue can come.
However, Jeslin has no intention of abandoning his friends who were still in the base when it was taken. Furthermore, he believes that he can use his knowledge of the planet's ecology against the machmen to bring about a more successful outcome than the usual results of a navy bombardment.
"The Other Likeness" takes us back to Orado, one of the core worlds of the Federation of the Hub, where trouble is afoot. Someone or something is infiltrating the Federation, and it is essential to find out who is behind these agents and what their aims are. Once again we see Schmitz's great strength in creating aliens with complex motivations, who aren't simple brute nasties who are menaces simply because they're the Other.
"Attitudes" is yet another story about human interactions with aliens and surprising solutions to alien hostility. the Malatlo Attitude was a philosophy shared by a sufficient number of Federation citizens that they decided to colonize a planet on the edges of Hub space. A nearby world, Tiurs, was the home to an alien civilization that they believed they would be able to form a partnership with. Now both worlds have been destroyed, and a man claiming to be a representative of the Malatlo colony has arrived in Federation space with a peculiar request.
According to him, the Malatlo scientists have found a way to separate a person's essence, known as their eld, from their body. Before their alien neighbors attacked, they were able to liberate the elds of most of the inhabitants of their world, which now reside in the cases he carries with them. The Federation has been working for some time on synthetic human bodies (perhaps similar to the Martri puppets in "Ti's Toys" in T'n'T: Telzey and Trigger), and it is hoped that such bodies could provide new corporeal presences for the els of the Malatlo.
However, certain elements in his story and his general demeanor simply don't ring true for someone who supposedly has the Malatlo Attitude. As a result, the Federation agents decide to handle him particularly carefully, and in the end it is he and his masters who get the surprise they'd intended should befall the Hub.
"Trouble Tide" takes us to the water world of Nandy-Cline, the source of the sea-beef that were mentioned in "Lion Loose." They turn out to be a genetically modified hippopotamus which is able to graze in the shallow waters and grow swiftly to a harvestable size. However, they have been behaving strangely of late, and their keepers wonder if there is some kind of disease troubling them.
Dr. Nile Etland investigates, and discovers an ecological answer to the mystery. It turns out that Nandy-Cline's ecology has been going through periods of change long before humans turned it into an agricultural world. As a result of one of those changes, a parasitic species has been left without adequate supplies of its usual host. When its numbers increase as a result of a shift in local conditions, it improvises -- with interesting results.
The final piece in this collection is The Demon Breed, a short novel in its own right, and the second story of Dr. Nile Etland. The themes of aliens and of ecology come together to tell a fascinating story of a would-be alien conquest. The Parahuans are a species of vaguely humanoid beings with froglike legs and a cruel disposition. Their leaders, the Palachs, have deliberately shrunk themselves to surprisingly small sizes, with the Great Palach Koll being among the smallest of their number. The larger ordinary Parahuans are known as Oganoon, and are used primarily as muscle by the Palachs.
When we first meet them, they are torturing Ticos Cay for information, and he is resisting them, using his peculiar capacities. As a result, they are becoming increasingly convinced that an entity they call a Tuvela-Guardian must be at work protecting this world from their activities. A belief that Nile Etland is more than happy to bolster, with the aid of her genetically modified otters who are as much companions as working animals. If the Palachs can be convinced that they are outclassed to the point that they give up and withdraw without a fight, it's possible to win a conclusive victory without the destructive effects of an outright war.
The volume is concluded with Eric Flint's comments, in which he briefly discusses Baen's plans for reissuing the rest of Schmitz's works. Although the first four volumes contain all the stories of the Federation of the Hub, there are also several closely-related stories dealing with the Agents of Vega, a star nation that predated the Hub both in the chronology of the fictional universe, and in Schmitz's composition. In addition, Flint's assistant editor, Guy Gordon, provides a chart of the recurring characters in various volumes of the stories of the Federation of the Hub.
Table of Contents
- The Searcher
- Balanced Ecology
- A Nice Day for Screaming
- The Winds of Time
- The Machmen
- The Other Likeness
- Trouble Tide
- The Demon Breed
- Afterword by Eric Flint
- Recurring Characters in the Hub series by Guy Gordon
Review posted January 11, 2012.
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