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Telzey Amberdon by James M. Schmitz

Edited by Eric Flint

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

At the height of his career, James H. Schmitz was one of the leading writers in the science fiction field. Almost any given month, a reader could open one or another of the science fiction magazines and find a short story by him. However, that apogee was brief, and within a few years he vanished almost completely from the science fiction scene. By the late 1990's he was almost completely forgotten, other than the occasional reprint in an anthology of classic sf stories. (I myself became aware of of his work only through a reference to "the Hub's ten million stars" included in the version of the filk song "Banned from Argo" that is included in Fallen Angels).

The reason for Schmitz's lapse into obscurity was largely economic in nature -- the center of gravity of the science fiction world had shifted away from the magazines to book publishing, and specifically to novels. There simply wasn't that much market for the tidy little short stories in which he specialized, with their sharply incisive insights onto life. Which was a shame, because his work was important to the development of much later science fiction, particularly the growing interest in mental gifts and in ecology -- but a lot of younger science fiction readers would probably credit Frank Herbert's Dune for that, for the simple reason that it is still being reprinted and widely read.

Right around the turn of the millennium Eric Flint was beginning a project with Baen Books to reissue some of the classic science fiction which had originally inspired him and other Baen writers to love science fiction. Think of it as a way to pay forward by introducing a new generation to writers who otherwise would have slipped down the memory hole into oblivion not through any deliberate malice of censorship, but simply through economics-driven obscurity. One of the first writers on his list was James H. Schmitz, and the result was a series of collections showcasing the universe of the Federation of the Hub, Schmitz's principal fictional universe. This volume, the first installment in that series, collects six stories of Telzey Amberdon, along with two other stories from an earlier period of the history of the Hub which are relevant to understanding Telzey's stories.

Telzey is a telepath, gifted with extraordinarily strong mental abilities that she must learn to control and use appropriately. When we first meet her in "Novice," she is just learning her own abilities with the help of the crest cats, a native species of Jontarou, the world on which she is visiting her aunt. (One may wonder whether David Weber was thinking of crest cats when he created the treecats of Honor Harrington's universe). To all appearance Tick-tock (so-called because of his on-off purr, like the ticking of a clock) is just a pet -- yet there is a strange understanding between this creature and Telzey that develops until they are able to communicate not merely emotional impressions, but complex linguistic concepts. Furthermore, Tick-tock is in contact with his people -- and they are watching the bond between their fellow and the young human female very carefully. Suddenly the stories of crest cats being hunted for sport take on a very different significance -- one that Telzey feels an obligation as a law student to rectify.

In the next story, "Undercurrents," we get to see some of the consequences of Telzey's interactions with the crest cats and the resultant awakening of her telepathic potential -- and the Hub Federation overgovernment's way of dealing with budding telepaths. Like many young people, Telzey is having conflicts with her Aunt Halet and is often frustrated and impatient with the older woman. However, with her newly expanded talents she has adjusted her aunt's mind, altering personality traits that made their relationship frustrating but in the process greviously violating the woman's rights. So the Psychology Service uses one of its ubiquitous machines to install a "policeman" in Telzey's mind, a sort of artificial conscience specifically intended to regulate her exercise of her telepathy so that she will not continue to violate other people's rights to their own authentic selves. This is regarded by the Federation's policymakers as the least intrusive method of dealing with a newly awakened telepath who shows signs of going rogue, as we learn in a brief initial scene in which a member of the Psychology Service discusses the theoretical underpinnings of Hub psi policy with a critic.

It doesn't take Telzey long to trigger this construct -- and to wonder what it can do and what its limits are. But just to complicated things, she's gotten herself into the middle of a vendetta, what Hub law calls a "private war" (something akin to kanly in the Dune universe, but without the feudal social structure, so that it may be carried out by individuals or corporations rather than feudal aristocrats in charge of planets). But nothing in a Schmitz story is ever quite so simple as it seems, and the enemies may turn out to be far closer to home than either Telzey or her friend would ever dream.

In the next story, "The Poltergeist," Telzey is taking a well-deserved vacation after a hard semester of college studies. But things go very much awry when she tries to help a man in trouble, only to have her own kayak wrecked and leave her without transportation -- in a wilderness situation where there's increasing evidence of rogue psi activity. Although it's one of the shortest stories in the collection, it manages to pack a profound psychological punch, reminding us of the necessity to face the parts of ourselves we'd rather not and deal squarely with them, lest our efforts to pretend they aren't there instead give them free reign to grow like a cancer within us.

"Goblin Night" is a longer and more complex story, returning Telzy to her old friend Gonwil of "Undercurrents," as well as another friend, Gikkes. Strange things are afoot, and Gonwil's dog Chomir is clearly aware of them.

Telzey soon makes contact with Robane, who tells her that he is a scientist who was badly injured in an experiment gone wrong, who now lives as an invalid on life-support in isolation from other people. He too is a telepath, and he too has detected the strange emanations of hostility and violence, evidence that a killer is on the prowl.

Or so he claims. As Telzey heads off to the rescue, she gets a very unpleasant lesson in the danger of taking unknown people at face value. Although some writers have suggested or even outright established in their fictional worlds that it is impossible for telepaths to lie mind-to-mind, Schmitz has created a universe where telepathy is no guaranteed lie detector, and a sufficiently skilled telepath -- or telepathic machine in sufficiently skilled hands, since telepathy in the Hub universe is not purely a function of organic minds -- can deceive another telepath.

And Robane is a man consumed by the need for revenge against the man whose carelessness resulted in his crippled state. To achieve that end, he has acquired a particularly nasty predatory lifeform -- but Telzey's doughty friends are on their way to an unexpected showdown.

The next story, "Sleep No More," is a direct sequel to "Goblin Night," in which Telzey returns to Robane's hidden cabin for the real final confrontation. Although Robane thought he was acting on his own initiative, he was in fact the pawn of an even deeper operation, one with a completely different target.

The final Telzey story, "The Lion Game," is almost a small novel in its own right, dealing with the final outcome of Telzey's efforts to find out just who set up Robane to do their dirty work. Particularly, she is investigating the evidence she discovered of a mysterious teleporting beast that kills its victims in brutal but always effective ways, indicating that it is under the control of a guiding intelligence.

The trail leads to Tinotki, a world ruled by a corrupt syndicate with little love for the Psychology Service. Worse, there is evidence that she is dealing with descendants of the long-dead Elaigar of Nalakia, genetically engineered psi giants from the time when humanity first moved out of the Old Territories and into the Hub cluster, and whose name meant "the Lion People."

Tinotki is unusual in having a relatively low level of urban development for an advanced society. This situation is made possible by their portal system, which bypasses normal space to connect two places together directly. The hotel in which Telzey stays is made of modules that may be scattered all over the planet in physical space, but are connected by portals that respond only to persons carrying the appropriate key.

However, such a system is susceptible to a certain type of sabotage -- Schmitz doesn't call it hacking, but that's a pretty good description of what the Elaigar have done to the control systems of a number of portals. The result is a circuit of portals disconnected from the rest of Tinotki, leaving anybody within them trapped.

In addition to the Elaigar themselves, they are accompanied by servitors of several other races they have enslaved over the centuries since they disappeared from the galactic scene. But the Elaigar are divided among themselves, with an elite group known as the Sattrams followed by the Otessans and opposed by the renegade Alattas.

As Telzey threads her way through the intricacies of intrigue among these physically and mentally powerful giants, she begins to contact humans trapped within the system of hacked portals, who have managed to survive and remain free by their wits. From them she learns some startling information about the technology of the Elaigar, as well as aspects of their biology they had been hiding from their subject races. Suddenly they start seeming less like horrendous cosmic villains than ill-adapted creatures struggling to survive as best they can in the cracks of Hub society and under pressure by an improved version of their own kind without the limitations that locked them into warrior-race mode. Which leaves open the hope of a resolution that doesn't necessarily have to involve their total destruction.

Completing the package are two other stories of the Hub. "Blood of Nalakia" and "The Star Hyacinths." As the title suggests, "Blood of Nalakia" gives some background for "The Lion Game." Set far earlier in the history of the Hub universe, it deals with Lane Rawlings, a young woman being held captive by the Nachief of Frome, a creature reminiscent of vampires in his interest in feeding upon the blood of his captives. At first Lane is the object of the Nachief's erotic interest, but when he becomes bored with her and discards her, she determines to take her revenge upon him. This woman scorned soon falls in with Frazer, a man who knows something about the lost colony of Nalakia and how its colonists became transformed into leonine giants with a definite cannibalistic twist to their tastes. In this story they are said to have been exterminated, save for whatever remnants may have been in transit from their raids at the time of the attack -- which may include Lane's former master.

"The Star Hyacinths" deals with Wellan Dassinger, who also plays a role in Telzey's adventures. When we first meet him, he is in the midst of a fight among some of the people aboard a ship that is arriving upon a planet where a mysterious man was observing the wreck of two other ships. He knows that someone is involved with a very dangerous smuggling ring, but his efforts to track down the culprits are complicated by an insidious mind-manipulating drug.

Finally there are essays by the two editors, discussing various notable aspects of the Hub universe as it relates to the Telzey stories. Eric Flint looks at the stories, and Schmitz's body of work as a whole, as literary artifacts, discussing their place in the development of science fiction and why Schmitz's career should have come to such a sudden end, so soon after he began to really hit his stride. Guy Gordon is more interested in the inner workings of the Secondary World Schmitz created, particularly the history and political structure that are hinted at in bits of backstory dribbled out throughout the series.

Table of Contents

  • Telzey
    • I: Novice
    • II: Undercurrents
    • III: Poltergeist
    • IV: Goblin Night
    • V: Sleep No More
    • VI: The Lion Game
  • Blood of Nalakia
  • The Star Hyacinths
  • Afterward by Eric Flint
  • The Federation of the Hub: an Overview by Guy Gordon

Review posted May 11, 2010.

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