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T'n'T: Telzey and Trigger by James H. Schmitz

Edited by Eric Flint

Cover art by Bob Eggleton

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In the first volume of Eric Flint's effort to collect the short stories and short novels of classic sf author James H. Schmitz, Telzey Amberdon, the titular character discovered her telepathic powers and began to exercise them. Although not malicious, she had the self-centered tendencies of youth, and as a result her first impulse was to use them selfishly to make things easier for herself. As a result, a Psychology Service machine installed a sort of artificial conscience in her that took the form of a "policeman." In the course of her efforts to discover the limits of this construct, she became involved in a number of adventures in which she learned the consequences of the misuse of psionics. Thus she came to the point where she didn't need an external control on her use of her own abilities and could use them responsibly.

T'n'T:Telzey and Trigger, the second volume of the collected stories of James H. Schmitz, continues the adventures of Telzey Amberdon as she grows into maturity as a competent telepath. As befits her new status, she is taking on more difficult and complicated tasks, often at considerable risk. In some of them she is working by herself, or with the assistance of another character who serves more as a sidekick, but in the later ones she teams up with Trigger Argee, an experienced agent of Federation Precolonization to encounter alien threats.

Most of us know what a company town is, so is it any surprise that in the universe of the Federation of the Hub there should be a "Company Planet"? And that's exactly what Telzey encounters when she goes to Fermilaur to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her friend Gikkes Orm. a character we first met in the story "Goblin Night" in Telzey Amberdon.

You see, Fermilaur is a world specializing in cosmetic surgery, or as they call it, body remodeling. With their sophisticated biotechnologies, they can reshape the human body almost entirely at will. The most obvious use is of course catering to the whims of the idle rich, much as present-day actors and celebrities may have facelifts or nosejobs to bring their features closer to a perceived ideal of beauty. However, given that one of our primary means of identifying a person is their appearance, such abilities could have other, more nefarious purposes.

Everything started when Gikkes decided she wanted longer legs. The operation turned out well enough, except for one big problem -- they threw off the proportions of her body so that everything else looked bad. She became so flummoxed by the situation that her mother, also in a tizzy, put in a call to Telzey.

So now Telzey's trying to sort out her friend's problems, only to find out that something very odd is afoot. Something that seems to relate to Uspurul, a small woman with a disturbing smile, who works for the COS Company, the principal body remodelers of Femilaur. She seems to be feeding people into some kind of system that's doing something underhanded -- but nothing of the usual sort. The people certainly aren't disappearing, given that they're the sort of well-connected folks who would create quite a stir if they vanished. But there are other things that can be done to an unsuspecting mind, particularly in a society that has sophisticated interrogation techniques -- technology Telzey gets a very close acquaintance with, alongside one Keth Deboll, investigative journalist.

What is the boundary between psionics and magic? It's been a question tackled in many stories of speculative fiction, and in "Resident Witch" James H. Schmitz offers his own take on the subject -- and a little play on words in the title. Telzey is called by one Wellan Dasinger, head of the detective agency Kyth Interstellar. He needs a telepath to help with a case, and the regular ones have proven strangely unavailable.

The case relates to brothers Noal and Larien Selk, owners of Selk Marine Equipment. It seems that Noal has become concerned that Larien has been embezzling funds from the company, and may well be handing them over to some kind of criminal enterprise.

As Telzey investigates, she discovers that things aren't quite as simple as they appear. Although Noal is by law the older brother, having been born some twenty-five years before Larien, he was in fact the second conceived. Because their parents conceived Larien quite by accident and weren't ready to have him, they decided to have him placed in embryonic suspension. However, by the time their situation had stabilized enough that they were ready to have a child, their mother had decided she wanted a natural gestational and childbirth experience, so they conceived a second child. Their first remained in biological limbo while they dithered and delayed, until an accident took their lives. Noal subsequently discovered his brother almost by accident while examining some family records and decided to have him brought to term -- an act that resulted not in gratitude, but in festering resentment.

It's fascinating to see how Schmitz not only foresaw the development of sophisticated reproductive technologies, but the interpersonal problems they could create within a family. And even more interesting, he does it without blaming the technology for the split between the brothers. Technology is portrayed as a tool that will be used in ways that reflect the moral nature of its users, good or bad. A flawed person's fail-capacity may be brought out by the way in which a technology was used in their life, but the technology did not create the flaws.

The next story, "Compulsion," was originally published as two independent stories. It is only in drawing them together in this collection that editor Eric Flint decided to explicitly present them as a single literary unit, rather than as separate parts.

The prolog, "The Pork Chop Tree," could stand alone. Trigger Argee has just come back from a world entirely covered by a single species of plant, somewhere between a tree and a vine. Almost every part of it is edible, and it seems to just positively love to have you around. The only animal species on the world are a few simple species that are little more than parasites on this delightful tree, which so helpfully provides everything you could need -- food, shelter, whatever.

Except there's the old saying, "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is." Closer investigation turns up disturbing evidence that this plant is more dangerous than it looks, especially after the other three members of the expedition send a message that they're walking off the job and living in the trees. There are ruins on the planet, about eight hundred years old and clearly of human origin -- and two other similarly overrun planets from that same period, when humanity was first moving out of the Old Territories and into the Hub systems.

The conclusion becomes increasingly obvious -- and horrific. Not only is the alien tree psychically addictive, but it also is actively modifying other species to become dependent upon it. If it were allowed to spread, all of humanity would soon be reduced to something like the frog-creatures found on one of the worlds, creatures with an arrangement of internal organs too clearly human to be coincidence.

The main part of the story takes up some time later, as the Federation overgovernment is trying to decide how exactly to deal with this species. Several psis have attempted to make contact with it, only to be unable to find anything resembling a self-aware mind, only a nothingness that can function as a mind-trap. Yet the call to completely sterilize the three overrun worlds has been met with strong opposition by those who are convinced that the Sirens, as the trees have become known, are showing enough evidence of intelligence, albeit a very alien form, that to exterminate them would be mass murder. Not to mention that if the Sirens wanted to destroy other species, they'd need only induce fatal chromosome changes and there'd be no next generation at all. The question then becomes how to deal with them short of annihilation that will ameliorate the power of the Sirens to do harm to others while maintaining their charming qualities.

Trigger turns to the Old Galactics, perhaps one of the most fascinating Elder Races in all of science fiction. Once they controlled a polity of stars that occupied a significant part of the galaxy, until they encountered another intelligent species, aggressive and warlike. The resultant conflict destroyed entire star systems, reducing the Old Galactics to a mere shadow of what their culture had once been, and of their enemies, not a trace remains. The Old Galactics have oddly flexible bodies that can infuse themselves into other organisms. Typically they occupy the trees in a garden provided by their benefactor, but one enters Trigger's body to construct a psi defense for her while another tries to enter a specimen Siren tree in hopes of learning its secrets.

However, they too run into the same barriers -- or maybe different but analogous ones, since their thought processes are quite unlike those of humans. So Trigger turns to Telzey Amberdon for help. Together they discover that yes, the Sirens are more than they seem -- and in doing so learn the story of a long-ago alien war and the steps taken by the survivors to secure their defense against not just that enemy, but all possible future ones as well. And thus the story ends with hope that the news of peace will make it possible for yet another intelligent species to coexist with humanity.

In "Glory Day," Telzey visits Askanam to help an old friend of the family. Askanam is one of those peculiar planets that is part of the Federation, but not entirely. It is divided into a number of polities known as balaks which are ruled by Askabs, a sort of semi-hereditary princes. A proud and warlike people, they practice colorful rituals from their barbaric past, although they are no longer permitted to wage unrestrained war as they did in the distant past. However, belief in the supernatural is not only almost universal among the populace, but is frequently manipulated by the elite for political gain.

Casmard is the Askab of Tamandun, but has never been really comfortable in that position. He's generally viewed as lacking the bloody-mindedness that is supposed to make a good Askab, and many people would like to see him replaced. As a result, he's decided it's time to abdicate in favor of his Regent, Toru.

However, since making that decision Casmard has become increasingly concerned that Toru is far too ambitious, and is attempting to have him assassinated. So he brings both Telzey and Trigger to Askanam in hopes that they can sniff out the conspiracy and bring about a better transfer of power. In the process, Telzey discovers a rogue telepath who intends to use an ancient artifact, the Stone of Wirolla, to secure his own goals. Instead, they bring about a very surprising and satisfying reversal of fortunes in which the schemers discover that they've outwitted themselves.

"Child of the Gods" takes Telzey to Mannafra, a desert world reminiscent of Mars, but once the abode of life. There a small outpost mines a crystal that was once the exoskeletons of its extinct indigenous invertebrates and refines djeel oil. However, strange things have been afoot, and Alicar wants something done about it. However, he's rather manipulative and underhanded in getting Telzey out there, which does not make her overly happy.

When she does get there, she finds definite signs of mental tampering, signs which lead her to the mysterious entity known as a Child of the Gods, which looks rather like a ball of mercury rolling through the desert sands. This entity, which calls itself Soad, wants djeel oil and seems to find it easier to manipulate the humans into letting him have it than to deal fairly and forthrightly. Yet when one considers how Alicar goes about business, perhaps Soad had reasons to distrust humanity, particularly after having been stranded on an uninhabited world for so long, cut off from all of his own kind, who seem to have come from another galaxy far away. It's one of those stories that ends not in triumph, but in profound regret.

In "Ti's Toys" Schmitz creates an entire fictional artform predicated upon advanced computer and biotechnology, and then bases the story upon how it could be misused by one or more seriously disturbed individuals. Martri is a form of theater that uses puppets -- but what puppets. Not mere creations of wood and plastic, but living organisms that superficially look like a human being, save that their brains are entirely programmed by the dramateer's computer systems, giving them a simplified character and motivational system but no awareness of self as distinct from environment. As a result they can be surprisingly sophisticated in their reactions to the developing plotline within a Martridrama, but are legally and morally things, and if necessary can be destroyed in the service of drama.

Thus, when Telzey sees a young woman strolling through the city who is the very image of one of the puppets in a Martridrama some friends recently took her to, her curiosity is instantly aroused. After all, Martri puppets don't just wander out of their stages and onto city streets -- their programmed responses are too simple and narrow to permit them to operate in the unpredictable world of everyday life. So Telzey uses her telepathy to study this woman's mind and finds it curiously empty. There are motivations and intents, but no sense of the awareness of self as actor, no real agency.

The Martri company whose work she'd viewed has left town, so Telzey does a little research and discovers that there's a master Martri puppetmaker in the area, Wakote Ti. So she pays him a visit and asks a few questions. He seems personable enough, even rather sentimental about the puppets. Not exactly someone to worry about being a dangerous person.

And then Telzey awakes in a strange place, and moments later meets a young woman who looks exactly like herself. This is Gaziel, who apparently started as an extremely sophisticated Martri puppet, but has been augmented until she's effectively a fully-developed human being -- and a duplicate of Telzey in body and mind.

Together they discover they are on an island, a place where Ti is carrying out experiments of a most peculiar type. Not only is he trying to make Martri puppets that approach full humanity, but he's also been kidnapping real people and trying to reprogram them until their minds more closely approach Martri puppet mindstates. He intends that Telzey and Gaziel should become his collaborators, using their psi talents to study the inner workings of these altered minds, detecting the fine differences in mindstate that result in various treatments. A project which neither of them have any intention of furthering, but Ti and his sinister telepath assistant don't intend to take no for an answer. So the problem becomes finding a way to evade Ti's grasp and bring this man to justice.

In "Symbiotes" Telzey encounters yet another kind of artificial humans, this time so tiny they look like living dolls. The world of Marell was settled during the earliest outward push, when it appeared that habitable worlds would be few and far between (and presumably nobody was interested in building residential space habitats in any great numbers). As a result, the founders decided that the best way to make sure that there was enough room for everybody was to make everybody smaller.

However, a disaster shortly after the establishment of the colony resulted in its isolation for millennia. The tiny people of Marell multiplied and came to occupy a significant part of their world. Some of them maintained technological civilization and historical records, while others retained only vague legends of Giants and gods who brought them to the world.

And then a ship from the Hub arrived and kidnapped an entire town of them. The first few years were the worst, since as an isolated society they had no immunity to diseases common in the Federation. But the explorers soon worked out immunizations for the survivors, and were able to establish communications. Since Marell also had significant mineral resources, they didn't want to have to share the profits with an indigenous population -- and tiny people might well have a market among the idle rich of the Federation, if they could be properly presented as android constructs (similar to the Martri puppets) rather than actual living people.

However, the three "samples" figured out what was up and managed to escape. Once Telzey learns their story, she knows that she has to intervene, and thus the fight is on. But of course it's too big for her to handle alone, so she soon draws Trigger Argee into the fray. In the process they discover yet another alien lifeform, one that has abilities humans find distasteful, but whose natural ecology strictly limit their ability to invade human worlds.

In his Afterword, Eric Flint notes that "The Symbiotes" is the last story James H. Schmitz ever wrote about Telzey. At that point there were a lot of interesting possibilities for ways he could have taken the character, not to mention what ever happened to her "twin" Gaziel as she developed into her own independent personality. But Schmitz never returned to Telzey, so all we can do is speculate what he might have done.

Schmitz fan Guy Gordon, who played an important part in the project, also weighs in with his essay "That Certain Something," in which he discusses the important elements that distinguish a James H. Schmitz story from those of his contemporaries. For instance, there's the way Schmitz stories have a habit of turning our expectations upside down, not in the cheap way a trick ending does, but in ways that give us fresh insight into the human condition. And then there's his ways of creating a lived-in future in which advanced technology is taken for granted rather than treated as a Wonder -- or the careful attention to the ecology of his worlds, such that even the monsters and horrors that appear from time to time will have a purpose, although the protagonists may not immediately recognize or understand that purpose. Yet a purely analytical approach to his style doesn't really capture it, nor would it enable a writer to create a story that has the same feel as the genuine article.

Table of Contents

  • Company Planet
  • Resident Witch
  • Compulsion
  • Glory Day
  • Child of the Gods
  • Ti's Toys
  • The Symbiotes
  • Afterword by Eric Flint
  • That Certain Something by Guy Gordon

Review posted December 22, 2011.

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