Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of James H. Schmitz

James Schmitz was born in Hamburg, Germany, on this date in 1911. His science fiction, which appeared for three decades from the early '40s to the early '70s, was very enjoyable. Here's a number of things I wrote about some of his stories, and his last, little known, novel.

Planet Stories, May 1951

The James H. Schmitz story that started me on this odyssey, "Captives of the Thieve-Star", is the cover story of the May issue.  Channok and Peer have just got married.  Channok wishes to eventually join the Imperial Secret Service, but Peer is the daughter of a pirate, who hoodwinks Channok into taking some stolen goods and hiding them on an out-of-the-way planet.  On the way, they encounter a derelict ship heading to the same system.  They realize that there was some sort of falling out among the crew, and that there is some valuable stuff on the ship.  But there is sure to be some sort of guard, beyond the deadly poison that killed the people on the ship.  So they bury it on the planet, and go off to hide Peer's father's contraband.  Then the bad guys from the derelict ship show up.  Peer concocts a plan to let Channok get the drop on them, and they trick the bad guys into messing with the strange alien race on the planet.  And that's just about all, except Channok shockingly realizes that the bad guys are ISS members, thus apparently freeing him, conscience-wise, to join up with Peer's family as a pirate.  The plot here isn't that well worked out, but Schmitz' breezy way with characters, especially women, does show through, and the story is pleasant enough reading.  Peer is definitely a Schmitz heroine in the general style of Trigger and Telzey.

Galaxy, November 1955, January 1956

I ended up buying some old Galaxys, the issues for November 1955, and January and February 1956.  I chose these because the Schmitz serial "The Ties of Earth" is included in the November 1955, and January 1956, issues.  (There was no December 1955 issue because of a distribution change.  Guy Gordon tells how he found the November and January issues at a flea market long ago, and waited ten years to read "The Ties of Earth", always looking for that elusive December 1955 issue with the "middle" part of the serial.  Fortunately, I had the ISFDB to tell me that it was only a two-parter, and that there was no December issue.) 

"The Ties of Earth" is about 27,500 words long, just long enough to be an uncomfortable fit in a single magazine issue, but on the short side even for a two part serial.  It's rather uncharacteristic for Schmitz in some ways: it's set only on Earth, in contemporary times.  It does however have his usual obsession with psi powers.  The hero is Alan Commager.  He's in this mid-30s, a fairly wealthy widower.  His friend Jean has asked him to help her get her husband Ira out of the clutches of a seemingly fraudulent group claiming psi powers.  Commager himself recently had a publicized run of "luck" at a dice game, so the hook they use to contact the psi group is to have them test Commager himself for psi powers.  Present at the meeting are a wealthy older man, Herbert Hawkes, and two attractive younger women, Ruth McDonald and "Paylar", and a few other folks.  Paylar is soon revealed to be the most important person present, and she is the one who tests Commager.

Suddenly Commager is waking up at his house, having no memory of what happened. Soon we learn the his powers were apparently real, and that they scared Paylar sufficiently that she arranged things so that nobody realized what had happened.  Then the plot kicks into gear: Ruth McDonald shows up dead at Alan's workplace, Alan is attacked by psi forces. When Alan evades both these attempts to trap him, Paylar confronts him with a story about her group: they are "Old Minds", original humans with limited psi powers.  They are attempting to control "New Minds", much more powerful psis, to keep the Earth safe.  When they find powerful "New Minds", they either convince them to join their organization, or kill them.  Will Alan join?  (As you'll have realized, he is a powerful "New Mind" psi.)

Alan refuses, and the plot resolution involves a few more "psi battles", involving landslides (shades of "Poltergeist"), giant squid attacking Alan's boat, and finally a series of quite shocking twists involving Alan's life history.  The end is a dizzying series of twists and countertwists, as both Paylar and her "Old Minds" and Alan as a "New Mind" seem to gain the upper hand at different times, and to hypnotically convince the other side that they really won.  It's a bit confusing because for a while it isn't clear whether what the author is telling us at any given time is "truth", or "what Alan/Paylar thinks is truth".  Though right at the end it's clear that Alan has come out on top, and that from now on he will nurture "New Minds", who really are not inimical to the Earth at all, but rather the next stage in its "communal evolution", one might say.

I found the story a pretty fun read up until the tiresome ending.  I thought Alan's character was well done, and I was also taken with Jean.  The strongly implied extramarital affair between the two added some nice tension, and furthermore was well-described and convincing.  Paylar was a reasonably interesting "villain", though the other villains were stock.  The plot was twisty and fairly involving, though there were a few holes.  (For instance, Ruth McDonald shows up dead at one point, then shows up alive later.  This isn't a continuity mistake, and Schmitz implies an explanation, but doesn't really nail it down well.)   Several of the twists were pretty neat, especially the one involving Alan's marriage. 

The problems with the ending are at least threefold, as I see it.  One problem is endemic to "psi" stories: the powers of the participants in psi battles often seem to vary conveniently depending on plot needs, and "The Ties of Earth" has some such power variance.  Another problem is that a couple of the very last twists, intended to be really wrenching, aren't set up quite fairly.  In particular, Alan's childhood turns out to be important, but issues with his childhood, such as that he was an orphan, aren't even mentioned until right towards the end.  A third problem may be partly due to my desires for the story direction, as opposed to the author's intentions, but I was very disappointed when Jean, as a character, was basically just discarded before the climax.  Schmitz didn't want to deal with Alan and Jean resolving their relationship, apparently, especially with Alan's difficulties dealing with his newfound "New Mind" status.  Understandable, perhaps, but disappointing, and structurally off.  And, finally, the gooey mystical Old Mind/New Mind stuff, especially in its characterization as of the final twist, just doesn't work for me. (It is very reminiscent of A. E. van Vogt, actually.)

One possibility to account for at least some of the problems is that Galaxy's editor, H. L. Gold, may have butchered the story, as he did so often to other writers.  If so, that's a darn shame, and as far as I know, there is no original manuscript available.  (Maybe it's still up in that mysterious attic with the Karres Venture manuscript.)  I suspect this story is less likely than most to eventually get reprinted.

Amazing, December 1961

Schmitz's "The Star Hyacinths" is a part of his main sequence of stories, about a future Galactic civilization called the Hub. In Eric Flint's set of books collecting his complete works for Baen, it was included in the volume called Telzey Amberdon for convenience' sake: it does not feature Telzey, but one of the main characters, Wellan Dasinger, appears in some of the Telzey stories. This is fairly minor work (perhaps that's why it appeared in Amazing and not Analog). Six years prior to the main action, Dosey Asteroids were robbed of a shipment of extremely valuable Star Hyacinths. Wellan Dasinger is on a mission with a certain Dr. Egavine -- who turns out to be a criminal. As do the the crew of the ship they are taking, except for the attractive and competent pilot, Miss Duomart Mines. No surprise -- they're looking for the missing Star Hyacinths. And as it happens, so is Wellan, in is role as insurance investigator. They have to negotiate hypno sprays and machine that broadcasts fear, as well as a survivor of the crash of the spaceship that had the stolen gems. None of it quite convinced me, either economically or as to plot. And for that matter Duomart is less fun as a heroine than either Telzey or Trigger. Schmitz was usually at least kind of fun reading -- and that's the case here -- but this ranks fairly low on any list of his Hub stories.

Amazing, November 1962

Schmitz's "Left Hand, Right Hand" is pleasant and fairly ordinary SF, with a familiar plot. Troy Gordon is a member of an Earth expedition researching the newly discovered planet Cassa. He has recovered his barely alive compadre Jerry Goodman, a pilot, and his keeping him hidden? Why? It seems the Earth expedition has been overrun by penguin-like aliens, the Tareeg, and to his disgust the rest of the expedition, the scientists, have been cooperating with the Tareeg, after a coujple of them were tortured to death. Troy wants Jerry to help him escape and return to Earth with the news -- especially as the Tareegs, water creatures, are preparing to crash comets into Cassa to turn it to a water planet. But Jerry must recover first, and Troy must keep him a secret from both the Tareegs and the quisling scientists. It all culminates in a twist ... and all this is nicely done, but routine.

Analog, February 1966

"The Searcher" is a Hub story from Schmitz, but it does not feature either of his most famous heroines, Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee. Instead the heroine is Danestar Gems, from the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency. Danestar is an expert in miniature gadgetry. Unfortunately, this is all we really get to know of her, besides that she is "a long-waisted, lithe, beautiful girl". That's a weakness in the story -- Danestar is really a cipher, unlike Telzey and Trigger, who do acquire real characters over there multiple appearances. The other weakness is not uncommon to Schmitz's stories -- the resolution depends to too great an extent on basically luck, or rather the unusual powers depicted taking on whatever aspect the plot requires.

The story is about an energy creature from a dust cloud called the Pit which has come to Mezmiali, a planet just two light years from the edge of the cloud. The creature is in search of an alien instrument it needs. As it happens, Danestar and her partner are investigating a smuggling group that just happens to be trying to smuggle that particular instrument to private buyers. The energy creature can simply absorb humans, unless they are Danestar and her partner, in which case there will only be close calls. The story begins as a detective story about Danestar foiling the smugglers, but the last half or so is a chase between her and her partner and the energy creature, until she magically figures out how to zap it.

I thought it one of Schmitz's weaker pieces, though others seem to like it a lot.

The Eternal Frontiers (Putnam, 1973)

The only James Schmitz novel I hadn't read was his last, The Eternal Frontiers, from 1973.  This short book (about 42000 words) is not set in his usual "Hub" universe.  Instead, humans, fairly far in the future, are divided into a couple of major groups, and some much smaller groups.  The two major power centers are the Star Union, mostly space dwellers, and the Galestrals, who are descended from the colonists of a very hostile planet, and thus are very competent fighters and planet workers.  The Star Union is further subdivided into a group of people who are fully developed for zero gravity, and who can't tolerate planetary gravities (the Swimmers), and a group who live in habitats where gravity is still used (the Walkers).

The novel is set on a new planet, remote from human space, which has a lot of valuable heavy metals.  The Walkers wish to mine the metals conventionally, which would give them a political advantage, and the Swimmers want to do it from "domes" (gravity controlled) with more automation.  This would be more expensive, but the Swimmers believe it would be safer.  I didn't quite figure out where the Galestrals really fit.  At any rate, funny things start happening, and it begins to look like someone, a rogue Galestral or a rogue Swimmer, perhaps, is trying to sabotage things so that it looks too dangerous for Walkers to mine the planet.  People start being killed, by a violent, elusive, beast.  Ghosts start showing up.  Other evidences of sabotage are uncovered.  The eventual resolution is a twist, and not quite fair in some ways.  It's far from Schmitz at his best.  The characters are pretty much ciphers.  (He does feature a couple of his usual spunky, competent, women.) The book really reads like a sketch of a novel.  A revised, longer, version, beefing up the interpersonal relationships and characterization, and setting up the solution to the novel a bit more fairly, might have been pretty good. Some of the ideas are in fact kind of neat.  I almost wonder if Schmitz ran out of energy: he retired from writing the year after this was published, maybe he just didn't want to put the work into the book that it needed.

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