Telzey Amberdon, by Jame H. Schmitz

telzey-amberdon-by-jame-h-schmitzGenre: Science Fiction Anthology
Publisher: Baen
Published: 2000
Reviewer Rating: threestars
Book Review by Richard R. Horton

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James H. Schmitz was one of SF’s most popular writers of the 1960s and early 1970s. His stories were published between 1943 and 1974, but despite early successes such as “The Witches of Karres” (1949), the Agent of Vega stories in the early 1950s, and “Grandpa” (1955), his most significant work dates to the last 15 years of his career. This period included his five novels (I include the fairly unified “fix-up” The Lion Game along with the four unambiguous novels), short stories like “Balanced Ecology” and “The Custodians”, but most significantly, his closely linked stories about two young women: Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee. These stories, appearing for the most part in Analog, were very popular indeed at the time, particularly the Telzey stories. But Schmitz’ popularity hasn’t really proved enduring, except among a dedicated small group. He was just good enough to last in the minds of a certain cadre of readers, but even at his peak he never attained quite the notoriety or sales to ensure enduring print runs. And after all the latter distinction is rare indeed.

In 1990 the New England Science Fiction Association’s publishing arm, NESFA Press, chose to make a collection of Schmitz’ work, The Best of James H. Schmitz, the first book in their NESFA’s Choice series (dedicated to restoring the work of neglected SF authors to print). This collection has sold fairly well over the past decade. Still, such a collection, satisfying as it is to those dedicated to reading the best older SF, will hardly reach a mass audience. Schmitz’ fans wanted more: to see the novels back in print, to see more of the stories in print. Even, perhaps, to see Schmitz read again by casual readers of SF. Enter publisher Jim Baen, and editor Eric Flint (a fairly new writer of SF on his own). With the help of long-time Schmitz devotee Guy Gordon, they have assembled the bulk of Schmitz’ “Federation of the Hub” stories into four collections, to be published in 2000 and 2001. These collections will include all of the Telzey Amberdon and Trigger Argee stories, as well as a number of additional Hub stories. The only important Schmitz left out, as I understand it, will be the fine early collection Agent of Vega, and the novel version of The Witches of Karres, the latter probably Schmitz’ most famous work. Perhaps those will follow if the first books are successful enough.

Baen (and Flint) decided that to make such a collection more accessible to new readers, certain presentation decisions needed to be made. The most obvious of these was to organize the books into what might be called “quasi-novels”. (Short story collections being notoriously a drug on the market.) To this end, the book at hand, the first to appear, contains six stories about Telzey Amberdon, arranged by internal chronology, and covering the first year or so of her awareness of her psi powers. Later books will cover Telzey and Trigger working together, Trigger by herself, and finally Niles Etland, heroine of the novel The Demon Breed. This book also includes two appended short stories, one of which (“Blood of Nalakia”) is an early story which hints at the origins of the villains of “The Lion Game”, and the other (“The Star Hyacinths”) features Wellan Dasinger, who is a prominent character in the Telzey story “Undercurrents”.

A more controversial decision was to edit the stories somewhat for content. Some of these changes are entirely to be expected: normalization of tech references across stories written years apart, punctuation changes such as removal of exclamation points, correction of typos, choices of preferred readings when stories had been published in multiple editions. The other changes were more controversial: a few stories were cut fairly significantly, and in one case some expository paragraphs were moved from the beginning of the story to the middle. These editing decisions have been hashed and rehashed incessantly in various venues, and it doesn’t seem worthwhile to reignite any controversy here. I will say that while it is certainly impossible to know for sure what Schmitz would have said if asked to approve the changes, a fair-minded look at the actual changes, the context in which they were made, and what we know of Schmitz’ attitude towards editorial direction, would seem to me to indicate that he would not have disputed the decisions that editor Eric Flint made. For myself, I thought that the excision of a paragraph or two at the end of “Undercurrents” was fully justified because it implied a direction for the series that was not fulfilled. The cuts to “Poltergeist” were fairly reasonable: they speeded up a slowly-paced story, and removed some repetitive exposition. Some early cuts in “Undercurrents” seem regrettable to me, but not wholly unreasonable. And the movement of exposition from the beginning of “The Star Hyacinths” to the middle worked very well, I thought. (A final set of changes, not obvious in a casual reading, involved reducing references to things like smoking. It’s true that those references were once ubiquitous and implied nothing much, because our culture, at the time of the stories, regarded smoking quite differently than we do todays. Thus it is fair to say that to a new reader constant references to characters smoking might be jarring. But I do regret such changes, because I think that in reading older stories, one of the minor pleasures is the immersion in the attitudes and “flavor” of the time they were written.)

I fear I’ve spent a long time discussing the apparatus and history of Telzey Amberdon, and not enough time discussing the stories. The six Telzey stories are “Novice”, “Undercurrents”, “Poltergeist”, “Goblin Night”, “Sleep No More”, and “The Lion Game”. The first two have been published together as the novel The Universe Against Her, but they are really independent stories. The last three have been published as the novel The Lion Game, and in this case I think they work together pretty well as a novel: a problem introduced in the first story is not resolved until the last. “Poltergeist” has not previously been reprinted, and serves as a bridge between the two “novels”, hinting at the reason for a noticeable change in Telzey’s attitude between “Undercurrents” and “Goblin Night”.

In my opinion the best of these stories is the last and longest, “The Lion Game”. A series of unexplained murders have occurred, and Telzey (in “Goblin Night”) seems to have escaped a comparable situation. She is sent by the Psychology Service to help investigate the situation on Tinokti, where four high-ranking individuals were recently murdered. Telzey and the Service both have postulated the existence of a secret organization of psis, and both have identified the “Elaigar”, “descendants of the historical mind masters of Nalakia”, as the probable members of that organization. Tinokti is unique for being composed primarily of a network of linked “portals” (teleportation booths): thus, the planet is connected in a sort of virtual sense as opposed to a geographical sense. And, as Telzey finds, it’s fairly easy to operate a secret network of portal links, in parallel with the ordinary network. Soon she finds herself trapped in such a network, battling three different types of “Elaigar”, as well as several alien species. It’s a neat story, with clever action, making good use of the portal system, and some nice twists, and a solid ending.

The other stories are mostly also pretty enjoyable, though both “Poltergeist” and “Sleep No More” are lesser stories, working better as “bridges” than as independent pieces. “Novice”, the first Telzey story, is one of the best known, but while I liked the “delayed first contact” theme, and the view of relations with intelligent aliens, I was and remain a bit upset by Telzey’s rather casual use of her powers to completely alter another’s personality. (This is treated again in “Poltergeist”, with a deeper moral look at the rights of such a change.) “Goblin Night” is a neat adventure piece with a very cool alien menace. “Undercurrents” is a pleasant and enjoyable piece, but not special.

The two non-Telzey pieces are both solid middle-range efforts. “The Star Hyacinths” features Wellan Dasinger tracking down a pirate who stole the incredibly valuable title jewels using an unusual weapon. “Blood of Nalakia”, never before reprinted, is a very early story (1953) about a woman escaping from a “vampire” who uses psi powers to control his “cattle”. There is a twist or two along the way, and a neat, scary, hint of the future right at the end. It’s very nice to see this rare story reprinted.

If you are a hard-core opponent of altering, in any way, a dead writer’s work, your best course is to search out the stories in this book in used book stores. But if you are not such a hard-core opponent, in my opinion the editing of this book has on the whole been a positive thing, given the goals of the Baen reprinting. It certainly hasn’t hurt the stories. And the stories are very fun stuff, occasionally outstanding. Recommended.

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