In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
In today’s science fiction, you don’t have to look too far to find well-realized female characters. But back in the early days of science fiction, such characters were rare: Even the leading female authors of the time often wrote stories featuring male protagonists. One notable exception to this practice was James H. Schmitz, and the most notable of his female characters was the telepath Telzey Amberdon, a teenager who grows during her adventures into quite a formidable person, and indeed, something more than human. I fondly remember discovering Telzey in the pages of Analog during my early days of reading science fiction, and recently decided to revisit my old favorite character. So I decided to read all of Schmitz’s Telzey stories in chronological order, and as I often do, I gained a whole new appreciation for the stories and the character in the process.
There may have been relatively few strong female characters in the fiction I encountered during my youth, but when I did encounter them, they did not strike me as unique because of the strong women who made up my own family. I remember my maternal grandmother telling me how she rose from bookkeeper to chief financial officer for a manufacturing firm during World War One, and how her voice shook with anger as she described being demoted back into the bookkeeper job at the end of the war (because she couldn’t take a man’s job), and then was fired when she got married (because she had a man to take care of her). I remember my dad’s sister, who put city life behind her to marry a dairy farmer, help him run the farm, and raise a large family. I remember my mother’s oldest sister, who became the matriarch of the family when her parents died, and whose sharp tongue and keen mind dominated the extended family whenever we gathered. And my mom’s other sister, who took vows as a nun, and worked as an auto mechanic and later as a public works officer at a series of Catholic hospitals. And my mother, who raised five boys and, when my father’s health failed in the middle of her life, started a career in the financial department of the local hospital. So the absence of strong women in many stories actually struck me as a bit odd, growing up.
About the Author
James H. Schmitz (1911-1981) is an American science fiction author whose work was largely of shorter lengths, which is probably why he is not remembered as well as he should be in this current era of novels. There is a biography of Schmitz in my earlier review of the NESFA collection The Best of James H. Schmitz (you can find that column here).
As with many authors who were writing in the early 20th Century, a number of works by Schmitz, including the story, “Novice,” Telzey’s first adventure, can be found on Project Gutenberg.
The Federation of the Hub
Back in the early 2000s, Baen Books put out a collection of four volumes collecting all of Schmitz’s tales of the star-spanning human civilization known as the Hub, which they called “The Complete Federation of the Hub.” The four volumes were Telzey Amberdon, T’nT: Telzey & Trigger, Trigger & Friends, and The Hub: Dangerous Territory. These volumes, which also include some historical essays, give us the clearest picture ever assembled of Schmitz’s fascinating civilization of the far future. It is a time when Earth is remembered as an abandoned backwater, if it is remembered at all. Humanity has found a star cluster, the Hub, where stars orbited by habitable worlds are closely packed, allowing easy travel. Finding it impossible to exert tight control over such a widespread civilization, the Overgovernment of the Hub Federation provides only minimal organization, allowing member worlds broad latitude in their internal affairs. There is a Space Navy, but it is a time of peace, and most conflicts appear to be handled by intelligence services or through diplomacy.
The government also has a secretive agency, the Psychology Service, devoted to controlling the use of paranormal powers. A tiny few among the population have developed significant mental, powers, referred to as “psi,” including telepathy, telekinesis, and even teleportation. The government officially denies the existence of these powers even as they work to control them. There are other intelligent races in the galaxy, but while some rise to the level of nuisances, few appear to threaten human dominance. It is a time when scientific marvels are taken for granted, including faster-than-light travel, anti-gravity, and advanced computer networks. Most of humanity seems to live in peaceful contentment, pursuing ordinary lives. Those with psi abilities, however, find that their additional powers also expose them to threats undreamed of by the ordinary people they live among.
The Telzey Amberdon Stories
We first meet Telzey in the story “Novice.” She is fifteen years old and a well-adjusted child of privilege. Her mother is a senior government official and her father a successful businessman. She is a student at a top university, owns a car, and travels to other worlds for holidays. She has a cat-like pet called Tick-Tock, and takes a trip to visit her aunt on the cat’s homeworld. The aunt is a busybody who doesn’t like the cat, and attempts to have it taken from Telzey. During the visit, Telzey begins to dream that she can see through Tick-Tock’s eyes, and soon realizes she has the ability to communicate with him and his fellow creatures. She finds they are an intelligent race who have become sick of humans hunting them for sport and plan to eradicate humans from the planet. Telzey brings this to the attention of the government and heads off genocide. She also uses her newfound powers to rummage around in her aunt’s mind, do some tweaking, and make her a bit more agreeable. In my youth, I found it exciting to imagine such powers. As an adult, however, I’m struck by how improbable Telzey’s adventures are, as well as the troubling moral implications of messing with her aunt’s mind.
In “Undercurrents,” Telzey uses her growing powers to protect a classmate from a guardian who plans to murder the girl before she can inherit. During the story, her powers come to the attention of the Psychology Service, and she ends up blackmailing them so they will leave her alone—another audacious act for a young girl.
“Poltergeist” shows Telzey using her powers to help a man whose refusal to deal with his own extraordinary powers has caused a split personality, illustrating how she can now completely restructure another person’s mind. Her powers are growing by leaps and bounds.
“Goblin Night” is Schmitz at his best, weaving a tale that mixes adventure and horror in equal measures. Camping in a nature preserve, Telzey encounters a twisted mass murderer who has a pet alien monster who does his bidding. It takes all her skills to defeat him and his minion. And in “Sleep No More,” Telzey discovers the mass murderer who she defeated was part of a larger organization, and must overcome an even fiercer monster sent to kill her—a monster with the power of teleportation.
I had missed the tale “The Lion Game” when it first appeared, and thus missed out on a pivotal adventure for Telzey. The Psychology Service, having apparently forgiven Telzey for her blackmail, enlists her to travel to another planet and help them with a mystery—one that’s connected with the teleporting alien she defeated in the previous episode. Telzey tells her mother she is off on a secret mission, and her mother seems unconcerned that her fifteen-year-old daughter is engaging in such activities, only reminding her that she needs to be back in time for her sixteenth birthday party. Telzey finds the planet beset by a covert alien invasion, and the teleporting alien proves to be foreshadowing, as she is quickly trapped in a network of sealed buildings scattered around the planet, and linked only by teleportation devices. Telzey escapes the aliens and evades capture until she realizes there are two alien forces involved. She takes sides in the Lion Game of the title, which is a gladiatorial struggle for power. In the end, without showing any fear or indecision, she takes actions affecting the future of both the aliens and the human race…and still gets home in time for her birthday party. Reading the stories in close order, I began realizing that as a character, Telzey no longer reads like a young girl at this point, and that the Hub is a pretty dangerous and unruly place for a telepath to live.
The story “Company Planet” returns Telzey’s adventures to a smaller scope as she travels to a planet of cosmetic surgeons to help a classmate who has undergone elective surgery she now regrets. Telzey’s powers come to the attention of the businessmen who control the planet, who are hiding a secret program that turns their patients into unwitting spies. They naturally decide that Telzey cannot be allowed to leave the planet, and she naturally decides to foil their evil plans.
“Resident Witch,” another story I somehow missed in my youth, has Telzey agreeing to help a local detective agency looking into the possibility that a local tycoon has been kidnapped by his brother, who’s after the family fortune. And here I found a passage that directly speaks to my growing unease with Telzey’s character: Telzey says to a condescending man, “…I’ve been a psi, a practicing psi, for almost a year. I can go through a human life in an hour and know more about it than the man or woman who’s living it. I’ve gone through quite a few lives, not only human ones. I do other things that I don’t talk about. I don’t know what it all exactly makes me now, but I’m not a child. Of course, I am sixteen years old and haven’t been that for very long. But it might even be that sometimes people like you…look a little like children to me…” Telzey’s solution to the situation is quite chilling, and gives a whole new meaning to the term, “hoisted by his own petard.” It’s a good thing for the human race Telzey is a dutiful and well-adjusted person, because the thought of her powers in unscrupulous hands would be horrifying indeed.
“Compulsion” is another story that raises the stakes for Telzey, providing her with a challenge requiring all of her newfound skills. I had read the first portion of this story as “The Pork Chop Tree” in Analog, but the rest of the story was new to me. The story introduces a species of intelligent trees, called the Sirens, which are so prolific they spread across any planet they are introduced to, and with psi powers that can shape the previous inhabitants of those planets into harmless and mindless symbionts (kind of like a superpowered version of the knotweed and briars I battle in my own backyard). In this story, Telzey first meets Trigger Argee, a freelance government agent who is another of Schmitz’s great female characters. Trigger and her associates had become addicted to the psi of the Sirens before realizing their power, and now the Federation is considering destroying the trees on the three planets where they are located. Trigger, while cured of her addiction, is a strong advocate of quarantining the Sirens until they can learn more, and is working with a senior Psychology Service agent named Pilch to do exactly that. Trigger enlists the aid of an ancient and slow-moving race called the “Old Galactics,” but while they outfit her with a psi shield, their idea of dealing with the Siren problem will not produce any results for a century—far too slow for the government. So they reach out to Telzey for help, and she and Trigger find out the Sirens are a more dangerous threat than anyone imagined, a threat that could engulf the entire Hub in a vicious war of survival. But Telzey once again saves the day, and along the way, uses her powers to discover Pilch is much older than she appears, and something apparently more than human. This left me wondering if this character might be a hint at Telzey’s own future.
“Glory Day” finds Telzey and Trigger kidnapped and taken to a planet of the Hub that is allowed to maintain a feudal society. The Federation has found that such a planet attracts malcontents who otherwise might cause problems across other worlds: a rather interesting concept that fits with their libertarian approach to governance. The world is holding gladiatorial games to celebrate a royal succession, but there are those who want to seize that power for themselves. Telzey and Trigger have their hands full not only surviving, but also working to make sure that the new ruler is not one of the bad guys.
In “Child of the Gods,” Telzey finds herself the victim of telepathic control, as a psi takes away her free will and brings her to a world where his clandestine mine is having problems. It turns out the threat is an alien being with psi powers beyond those of either Telzey or her captor, and it requires all of her wits to come out of the adventure both free and alive. The tables being turned on Telzey in this tale help made the horrible implications of mind control clear to the reader. Similarly, “Ti’s Toys,” which I first read in Analog under the name “The Telzey Toy,” is another tale where an evil genius attempts to control Telzey. He develops human-like android puppets programmed to act like humans, and then uses those techniques to program humans to become his puppets. When he attempts to create a copy of Telzey, however, he finds he has bitten off more than he can chew. And although the Psychology Service swoops in at the end to seize all the technology used, you can’t help wondering what impact these capabilities might have in the hidden struggle to control psi powers in the Hub’s civilization.
“The Symbiotes,” Telzey’s last recorded adventure, reunites her with Trigger as the two of them discover representatives of a race of tiny humans who have been captured by criminals. Moreover, those criminals turn out to be not just ordinary humans, but alien beings capable of giving Telzey a run for her money before finally being defeated. Along the way, Trigger finds that her own latent psi powers have awakened, and she faces the start of a new phase in her own life.
Read separately, the Telzey stories are well-constructed adventures. Telzey’s personality never gets much attention in the stories, but it wasn’t unusual at the time for authors to scrimp on characterization and focus on action. Upon revisiting these tales, however, I now think that was a deliberate choice by Schmitz, to portray a character whose enormous mental powers are moving her beyond the realm of normal human emotions. This gives the tales a hint of darkness, as you see Telzey’s childhood cut short by the enormity of her experiences. Schmitz was also a bit too good at depicting monsters, and the threat of losing one’s autonomy and identity—perhaps the most horrifying threat of all. While all the horrible situations Telzey encounters make for exciting adventures, encountering them one after another made me feel like our heroine’s biggest problem would likely be post-traumatic stress. Or perhaps the shift in my reaction to the tales just reflects my own age, and the different perspective that maturity brings. I now find it more difficult to focus on the immediate danger and excitement without thinking about the impact those adventures would realistically have on the characters. But I also take comfort in the fact that Telzey manages to maintain a normal life, and seems to take pleasure in friendships and other ordinary pursuits, even in the midst of all these dangers. While the Telzey stories might seem straightforward on their surface, they have surprising depths which may not be apparent on the first reading.
The Telzey adventures are among the best science fiction stories ever written. Schmitz was a master of the short form, and crafted a fine set of challenges for his characters. At the same time, he did a good job of exploring the implications paranormal powers might have for both a society and for individuals—and he did not shy away from looking at the darker aspects of humanity, which gave the stories a depth that other adventures of the time lacked. The stories are a bit different, and a bit darker, than I had remembered, but still have my highest recommendation for readers willing to seek them out. In my opinion, while Telzey has more competition these days, she remains one of the most compelling female characters in the history of science fiction.
And now it’s your turn to take the floor: Have you encountered Telzey’s adventures, or any of Schmitz’s other work? If so, what were your impressions? And what other female characters are among your favorites?
[P.S. This column marks my 50th in the Front Lines and Frontiers series. I appreciate you all letting a retired guy look back at the good old days, and hope you enjoy reading the columns as much as I enjoy writing them.]
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.