A while back, Baen Books reissued the stories of James H. Schmitz, concentrating on the cycle centered around the Hub and the adventures of Trigger Argee and Telzy Amberdon, super-heroines who are somewhere between Barbie and Wonder Woman. We’ve also been rewarded with Schmitz’ stories of the Vegan Confederacy in Agent of Vega and Other Stories. This group, including works first published between 1943 and 1968, is delightful.
The four stories set in the Vegan Confederacy (“Agent of Vega,” “The Illusionists,” “The Second Night of Summer,’ and “The Truth About Cushgar”) introduce a cast of characters as heroic as they are quirky. Schmitz’ universe, in which good and evil are easily identified and differentiated, the good guys are good and the bad guys are really bad, and right always wins, is at this point in our history firmly in the realm of nostalgia. “Agent of Vega” is the story of Zone Agent Illif, called in to aid an operative recruited from the alien Lannai in eliminating the criminal spacer Tahmey, one of the notorious Ghant spacers. There is only one problem: biologically, the suspect – a businessman named Deel – is Tahmey; his mind belongs to Deel. Pagadan, the Lannai, comes from a species of natural telepaths, and her impulse to check him out telepathically results in the discovery of this major anomaly. As Illif and Pagadan pursue this mystery, we are treated to what we soon realize is one of Schmitz’ stocks in trade – dark secrets, plot twists, evil aliens, good aliens, and raw courage in a final confrontation. My personal favorite of these four is “The Second Day of Summer,” another story of alien invasion foiled by Grandma Wannatel and her rhinocerine pony (a sentient native of the planet Treebel, sidekick and muscle for Zone Agent Wannatel) and eight-year-old Grimp, his pet lortel (a sort of prosimian which Grimp is teaching to say eight-year-old things like “Bang, bang!”), and his slingshot. This one is all charm and gentle humor wrapped around a life-and-death crisis.
Of the remaining stories, one of the standouts is “Gone Fishing,” a tale that partakes of the Illuminati, cutting edge physics, and the search for what is truly valuable in life. In “The Beacon to Elsewhere,” Schmitz plays with matter transport in a story of freedom gone horribly awry. “Greenface” is a small-scale horror story about a creature that terrorizes a fishing camp and its owner. Although the earliest story in the collection, dating from 1943, it is in many ways the most contemporary – its hero, Hogan Masters, is much closer to the anti-hero than to Schmitz’ normally more-than-human protagonists. “Rogue Psi” is just that: gifted psychic has found a way – he thinks – to take over the world. “The End of the Line” is about rebellion, and how to make it work – in this case rebellion by a group of augmented humans designed as explorers who just want to be left alone.
The Vegan Confederacy stories, while entertaining, are largely formulaic. These four stories all date from 1949-1951, a time when the bad guys were easy to identify, for most people. I find it a little bit ironic, given my distrust of large institutions in general, that I am as happy with them as I am. The Vegan Confederacy universe is based on a benignly paternalistic government that is seeking to rebuild civilization after the collapse of a previous star-spanning empire, with the implication that there is something identifiable as “civilized behavior” even in a universe that is as much alien as human. (Of course, even we humans can’t agree on a definition these days.) Some of the methods used by the Confederacy would have congresscritters screaming from both sides of the aisle today – now there is a willing suspension of disbelief. The other stories are much meatier and, even though in some cases earlier to or contemporaneous with “Agent of Vega,” much more mature – even, in some ways, very contemporary.
Even among fans of science fiction, James H. Schmitz is a name that is not as well-known, nor as revered, as it should be. He was a solid writer – these stories are put together beautifully – and could be a subtle commentator. Although series editor Eric Flint has concentrated on the stories of the Hub in these reissues, this volume is the real prize, giving a good sense of Schmitz’ range as a writer. Check it out.
(Baen Books, 2001)