The Illusionists
by James H. Schmitz

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951
as "Space Fear"

collected with related stories in —
Agent of Vega

Agent of Vega & Other Stories

April 2005

Pagadan: telepath and adept

In that time ... the system of general controls has ... become almost completely automatic. There is, however, continuing and fairly intensive activity on the part of the directing mentality. Development of the Siva Psychosis is at a phase typical for the elapsed period — concealed and formalized killings cloaked in sacrificial symbolism.

Quantitatively, they have not begun as yet to affect the population level. The open and indiscriminate slaughter preceding the sudden final decline presumably would not appear, then, for at least another century.

"The Illusionists" (or "Space Fear" as first published) is the second story featuring Pagadan and her work for the Confederacy of Vega's fabulous Department of Galactic Zones, in James H. Schmitz's Agent of Vega series. If you have not yet read the review of the first story, "Agent of Vega", please read that review before this one.

Pagadan, the Lannai telepath and mental adept, appears only in these two stories, but they are quite distinctive and both are excellent.

Induced mass illusion

The space fear of the novelet's title in Astounding is an important factor, so that title is reasonable, but names just one special variety of mental problem. The general concept of induced mass illusion, and the telepathic illusionists who can generate false notions in whole populations, is the wider basis of the plot. The long-isolated planet Ulphi is being investigated by the Confederacy of Vega:

Illusion performances ... the records indicated that some centuries ago on Ulphi they had been cultivated to an extent which no major civilization would tolerate nowadays. The Illusionists of Ulphi had been priest-entertainers and political leaders; their mental symphonies — final culmination and monstrous flowering of all the tribal dances and varied body-and-mind shaking and communal frenzies of history — had swayed the thinking and the emotional life of the planetary race. And Moyuscane the Immortal had wound up that line of psychic near-rulers as the greatest of them all.

A barrier of space fear Space Fear (Schmitz) Astounding cover by Paul Orban

Space fear, in which an individual fears space travel to the point of abhorrence, when applied to a planetwide population provides a virtual wall of isolation behind which oppression may be exercised without limit. But could this possibly be the situation on Ulphi, which seems so domestic and peaceful?

The Department of Galactic Zones — Zone Agent Pagadan, on the spot representing the government — not only is suspicious of this happy (if space-fearful) utopia, they worry about long-term awful consequences. "The Illusionists" also discusses the Siva Psychosis (mentioned above) as building to the ultimate end of a typical mass delusional system.

The Siva Psychosis is well-named by Schmitz from Siva the Destroyer (or Shiva the Destroyer), the God of Destruction in the Hindu pantheon.

The fearful shadow of utopia

James Schmitz certainly is writing in the shadow of utopia in power, where individuals controlling mass parties gain a death-grip on great states: particularly Adolf Hitler, with the National Socialist Party, controlling Nazi Germany; and Joseph Stalin, with the Communist Party, controlling the Soviet Union. These states marched their peoples in lock-step through the "concealed and formalized killings cloaked in sacrificial symbolism", and too quickly on to the "open and indiscriminate slaughter". Tragically, the "sudden final decline" of the Nazi and Soviet systems came too late for many millions of their victims.

So beyond the questions of planetwide space fear and possible mental control on Ulphi, Galactic Zones must be careful not to allow an Illusionist to trigger some mass disaster for its planetary population.

We see clearly mirrored reflections of our own times in "The Illusionists", and Schmitz surely could find more inspirations than the two I suggest, Hitler and Stalin. There have been all too many, and we do not need to imagine real varieties and applications of the awful death-grip: just look and remember.

In "Sour Note on Palayata" (1956), Schmitz develops the planetary mass-control theme from a different angle.

Powers of mind and character

Pagadan's lively and humorous personality provides a nice cross-weaving to her mentalist abilities and "combat-type mind". She has quite a challenge here! The other characters in "The Illusionists" are nicely drawn, the action fast, the implications thought-provoking (to say the least).

An enchanting heroine handling an awesome problem: a fascinating story in a brilliant series.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding March 1951 cover
by Paul Orban

Livelong at Troynovant
longevity & immortality

Utopia at Troynovant
utopia in power, or dystopia

Notes.  In our own great times —

The clearest and most insightful analysis known to me of the maturation and fatal flowering of a Siva Psychosis is developed, with detailed and documented history, in Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941, by Robert C. Tucker.

Josef Stalin meditates while secreted alone in his night study,
safely enclosed deep within the massive walls of the Kremlin:

The crowd was, as it were, the stuff from which history was made. ... It shrank in one place only to swell in another. So there was no need to treat it gently. ...

Naive and shortsighted people pictured Communism as a kingdom of plenty, of freedom from necessity. But that would be an impossible social order; ... The first and main characteristic of true Communism must be discipline, total subordination to authority, and strict execution of orders. (The intelligentsia must be kept under particularly firm control.) ...

Obviously it never would be possible to announce that the Communist society had been built. That would be a methodological error.

Now there was a man for you — Bonaparte! He was not frightened by the barking of Jacobin yard dogs; he declared himself emperor, and that was that.

There was nothing bad about the word "emperor." It meant "commander," the man who gave the orders. That was in no way incompatible with world Communism.

What a splendid ring it would have! Emperor of the Planet! Emperor of the Earth! ...

Someday, maybe, they would discover a preparation that would make him — him alone? — immortal. ...

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
22. "The Emperor of the Earth!"
In the First Circle
A Novel. The Restored Text.  (1968; 2009)
translated by Harry T. Willetts

A great despot might come along, a shrewd monster who, according to his pleasure and displeasure, might constrain and strain all that is past till it becomes a bridge to him, a harbinger and herald and cockcrow.

Friedrich Nietzsche
"On Old and New Tablets"
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, III.12.11  (1884)
translated by Walter Kaufmann
in The Portable Nietzsche


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