by James H. Schmitz

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Analog, May & June 1964

collected in —

The Universe Against Her
Telzey Amberdon (slightly abridged)
March 2002;
March 2008 

Within a rarefied mind

She had spent several hours that day in one of Orado City's major universities to gather data for a new study assignment and, on her way out, came through a hall containing a dozen or so live habitat scenes from wildly contrasting worlds. The alien was in one of the enclosures, which was about a thousand cubic yards in size and showed an encrusted jumble of rocks lifting above the surface of an oil yellow liquid. The creature was sprawled across the rocks like a great irregular mass of translucent green jelly, with a number of variously shaped, slowly moving crimson blotches scattered through its interior. ...

She shaped a thought herself, a light, unalarming "Hello, who are you?" sort of thought, and directed it gently at the green-jelly mass on the rocks.

A slow shudder ran over the thing; and then suddenly something smashed through her with numbing force. She felt herself stagger backwards, had an instant's impression of another blow coming, and of raising her arm to ward it off. ...


This review develops a portion of my essay,

Demigoddess of the Mind:
James H. Schmitz's heroine Telzey Amberdon

  1. "Novice"
  2. "Undercurrents"
  3. "Resident Witch"

In James H. Schmitz's novella "Undercurrents", Telzey really starts to expand; this is her second story, which sets the deep pattern for the Telzey Amberdon series, as well as sketching the spectrum of concerns facing the Overgovernment of the Hub, and hence themes in the entire Federation of the Hub series.

We move to a new high plateau, so to speak, and the air becomes rarefied.

A cozy university thriller?

Yet it begins cozily, setting the stage for what might be a straightforward thriller. In "Undercurrents", Telzey's university roommate is a major heiress — if she lives to inherit. A murder plot is shaping up against the girl, and looks likely to succeed. Her roommate's guard dog Chomir may not be up to blocking the murderous plot. On his own level Chomir is quite a guardian: an Askanam arena hound. In the big dog's mind are some of the clues that may lead to unraveling the murder plot before it's sprung.

Chomir also appears in the later Telzey story "Goblin Night", where Schmitz describes Chomir as not simply a carnivore, but of a species developed by Man as a killer of killers. In other words, not just evolved-efficient, but planned-efficient. Editor Campbell was quite taken with this point. (See The John W. Campbell Letters.)

Allying with bank and detective agency

In "Undercurrents" we meet Telzey's father Gilas Amberdon, executive officer of the Bank of Rienne; and Wellan Dasinger of the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency. Both are sharp, strong men in their different ways; and both fully supportive of Telzey.

Not only characters, but institutions in a Schmitz story are often very interesting in themselves. The Bank of Rienne really is the kind of bank that your own bank advertises it is: intelligent, helpful, proactive, conservative, and a strong guardian of its clients' interests. The Kyth Interstellar detective agency is quite capable of advising a client to declare a private war, and then providing and applying the necessary force. Telzey also encounters the Psychology Service, a rather secretive department of the Federation's Overgovernment; with which Telzey has shifting run-ins and alliances throughout the rest of the series.

By the end of "Undercurrents" Telzey is still an extremely bright teenager with telepathic abilities; but she is growing into a demigoddess.

An implicit demigoddess?

I don't think Schmitz uses the word demigoddess anywhere to refer to Telzey, but I choose it carefully. When I first read "Undercurrents", and a little later saw Schmitz's comment which I quote in Demigoddess of the Mind, I didn't understand why this was "an extraordinarily difficult story to write". I certainly do now. And it surely is worth his effort.

The powers of the Greek gods and goddesses that we marvel at in the Iliad begin to take modern shape here: the power to speak to mortal men and women as though inside their heads; to listen to their thoughts, feel their private feelings; the power to shape their thoughts and desires; the power to change the very basis of character and personality for good or ill. All these are given by Schmitz a science-fictional basis in psionics, the science of the mind, thoughtfully developed and reasonably described.

Not just talents, but powers

And mistake it not, these are not just talents, even wild talents; these are powers. This is the shaping creativity of the demiurge upon the stage of life, as of gods and goddesses from Olympus directing affairs "far on the ringing plains of windy Troy". And, in a galactic version of that ancient Greek world, the Hub has plenty of contention, not embodied by a recognized Pantheon and Greek city-states, but instead from inimical alien races and weirdly divergent strains of humanity, secretive forces and characters often invisible to the man in the street.

The odd burst of psionic noise as she came through the Customs hall at the space terminal in Orado City — Telzey considered it with a sense of apprehensive discovery.

The Customs machine certainly wasn't supposed to be able to affect human minds. But it belonged to the same family as the psionic devices of the rehabilitation centers and mental therapy institutions, which did read, manipulate, and reshape human minds. The difference, supposedly, was simply that the Customs machine was designed to do other kinds of work.

But the authority which designed, constructed and maintained all psionic machines, the Federation's Psychology Service, was at present keeping the details of design and construction a carefully guarded secret.

Neurophysiology and rhetoric

Has James Schmitz found a middle way between neurophysiology and rhetoric? A third way of modifying human behavior that doesn't fall into "the myth of psychotherapy" as Thomas Szasz calls the medical metaphor of "mental health and disease"?

I would say no; that Telzey's psionic overriding of another person's actions or behavior, is a variety of neurophysiology applied to a brain and its contents. It is action at a distance only in the sense that radio or radar waves are. Schmitz may here bridge the classic mind-body duality that was apparent to the Greeks; but I do not think that he merges mind and body. If Telzey blasts or cures someone's mind, it is presented as an action blow or repair, not a talking attack or cure. An exotic method of neurophysiology.

Evolved killers
and created counter-killers

Extending Schmitz's concept of Chomir the arena dog as deliberately bred to be a killer of natural killers — since the Ice Ages at least, we can say that the creature exercising some conscious management of its own evolution, Man, has pulled ahead of all the evolved-efficient carnivores in the deadly competition. But how do we counter the natural-enemy sort of killers that humanity may encounter in the future, or indeed the rogue human-killers that our own rough nature continually turns up? Can we or should we plan for extraordinary people who are killers of killers? Is this not in fact what a true hero or heroine often is and must be, across many subtle zones of human thought and behavior?

An interesting problem of defense and self-regulation, not new to history or to our own day. Most annoyingly, it is a problem that will not admit of a simple, ultimate answer as long as humanity remains dynamic. This is the kind of puzzle that the Psychology Service of the Hub tries to deal with. And even that outfit may have to concede that one of the answers is Telzey Amberdon.

Psionic ability of Telzey's magnitude is great power, and not all the denizens of the Federation of the Hub use their abilities and powers with Telzey's responsibility. The later stories tend to be darker in hue. As Telzey's powers develop, she stumbles over — or is recruited for, or thrown among — greater challenges. Some of the villains are quite unsettling, not just scary and dangerous.

Telzey's powers and challenges are far more subtly worked out than the wild talent of Isaac Asimov's earlier "The Mule". In a way, this is all a speculation on Lensman-like mental powers in a complex and dynamic civilization, but without Edward E. Smith's Lens as tool and touchstone. Be glad Telzey is on our side. As for the Psychology Service, their motivations are rather more complex ...


Further discussion and wrapup of my Telzey as demigoddess thesis can be found in my discussion of "Resident Witch".


© 2002, 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

Baen Books provides free online or downloadable
original versions of "Undercurrents" & the other four
most "edited" stories in their collections:
James H. Schmitz originals at Baen

Telzey Amberdon series

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