James H. Schmitz

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One day in Cleveland, Ohio, more than 50 years ago I was exploring the main downtown public library. I had just discovered science fiction, which became my favorite literary genre, and was looking for all of it I could find. That day I read Agent of Vega, by James H. Schmitz, which absolutely blew me away.

The agent in the story is part of a really big galactic empire, who travels through space at immense speeds in a ship tailored to his needs, investigates criminals and kills bad guys as necessary. Sort of a futuristic James Bond, but Schmitz had written these stories (there are three sequels) before Ian Fleming got started with Bond.

Schmitz may not have been one of the top writers in science fiction, but I always liked his work, and he worked in areas that most people didn’t at that time. A lot of his important characters were women, for instance. The subgenre he was working in most of the time was space opera: a big canvas with huge threats to humankind. Heroes in that genre were usually men.

His heroes and heroines usually had psi powers too, not unknown in science fiction, but Schmitz had his own take on them. He wrote a whole series of stories about Telzey Amberdon, who discovers she has telepathic powers as a teenager and finds herself embroiled in a lot of dangerous matters because of them. That’s merely the one series in which Schmitz really explores his concept of how psi works. Other stories and series have that element too.

Probably his best novel overall was The Witches of Karres. A man uses his spaceship to go trading in hopes of making enough profit to get married. That’s not what happens. He picks up three girls who are witches, and have been enslaved. They’re using their psi powers to make their owners miserable, so the man undertakes to return the girls to their parents. Naturally things become more complex, and he and they end up saving the universe from malevolent aliens from another dimension. There’s plenty of action, and the tone is light-hearted. Space opera on the grand scale, and very enjoyable.

The last years of his writing career he wrote stories mostly about the Hub, a galactic empire, but different from the one in which Agent of Vega takes place. Many of the characters appear in multiple stories. The editor of a series reprinting his stories tried to figure out the history of that mileu. It seems that people with psi talents had often used those talents to make themselves powerful and rich, and when this was discovered it precipitated a war. Once the war was over the government tried to enlist as many psi talents as possible into helping keep law and order. They didn’t want people without these talents to be second-class citizens, they didn’t want psi talents to be a despised minority, so the kept the whole problem under wraps as much as possible.

A character in one of the novels says the government doesn’t want to over-control the population. They want them to continue to have responsibility and the ability to defend themselves at need, without over-dependence on the government. So Schmitz’s heroes and heroines are James Bondish characters, but with a sense of responsibility to prevent bad things from happening and punishing those who cause them to happen. Not too much to argue with in that worldview, I think.

The 1960’s seem to have been the last really fertile period for Schmitz as a writer. Many years later I stopped in at a second-hand bookstore in the soutwestern corner of New Hampshire, and talked to one of the clerks there. She said, if I remember correctly, that Schmitz had been her stepfather, and a very nice man. I think she also said he suffered from emphysema, and eventually died of it toward the end of the 70s.

Writers lives are often less interesting than their work, but Schmitz had an interesting background. As I recall, he had lived in Germany before Worls War II, before coming to the USA. Whether he was native German or American, I can’t recall, but I wonder how his background ties in with his writing.

The 1960s were a great period for science fiction. There are a lot more writers from that era worth reading. I’ll probably be writing about some more of them later.

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