Under the Influence: James Schmitz



Back in the ancient days of the year 2000, it was mentioned that Baen Books was preparing to re-issue the works of James Schmitz. And on Usenet, a (quite out of context) quote from Eric Flint indicated that there would be some… editing. Modernizing. Fixing. And I proceeded to leap to the attack against this monstrous butcher, Eric Flint.


The upshot of that was my getting published. But that's a different story, told on the About Ryk E. Spoor page. This is about why I was Very Concerned about the (as it turned out, mostly untrue) implications that Schmitz' work was to be "fixed" by some guy who, well, wasn't James Schmitz.


I encountered James Schmitz' work early in my SF reading, in Volume 2 of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, with his deservedly classic novelette "The Witches of Karres" ( novel version found here).. Even amid that august company, I recognized immediately something different about this work. While Captain Pausert was the ostensible lead, it was clear that the three young "witches" were more than equal to almost any challenge. These were not ordinary little girls in distress, and I wondered what made this book different than the others – others in some cases written many years later.


Then, in about 1976, I came across a book titled The Universe Against Her, and met Telzey Amberdon. I was instantly fascinated by (and, perhaps, just a tiny bit infatuated with) the young Telzey, who discovers she has psi powers and proceeds to dance an elaborate dance around her own government and multiple threats, both to her and others, while trying to remain herself and free of any shackles, visible or otherwise. The ethical issues of Telzey's own actions in certain events escaped me at the time (I think because Schmitz, quite deliberately, designed the stories to encourage that).


Schmitz also provided what I think is one of the best, if not the best, "one person against an invasion" stories in his novel The Demon Breed (AKA The Tuvela)in which biologist Nile Etland manages to use knowledge of local territory, inventive strategies, and magnificent bluffs to confuse, demoralize,and eventually defeat an invasion of her homeworld by well-organized and supplied aliens. This short novel and other Schmitz stories can be found in Baen's reissue under the title The Hub: Dangerous Territory.


In this era, such stories would be hardly noteworthy (though still well-written); but they were written in a period ranging from the 1940s through the 1960s, when SF was a VERY heavily male-dominated profession, and where heroes were virtually universally male. Here, James Schmitz said to me "that's silly; the differences between men and women aren't like THAT," and proved it in story. Along with one other obvious influence from my childhood (which I'll discuss in another entry), this solidified my love of female lead characters – tough, clever, and independent. This carried over not just into my writing, but even my gaming, where I am just as likely to play a female character as a male character.


This wouldn't have worked, of course, if Schmitz hadn't also been a damn good writer overall. Schmitz started out a fan of Doc Smith, like me, and the influence is almost too clear in his early Agent of Vega stories, with even some turns of phrase very Smithian in tone. But he very soon developed his own brand of SF, one that managed to cover the small, personal details of someone living on an alien world, being a part of it, and solving strange puzzles presented by that world, and then leap outward, to the cosmic level with an entire civilization at stake… and then right back to the personal.


Schmitz, as much as anyone, also solidified my view of psionic powers, and their interaction with technology in a way that forever kept them in a separate realm from "magic", although many writers often did – and still do – use psionics in a manner indistinguishable from magic. But mostly, he taught me to simply write the characters as people, and focus on the stories as though they were being lived BY the people. The adventure would emerge on its own. Ariane Stephanie Austin,  of Grand Central Arena, is very much a Schmitz heroine; I think that Telzey and Trigger would recognize something of themselves in her. Even more, in some ways, would be Kyri Vantage -- thrown into a situation she was not prepared for, yet adapting, and ultimately triumphing, with the aid of those she befriends along the way.

Thank you, James Schmitz, for those dreams, images, and worlds.


  1. I am a Schmitz junkie. I bless Baen for bringing him back. I own every story. I love Telzey. I love Trigger Argee. I love the Hub, more than Trantor or Luna Free State or a dozen others.

    And I, too, have been known to play a strong female character in D&D and the like. This is why, mostly.

    Your early influences are outstanding.

  2. Nice insight into your inspirations and thinking. Thanks.

    I remember watching part of that argument (it wasn’t a flamewar, far too polite for that) and being impressed by the honest arguments on both sides.

  3. Yes, I also thought Schmitz was one of the best.

    Btw, note that almost all his work was published in Astounding/Analog, while the supposedly mysoginistic John W. Campbell Jr. was editor.

Your comments or questions welcomed!