Back | Next

That Certain Something

by Guy Gordon

What is it that makes a Schmitz story so special? What makes them so fun so read? I don't claim to have the definitive answer, but here are some of the things people love about Schmitz:


The Twist

Number one has got to be "the twist." In all the best Schmitz stories there is that one extra plot twist at the end, that you weren't expecting.

After spending the entire story worrying about the murderous Hlat, Quillan finds out that it has actually been . . . (no, I won't tell you. Read "Lion Loose" in Volume 3). In "Balanced Ecology" (Volume 4) it isn't until the last paragraph you find out the real hero of the story. In "The Demon Breed" (Volume 4), Nile is terrorized by the Parahuans; or is it the other way around?

Schmitz sucks you into the story with action so fast, you almost never see the twist coming. But he doesn't lie to you. The twist at the end doesn't invalidate what you thought was happening in the story. Instead, it adds to the story; sometimes in wondrous ways. "The Demon Breed" is the perfect example of this.


Inverted Clichés

A related Schmitz technique is the "inverted cliché." If you run across a cliché in a Schmitz story, you can be sure the author is having fun at the expense of your expectations.

Schmitz's monsters are good examples of this. In "The Winds of Time" (Volume 4), we find that a spaceship passenger has a dangerous "pet" aboard. It turns out there may be some confusion as to who is the passenger, and who is the pet.

Schmitz characters often use stereotypes as camouflage. In "The Searcher" (Volume 4), Danestar Gems conceals snooping equipment in her wigs, and conceals her wigs by the "Purloined Letter" method (i.e., in plain view, but completely unnoticed because they are so obvious). And if you chase Trigger Argee into an empty corridor, and think you have her cornered, think again.

James H. Schmitz wrote Space Opera. But in an area filled with clichés, he always finds a way to surprise and entertain you. A perfect example of this is "The Star Hyacinths," where he lifts a Pirate Treasure story and drops it, whole, onto a distant planet. Every cliché is there; the shipwreck, the stranded pirate, the treasure (with a curse on it, no less!). In this story, instead of turning the clichés upside down, he pokes fun at them. Blackbeard the Pirate becomes Greylock, and even keeps the parrot on his shoulder!



A "Lived-in" Future

In the Hub stories Schmitz draws a future that looks and feels like a Jetsons cartoon. When Holati Tate gets in his "car," he doesn't drive away; he flies away. Telzey steps through a "portal," and is instantly on the other side of the planet. Quillan puts on a spacesuit, turns up the antigravity control, and flies towards the ship.

Unlike bad SF, none of this is explained to you by the characters. Characters never stop in the middle of the story and explain to one another how the FTL drive works, or discuss portal technology. The future is assumed. These characters live in it. It's not new to them, so they don't notice it. We readers do, and we're fascinated by it. But it's all secondary to the plot and the action.

For example, take this (condensed) passage from "Compulsion" (Volume 2):


"Very well. I can get you a report on the Siren trees."
"How soon?"
"It will be in your ComWeb by the time you reach your room. And I'll have a scan extract made of Miss Argee's file. You'll receive it in a few minutes."
The blue reception button on the ComWeb was glowing when Telzey came into her room. She closed the door, sat down, and pulled up the report on the Sirens. The report began flowing up over the reading screen at her normal scanning rate.


Here is Schmitz, in 1970, describing business being done on "Internet time." And his "ComWeb" may be the best presagement of the Internet in all of science fiction.

Exotic Locations

James Schmitz is the best travel agent. "The Demon Breed" takes place on the water world of Nandy Cline, where giant floatwood forests travel around the globe on ocean currents, and are filled with strange plants and animals. These each have a part in the story and are not there just for decoration.

Schmitz transports you to Nandy Cline. He imparts the feel of the storm coming: the smell of the moist air, the agitation of the animals, the gusts of the wind. After reading "The Demon Breed" you can easily identify a dozen species that inhabit the floatwood forests, which are useful, and which to avoid.

In the opening of "Balanced Ecology," we unobtrusively learn about the plants and animals of the Diamondwood forests from the play of two children. In "Glory Day" (Volume 2), Telzey and Trigger visit a world that maintains a medieval culture, for a hidden purpose. No reader will forget the decaying portal circuit of "Lion Game" (Volume 1), or mistake it for Melna park on Orado; even if, in both cases, you are being chased by something big and scary.



The pieces of a Schmitz story fit together like a well-integrated machine. There are no superfluous scenes, no unnecessary characters, no extra verbiage. The plots are tight, with possible objections answered before they come up. There is a careful balance among description, action, and dialog.

In this respect Schmitz is like Heinlein: he is an excellent storyteller. His writing does not call attention to itself. He uses the standard props of science fiction: spaceships, FTL travel, ESP (psi), strange worlds, and aliens. But these props are used as shortcuts to get on with the story. They are not what the story is about. Furthermore, no "sci-fi" ideas are thrown in because they sound cool, or just because they appeared in Scientific American last month.



Another example of Schmitz's craftsmanship are his characters. Schmitz is known for his strong, believable female characters—which can be extremely difficult to write into an action story. Schmitz makes great effort to avoid or counter the cultural bias of his audience.

For example, his characters' names are deliberately gender neutral (Nile, Ticos, Trigger, Telzey, Gefty, Danestar). Equality of women in the Schmitz future is not an issue. It is simply a feature taken for granted, just like the spaceships.

Characters of both genders are introduced to the reader doing something, and doing it well. Nile is piloting her craft around a typhoon. Trigger is taking out her frustration by killing targets at a practice range. Ticos is lying his head off to his interrogators—and getting away with it. The reader is immediately encouraged to identify with the proper character.

In general, when you meet a Schmitz hero, he (or, just as likely, she) is going about his own business. He is not out looking to save the universe. She's taking a break from college. He's captaining his ship (but happens to have a strange cargo), or he might be a research scientist whose work requires isolation in the floatwood islands, or she might be having lunch at a deluxe shopping mall when something strange turns up.

The one thing they all have in common is that when trouble starts, they don't scream for help, they don't call for the police, they deal with it. Again, like Heinlein, Schmitz draws strong, competent characters.


More than any science fiction writer I can think of, Schmitz loved to put a touch of horror into his stories—usually by including a monster. Schmitz's monsters are some of the most inventive in SF. Their best feature is that they retain the ability to scare you. I don't know about you, but if I ran into a tarm prowling a floatwood forest, I'd be scared to death. And I know I couldn't outsmart the Goblin in Menlo Park. But Schmitz's monsters aren't just big, dangerous, and stupid. If you're going up against a janandra, you'd better realize that it's actually more intelligent than you are.

Besides monsters, Schmitz has also created fascinating plants and animals. One example is the Tumbleweeds in "Balanced Ecology." These are seemingly part plant, part animal.


Ilf had noticed a small one rolling straight towards a waiting slurp and stopped for a moment to watch the slurp catch it. The slurp was of average size, which gave it a tongue-reach of between twelve and fourteen feet, and the tumbleweed was already within range.
The tongue shot out suddenly, a thin, yellow flash. Its tip flicked twice around the tumbleweed, jerked it off the ground and back to the feed opening in the imitation tree stump within which the rest of the slurp was concealed. The tumbleweed said "Oof!" in the surprised way they always did when something caught them, and went in through the opening. After a moment, the slurp's tongue tip appeared in the opening again and waved gently around, ready for somebody else of the right size to come within reach.
Ilf, just turned eleven and rather small for his age, was the right size for this slurp, though barely. But, being a human boy, he was in no danger. The slurps of the diamondwood farms on Wrake didn't attack humans. For a moment, he was tempted to tease the creature into a brief fencing match. If he picked up a stick and banged on the stump with it a few times, the slurp would become annoyed and dart its tongue out and try to knock the stick from his hand.


Notice how skillfully Schmitz has introduced you to two members of the Diamondwood ecology. Already you know the tumbleweeds are harmless and dumb. And if you think about it, the slurps must be rather intelligent to understand the concept of "play." Why don't the slurps of Wrake attack humans?



While Schmitz wrote many stories just for entertainment value, there are three themes that reappear throughout his work: psi, ethics, and ecology.

Obviously, the Telzey stories are where Schmitz wrote out most of his ideas about psi. Sometimes he just plays with fun ideas, like how to trick a teleporting animal ("Sleep No More," Volume 1), or how to rescue someone trapped under sea ("Company Witch", Volume 2). But he also makes a serious effort to answer such questions as how society will cope with psis. His answer is his most enigmatic creation: the Psychology Service.

Schmitz stories almost always bring up a point of ethics. It is not Schmitz's style to pose ethical dilemmas for his characters. Generally, they know what to do. Rather, he raises those questions in your mind. How should the human race interact with other intelligent species? What if they're implacably hostile towards us?

In "The Winds of Time," when Gefty realizes the janandra is intelligent, he must shift tactics. Killing it would now be murder. What should the Hub's response be to the invasion of Nandy Cline in "The Demon Breed," or the killing of the Malatlo in "Attitudes" (Volume 4)? What if the other species won't talk to us, and we're not even sure if it's intelligent ("Compulsion")?

His concern with ecology shows up best in "The Demon Breed." By dropping Nile into the floatwood forest with nothing but a handgun and a tame otter, Schmitz forces her to use the forest resources to accomplish her goals. Nile could blast her way into an Incubator, but that would be wasteful. Much better to gain entry by imitating its natural symbiote. The forest provides everything from Ticos Cay's research material to a way to defeat a giant tarm.

In "Balanced Ecology," the problem is not so much how we should deal with aliens, but how the aliens should deal with us. Not only does Schmitz have immense fun creating fantastic plants and animals, but he reaches a solution consistent with the way they live together.

"Grandpa" (Volume 4) is another good example of ecology as a theme. Fifteen-year-old Cord knows in his bones how the ecology of Sutang works. When Grandpa, a large floating plant used for transportation, exhibits new behavior, Cord knows a basic rule that some of his elders ignore: If you don't understand it, it can kill you. When the trouble hits, Cord uses his knowledge of the local ecology to figure out a solution.

Like any good mystery writer, Schmitz has given us all the information we need to see the solution. If Schmitz were a bad writer, those clues would be obvious. Near the beginning of the story, someone would casually explain the importance of symbiotic pairs to another character. But Schmitz gives you the pleasure of discovering the solution along with Cord.



For all my efforts to analyze Schmitz's style, I can't claim to have discovered his secret. I seriously doubt you could write a "Schmitz story" by applying the above observations as a formula. Mostly, Schmitz stories are just fun to read.s




For more great books visit


Back | Next