James H. Schmitz has long been a favourite of mine and I have previously reviewed Witches of Karres and the short story Novice in this blog. I summarised his writing as follows: "His fiction is characteristically light-hearted, fast-paced, amusing and entertaining. It straddles the SF/fantasy genres, can be equally enjoyed by adults and younger readers, and (unusually for the time and genres) features female characters who are at least as strong and interesting as the men. There is an innocent optimism about his stories which signifies an earlier age, one in which you know that the good guys will win out in the end and the bad guys get their just desserts. It is unthinkable that Schmitz would ever kill off one of his heroes or heroines; tragedy has no place in his writing. All of this makes his fiction perfect escapism, a kind of literary comfort food, a guilty pleasure. Yes, we know life will never be like that really, but it's fun to pretend for a while."
The Demon Breed is an old favourite which I had read two or three times before, but I was pleased for an excuse to read it again when it was chosen as a monthly read for the Classic Science Fictiondiscussion group. My copy of this short novel is included in one of the series of anthologies of the author's work, edited by Eric Flint and published by Baen in 2001, in which it is listed as part of the Nile Etland saga, the other story in this group being the novella, Trouble Tide. Although I've had this book on my shelf for a while, I discovered that I'd never read the novella, so I decided to tackle that first.
Trouble Tide is set on the remote colony world of Nandy-Cline, whose economy largely depends on products from "sea beef"; huge, genetically modified hippos that live in the sea and are farmed by rival biochemical companies. Dr Nile Etland is a scientist in charge of the laboratory for one of the companies, highly intelligent and competent. She also happens to be an attractive young woman. In this story, she works closely with the equally capable Danrich Parrol, the general manager of the operation, with the aid of a pair of giant mutated sea-otters who are intelligent and able to use simple language. They investigate some troubling developments concerning the farmers who work for their company; an entire pack of a native sea-animals had been killed, and shortly afterwards the number of sea beef also showed a dramatic decline. Etland and Parrol race against time in a scientific detective hunt to discover what is happening, a chase resulting in various twists, turns and unexpected developments, during which they uncover evidence of skulduggery and experience some dramatic developments themselves. Typically for Schmitz, there is no hint of any romantic attachment between Etland and Parrol (or anyone else, for that matter), they are just colleagues who can depend on each other.
The Demon Breed is set on the same planet and also stars Nile Etland, although Danrich Parrol has only a small part to play in the conclusion of this story. This time, the other principal character is Ticos Cay, an elderly scientist who has marooned himself on one of the huge, floating islands of vegetation that dot the oceans of Nandy-Cline, in order to focus on life-extension research. The story begins with his capture by alien Parahuans who had secretly occupied some of the islands as a preliminary to invading the planet, the start of their revenge for losing an earlier war with the human Federation of the Hub. He discovers that the Parahuans had developed a theory that the humans had won only because they were secretly led by a small number of supermen called Tuvelas, and he tries to encourage this belief to discourage them from invading. He convinces them that one of the Tuvelas is present on Nandy-Cline in the form of Nile Etland, who as it happens is on her way to check on Ticos Cay's progress. What follows is a fast-paced, high-tension and hugely enjoyable thriller as Etland uses all of her mental and physical agility (plus some otters) to wage psychological warfare on the Parahuans.
This is more than just a fun story, though. Towards the end, in quite a long wrap-up sequence, Schmitz unusually makes explicit what has previously been only in the background: that the humans were successful because the Federation Overgovernment deliberately took a minimalist role, leaving it to individuals and communities to manage themselves including fighting crime. As he admits, the results were often unfair and cruel to individuals, but the outcome was a strong sense of self-reliance and individual responsibility, generating a flexibility of response and an all-round competence that gave humans an important advantage over more centrally-managed cultures like the Parahuans. A traditional American attitude, I suspect not likely to be shared by most Europeans!
These stories are so entertaining and gripping that I read both of them straight through in one evening without a break, 210 pages in total, and enjoyed every minute of it.