Saturday 16 November 2013

Trouble Tide, and The Demon Breed, by James H Schmitz

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 Fiction
discussion 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.


Bill Garthright said...

I haven't read "Trouble Tide," Tony. I'll have to track it down, because I love The Demon Breed.

Re. the ending, that kind of thinking is so common in American science fiction - indeed, in American society - that I hardly even noticed. It is, certainly, the kind of thing many Americans like to think about themselves. It's not true, not when it comes to modern life here in America, but it's a cherished myth here.

No, what struck me about the ending was how the government downplayed the whole attack, apparently worried that fear and anger would get human beings into a warlike, anti-alien mode. Instead of taking advantage of the attack for political gain, as we'd see - as we have seen - today, the government was worried about riling up its own citizens.

Indeed, part of that was giving the citizens of Nandy-Cline far more credit for repelling the attack than they really deserved. The overall government deliberately encouraged the locals to think that it was all their doing.

But I didn't think it was to foster self-reliance and individual responsibility, but rather to keep human society from the kind of response we saw from America after 9/11, the fear and anger that causes people to strike out without really worrying about what response is really justified - and who's really to blame (and who isn't).

The Federation Overgovernment deliberately downplayed the attack in order to prevent a jihad. It was more worried about its own people than about the aliens who'd attacked them, worried that the attack might encourage a militaristic human society which would start waging war on its neighbors.

And that seemed to be the lesson other aliens took from this, too - that they'd better beware of rousing that kind of response from the humans. I thought this was very interesting.

The overgovernment was actually managing human society by pretending to be less active than it was. It let the locals believe that they were self-reliant and competent (when many of them were shown to be hopelessly superstitious), because that kept the locals happy and prevented further war - not because it was necessarily true.

Indeed, is there just a hint here that the Tuvela hypothesis might not be entirely crazy? Human leaders were manipulating their whole society more than the average person suspected.

Anthony G Williams said...

Some very good observations, as always Bill!

All in all, it shows more depth in Schmitz's thinking than the rather plain and straightforward writing style might suggest.