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