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Schmitz, James H. - The Witches of Karres

I recently talked smillaraaq into reading this old favorite of mine, so it seemed like a good time to re-read it myself. This cheerful, comic space opera from the 1960s has no ax to grind and no pretenses of presenting anything but a cracking good time. However, it's strangely modern in its near-disregard of the sex-role stereotyping of its era. Most notably, our square-chinned young male protagonist spends most of the story depending on the skills, common sense, and knowledge of an 11-year-old girl - whose mother is also presented as a force to be respected.

Gallant but impecunious young Captain Pausert of the planetary Republic of Nikkeldepain (a place that sounds as though it's run by the descendants of Michael Bloomberg's arm of the GOP) has been given one last chance to redeem himself financially in the eyes of both his government and his secret fiancee's father. He's been given an aged starship and a cargo of leftover bits and pieces to sell, and turned loose on a trading mission. Things are going splendidly when he hits the planet of Porlumma, part of a classic space opera Empire where slavery is is legal, and encounters three enslaved young sisters - Maleen, Goth, and the Leewit (yes, the Leewit), ages 14, 11, and 6 - in need of rescuing. Good-hearted Pausert does so, at considerable cost and personal risk (slavery is illegal on Nikkeldepain), and even volunteers to take the girls back to their mysterious home planet, Karres.

He probably should have thought harder about the fact that the owners of the girls are only too happy to sell them off.

Soon Pausert is on the lam, wanted on his home planet and in the Empire, traveling to the far side of the galaxy with Goth as his advisor and becoming involved in interstellar politics on a grand scale. He learns (and we do too) about the ill-omened Chaladoor, a huge, forbidding section of space traversed only by the bold and the foolhardy; Uldune, an entire planet of successful interstellar crooks; Worm World, a noxious place inhabited by the Nuri Worms, whose activities turn the skies of planets yellow and cause their inhabitants to run screaming mad; the dread Agandar, a pirate lord of all-too-serious competence; psychic entities called vatches, which think that they are dreaming the lives of more corporeal beings; Sheem robots; Moander who Speaks with a Thousand Voices; the Megair Cannibals; grik-dogs; and much much more. It's a heady, frothy concoction that still manages to build to a genuinely scary climax that leaves the reader glad for the eventual happy ending.

It's the perfect companion to a cup of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies on a cold winter day. Read it. It will make you smile, as it has for me on every re-read since I was Goth's age.


The Witches of Karres (review)

I tried to pay particular attention to the whole sex role thing this time, and I'm still convinced that Schmitz was amazingly, modernly liberal about this. It's not that his female characters never use stereotypical female behavior - notably, both the wicked ship outfitter Sunnat and the Imperial double agent Hulik do Eldel certainly do so - but that's the point: these women are using their feminine wiles, deliberately. Schmitz never presents this as the default, unavoidable mode of female behavior. Goth is never less than a full partner, and when Pausert and crew are fleeing across the planet of the red sun, it's Hulik who manages to be useful and resourceful, and the experienced male spacedog Vezzarn who chickens out and betrays the party. And although Pausert is the one who figures out how to exploit the energies of the giant vatch, the strange creature has already been traumatized by Toll, the mother of the three juvenile witches.

This is not lofty, skillful worldbuilding. Schmitz clearly never worries about how exactly the normal interstellar drives of this universe function, what's the basis for the ecology for any of the various planets, why the sky looks yellow whenever the Nuris show up, or anything like that. People still drink coffee and smoke cigarettes, and when Hulik needs an analogy for the size of the Sheem robot, she references a horse. Some of the technology described has gone the way of all things already: star charts are in some form that supports scribbling in the margins, vault doors are still opened with keys, and computers don't seem to exist. None of it really matters much: the plot rollicks along in a way that makes worrying about these details feel like mere ass-hattery, and the writing is snappy and sparkles with deadpan humor. Here, for example, Pausert seeks some reassurance that their new business contacts won't rip them off:

"[W]hat makes you think we won't get robbed blind there?"

"They're not crooks that way - at least not often. The Daal goes for the skinning-alive thing," Goth explained. "You get robbed, you squawk. Then somebody gets skinned. It's pretty safe!"

It did sound like the Daal had hit on a dependable method to give his planet a reputation for solid integrity in business deals.

I suppose I should be worrying about how many innocent people are inadvertently skinned alive by the Daal's government each year, not to mention whether anyone plans to do anything about the Empire's deplorable practice of slavery. But the Witches have moved their planet again - using the Sheewash Drive: "The one you have to do it with yourself," to quote the irrespressible Leewit. They're fighting the Nuris amidst the dead suns of the Tark Nembi Cluster, and I've got to get back in time to see the Venture arrive with the Synergizer.

To quite Dave Langford's review in Ansible: "Abandon moral uplift, all ye who enter here."


ETA: This post has turned into a hu-u-u-uge spam magnet for some reason, so I am turning off the ability to comment.


Mar. 3rd, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
However, it's strangely modern in its near-disregard of the sex-role stereotyping of its era

And for that matter, I can think of plenty of more contempoary writers that still fall down in comparison!

The bit that I found particularly noteworthy was where Hulik reported seeing a monster on the ship; when the search turned up no evidence but she insisted on taking precautions anyway, there was not one sniffy word about her reactions being typical female hysteria...and of course she's vindicated later, there was something there! And later on after planetfall, she's the one who keeps a level head in the face of grave physical danger, while a gruff older male character is the one who panics and runs...

Apparently there was a sequel by Mercedes Lackey and a couple of collaborators four years ago...have you seen it, is it any good?
Mar. 4th, 2008 04:58 am (UTC)

I've been terrified to try The Wizard of Karres because the original WoK means so much to me. I respect Mercedes Lackey for what her work has meant to gay geeky teens, but I don't think much of her as a writer, and the fact that it's a three-person collaboration does not fill me with confidence. I suppose if I can convince myself that it's basically a novel-length piece of fanfic, I might be able to eventually give it a shot ... .

Mar. 4th, 2008 06:33 am (UTC)
*nod* I've only ever read one ML and I don't think it was one of her more typical works at all -- it was an early-1900s San Francisco setting and started out playing more like a historical romance, with the penniless but bright orphaned young lady getting a too-good-to-be-true job as secretary to a wealthy eccentric. It winds up being a sort of Beauty and the Beast retelling, though, her employer's a sorceror caught up in a magical war -- entertaining enough, although not to the point where I felt any urge to rush out to look for more. Most of her more typical high-fantasy and YA stuff sounds like I'd have eaten it up with a spoon if I'd found it as a child, but it's probably a bit too twee and overwrought for me to deal with now.

Speaking of genre fic recs, have you read any of Joan Vinge's "Cat" books? I picked those up on freeradical9's suggestion, that world is the basis for her "Psion" SF Saiyuki AU -- the protagonist is so painfully much like the scrappy-survivor street kid side of Gojyo, only even more ill-used...
Mar. 5th, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)

I know we have one of the Vinge Cat books around, and I must have read it, but I'm not recalling that much of it. I probably ought to dig it out again.

Vinge is one of those writers I want to love, but there's just something slightly lame about her that makes me cringe. Have you read The Snow Queen?

Mar. 5th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
I don't think I ever read TSQ, or if I did it was so long ago it's utterly fled my mind.

Of the Cat books, the second one, Catspaw is the best. I've got a spare copy of the first book now...I loved them enough after finishing the series that I went ahead and bought a recently-published anniversary edition because it included a short side story that wasn't in the original printing. Supposedly she's got a fourth book in the works -- I'm really hoping that pans out and there's finally a happy ending of sorts, because that poor boy's been through the wringer time and again.

(Getting all three titles at once via BookMooch, each from different publishers, cover artists, etc, also points up a rather odd case of cover whitewashing. Look up the different covers Psion, Catspaw, and Dreamfall have had over the years...now, how many of those show a character that you'd expect to see repeatedly described as having "dark" or "brown" skin and curly white-blond hair? (The messy spikes on Catspaw at least fit the text, where it's mentioned that he's briefly styled his hair like that -- but by Dreamfall he's wearing it long enough that at one point it's combed out and pinned into a topknot, but the cover's still showing short-and-spiky...and a complexion even paler than mine...)
Mar. 6th, 2008 06:53 pm (UTC)

See, I guess I don't have the temperament to be a real cover artist because if it were me, the first thing I would do would be to page through the book for all the descriptions I could find of the significant characters, and then thrash my brain trying to make sure I included as many identifying characteristics as I could. But I guess that's not how the real cover artists do it!!!


I think that's why so many C.J. Cherryh fans worship Michael Whelan - on his Cherryh covers, he's obviously paid close attention to her descriptions. (But he's not above using himself as a model when he fit the description of a character ... on the cover for The Pride of Chanur, he used himself as Tully - the human in the middle.)

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Mar. 12th, 2008 01:49 am (UTC)
If you have never read Schmitz's The Universe Against Her (1964), I have very fond memories of its teenage protagonist Telzey Amberdon and her relationship with large invisible cats. And on that note I also recommend Vinge's Psion, Catspaw, Dreamfall, although they read (like Doris Egan's Ivory books) like an open-ended series that someone abruptly put the kibosh on. There's a novella, "Psiren," that takes place between the first two novels, but I've never seen anything post-Dreamfall.
Mar. 12th, 2008 02:47 am (UTC)
The intro in the 20th-anniversary reprint of Psion says she's got plots in mind for three or four more Cat books. Apparently Vinge has had chronic health issues -- fibromyalgia and the aftereffects of a car accident -- that have put her writing on hold for the last few years, so she's probably got a lot of backburnered plotbunnies to catch up on now.

I've got a few more JHS books in transit to me right now -- A Tale of Two Clocks and Agent of Vega. Just added TUAH to the wishlist, thanks for the rec!
Mar. 12th, 2008 03:24 am (UTC)
The intro in the 20th-anniversary reprint of Psion says she's got plots in mind for three or four more Cat books.

Thanks! I didn't even realize the anniversary reprint existed; I discovered (and later acquired) "Psiren" in her collection Phoenix in the Ashes (1985).

Apparently Vinge has had chronic health issues -- fibromyalgia and the aftereffects of a car accident -- that have put her writing on hold for the last few years, so she's probably got a lot of backburnered plotbunnies to catch up on now.

Yikes. I am glad she's recovering.
Mar. 12th, 2008 03:35 am (UTC)
I only just picked up the anniversary edition a week or two ago -- I'd snagged the earlier editions from BookMooch last year, loved them enough that I went hunting to see if there were any more Cat stories, and picked up this reprint just for the sake of getting the novella, not realizing at the time the main text was also changed -- I'm looking forward to seeing if it makes for a more satisfying read than the rather disjointed YA version.
Mar. 12th, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC)

I read Novice, the first of the big cat stories (about Telzey and her first revelation that her companion Tick-Tock, a/k/a TT, was something more than "just" an animal) in the lovely collection Tomorrow's Children at about the age of 11. That introduced me to a number of great authors, including Zenna Henderson, Fritz Leiber, and Clifford Simak. I didn't like the rest of the Telzey stories as much, and couldn't get into many of his other stories at all, which made me very sad!

I'll have to see if I can figure out which of the Cat books we have already. We have to clear out a lot of stuff in our basement anyway, and that's where the rec room and its Big Bookcase o' misc. SF&F is (fancy hardbacks of SF&F also live in the living room, and my favorites live upstairs in the little special bookcase in our bedroom).


Mar. 13th, 2008 08:33 am (UTC)
I'm halfway through the un-Bowdlerized version of Psion...ye gods, what a huge, huge difference, whoever gutted the first edition of that book should be taken out and shot! If the book you turn up is a version of Psion published before 1996, Do Not Bother -- ditch it and get the real version, it's ever so much better.
Mar. 13th, 2008 10:47 am (UTC)
Hmmmm. Now I'm really, really starting to wonder if this might be part of why TWOK felt strangely familiar when I didn't recognize any of the characters or plot twists; this talk of intelligent, giant invisible cats seems naggingly familiar, like something I think I might have back in third grade or so -- I distinctly remember a bit where I was walking home from school, which helps me pin down the timeframe, and was livening up the dull walk by imagining I had a giant invisible cat walking alongside me! I don't remember where I got the idea from, but anthologies of 60s SF were definitely in the libraries and finding their way into my hands by that point...
Mar. 14th, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC)

Ahhh, perhaps! Yes, teenaged Telzey is a law student staying with her ditzy aunt, who introduces Telzey to a slimy guy who turns out to be interested in TT in all the wrong ways. The resolution of the problem is fun and unexpected. Any of that sounds familiar?

Mar. 14th, 2008 09:32 pm (UTC)
Not particularly -- but "giant, intelligent, invisible cat" really doesn't feel like the sort of thing I'd have cooked up completely on my own, and little details in that memory are telling me that if there was outside influence, it would have been something read before third grade at the absolute latest. And my mind at that age, especially something only read once or twice in a library, definitely would have latched on to "cool magical animal" over any of the more realistic human details. :)
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