The Universe Against Her by James H. Schmitz
Ace Science Fiction, 1964
Price I paid: 90¢
Meet TELZEY AMBERDON
She’s one in a billion. She’s brilliant, charming, beautiful, and a high-level genius. She’s also the most powerful latent telepath the Psychology Service has ever discovered. That’s why the Service is keeping a very close watch on her: fully developed, Telzey’s Talent could prove disasterous for the Service’s plans for the future development of galactic civilization. If Telzey gives so much as a telepathic sneeze the “psionic traffic cop” they’ve implanted in her head will blow the whistle!
For Telzey the answer is obvious: join the Service and enjoy both its protection and its not inconsiderable assistance. But she’s an independent sort, a person who wants to go her own way in her own time. That’s why she has
THE UNIVERSE AGAINST HER
Okay so it’s not just that this book is about a complete Mary Sue character. It’s not just that the back of the book makes this book out to be a lot more dramatic than it actually is. And it’s not just that the cover makes it seem like a better title for this book would have been Bored Girl Meets Colorful Cat. Yes, all of these flaws exist, but I think the worst thing about this book is that it keeps talking about how insanely attractive the main character is while glossing over the fact that she’s fifteen. It mentions this fact one time, right after saying that she’s “Not at all bad looking.”
Is it just me, or is that creepy as hell? This may be sexist of me, but I’m gonna straight up say that that seems so super creepy to me because this book has a male author.
The other thing about this book is that it really goes out of its way to have a “strong female protagonist.” I read an essay by somebody somewhere that really made a good point about how calling out a character for being both strong and female is a pretty sexist thing to do. After all, you’re saying that this character is not remarkable because she is smart, sassy, or strong, but because she is female. Having a strong character is great. It’s almost required for a decent story. But saying that she’s remarkable for being strong is like saying “It’s so great that she overcame her sex.”
I guess I’m being a little unfair, though. This book did do a good job of never making it seem like this girl was remarkable just because she was overcoming her inherent sexual weakness. She was just a character who happened to be a girl. I guess that makes it a little bit more okay, but she wasn’t an especially good character because she didn’t have any kind of weakness at all. It was like the author wanted to make sure that he would never be called out on sexism by making the girl at all vulnerable and therefore interesting.
The girl in question is Telzey Amberdon. She’s supposed to be completely remarkable because she’s got the whole package. She’s smart, she’s attractive, she’s strong, and she’s a telepath. She doesn’t know about the telepath thing at the beginning of the book. The first third or so of the novel is an almost separate story that involves her learning about her abilities, specifically the fact that she’s a “xenotelepath” with the ability to mentally communicate with alien species. Apparently that’s pretty rare, even for telepaths. So yeah, she’s awesome.
She’s also the daughter of a government worker and a banker, so she’s got money and influence thanks to her parents. She’s a second-year student in a prestigious law school. Everything’s definitely coming up Telzey. And the beginning of the book she’s on vacation with her aunt on the planet of Jontarou. She also has her cat, Tick-Tock, whose name was occasionally shortened to TT. I guess that’s the cat that’s supposed to be represented on the cover of the book. Tick-Tock is also pretty remarkable. He has the ability to shift his colors to the point of being nearly invisible. This is important.
See, Telzey starts getting messages in her head. She doesn’t know what’s going on at first but all indications seem to lead toward it being from Tick-Tock and things like him. She does some research on these cats and finds out that there was once a large population of them on this planet but they were nearly wiped out due to some kind of hunting tradition. Some guy tries to come take Tick-Tock away but she avoids him through cunning and derring-do, whereupon she learns that these invisible cats are everywhere. Through her remarkable abilities she begins to communicate with them and learns that they are a sapient species. Because under the Articles of the Federation of the Hub a sapient species has certain rights, she communicates this fact to the government and everything works out just fine. The book is now a third over.
We and Telzey have now learned that she has powerful psychic abilities. The government has an interest in people with these abilities, so they capture her briefly on her way home and implant what the back of the book calls a “psionic traffic cop” and what I call a “conscience.” See, once Telzey learned about her powers she immediately started using them for what I consider heinous acts. Her aunt that I mentioned starts off the book as a pretty unsympathetic character. She’s a bit of a bully and likes to call out Telzey on her genius, saying it makes her unstable. I think she might have a point there, because Telzey uses her mind powers to modify her aunt’s personality. She makes her a bit more nice and pleasant to be around. Isn’t that grand?
IT IS NOT
I don’t know about you, but I put a lot of thought into things like this. I tend to take for granted that the human mind, no matter how reprehensible the human might be, is a sacred thing. In a universe with psychic powers, the idea of going into someone’s brain and tinkering around so they suit your purposes is just a little bit on the horrifying side. If Telzey had somehow used her powers in an indirect way to teach her aunt a lesson about bullying that would be one thing. I’d get behind that. But just waiting for her to drop her guard and then going in and switching things around is just an atrocity to me.
The book never treats it like one, though. If anything it’s played for amusement value. To me, it’s just a little bit less than outright murdering a person and replacing them with a lookalike. Maybe I think about this too much, but I certainly would never want somebody to think “I bet Thomas would be a lot more manageable with a different personality. Let’s just go in there without his consent and cross some wires.”
So after this bit the book shifts in plot. Telzey goes back to Law School and we meet a friend of hers, Gonwil. Gonwil is an older student and has a great big dog.
Giant cats and dogs all up in this universe.
Oh and incidentally Tick-Tock stayed back with his cat people. My hopes that Balzan would show up were dashed.
So back at school we enter the bit of the book that seems like an episode of Veronica Mars but with psychic powers and no redeeming elements. Gonwil has a bit of a problem: her dog acted up one day. Since the dogs of her planet are sworn protectors this seems like a problem, I guess. No chalking this up to “It saw a squirrel.” Telzey’s solution is to go into the dog’s head and sort out its memories until figuring out what it saw that got it so weirded out. The artificial conscience acts up a bit at this, but she decides to brute force her way past it in a way that I can’t help but view as symbolic for the nature of sociopathy.
What she finds is that somebody is trying to kill Gonwil. Her planet has a tradition of “private war,” which is basically a way of saying sanctioned murder for personal benefit. I guess it goes both ways, though. Gonwil’s family is super rich and Gonwil herself is the heir to the fortune once she turns 19 because her parents are dead. She’s got a cousin, Marlue Parlin, who is nominally her guardian. Marlue wants Gonwil to marry her son because that means that the fortune will then pass to that side of the family. Gonwil isn’t interested in this kid, so it looks like murder has become the only option.
A note on how the story in this book was told. It was a series of exposition dumps. A clue would happen, Telzey would investigate it, and then a cascade of information would result. The investigation step was usually something as basic as going to the library or asking her dad.
And despite the name of the book, at no point does it seem like the “universe” is “against” Telzey. Everybody cooperates with her quite willingly because she’s so smart and pretty. She has a problem with such-and-such? Her dad fixes it. Some other problem? Ask mom! Oh no the psychic police don’t like what she’s doing? A big smile will solve that and get them on her side!
Nobody at any point says “No, you can’t do this. Leave it to the professionals. You are fifteen.” Nobody tries to stop her from doing anything. She at no point faces any adversity. If the universe is against anybody, it’s Gonwil, since after all a person she thought loved her is trying to kill her and take her family fortune. Poor Gonwil is the real hero of this book.
The actual murder attempt finally happens. Some dude that Marlue hired tries to use a mind-control device on her dog so that the dog will attack and kill Gonwil. That’s actually pretty clever, since it’s a gigantic fierce guard dog. It’s the classic “make the gun shoot backward” approach.
The problem for Telzey and Gonwil is that the would-be assassin, despite being stopped by Telzey’s powers, has a “mind block” that effectively renders him useless as a witness. The mind block makes it so that no psychic computer—I guess I forgot to mention that there are psychic computers—will be able to read who hired him or why. This holds true for Telzey as well. She can’t get a read.
It’s later revealed that Marlue and her family also have mind blocks that keep all information about this little scheme from being read in their minds. So Telzey can’t use her powers to bring them to justice.
Or can she? She’s got a plan! A completely amoral plan!
See, you know who doesn’t have a mind block? The dog, obviously! So here’s an idea: what if we implant a false memory into the dog. Then we get the dog to have its mind scanned by a psychic computer, which will then see that Marlue is behind all this and she’ll get arrested! Isn’t that great!
I’m serious! Telzey just straight up creates false evidence so that Marlue can be brought to justice. Sure, she obviously did it anyway, so the ends justify the means, right?
I really don’t think they do.
The book essentially ends there. What would have been a really appropriate ending would have been Telzey standing atop a mountain of psychic skulls screaming I AM NOW YOUR GOD QUEEN BOW TO ME and then she would psychically force everyone to bow to her because she can and then everybody would say that it’s okay because she’s so PRETTY AND SMART
So really the most remarkable and actually good thing about this book is that it doesn’t really matter that Telzey is a girl. You could have switched up the sex of the protagonist and I would have hated it just the same. A smart, handsome, amoral boy psychic wouldn’t have been any more unlikable than the one we got. I’m actually going to chalk that up as a victory on the author’s part. Good job, James H. Schmitz.
This book was absolutely nothing like I was promised. These psychic cops barely make an appearance, and then it’s only to put a mental psychic cop in Telzey’s head that is supposed to help her use her powers responsibly. This thing is then viewed as a minor inconvenience, just like concepts of ethics and morality.
Maybe the reason the universe is against her is because it’s allowing her to grow up thinking that the things she does are okay. Like a “spare the rod, spoil the child” kind of thing. Other than that, it really didn’t make any sense. This girl has everything going for her. Everybody supports her schemes and ideas, and presumably if they didn’t she could just mind-wipe them until they did. She has that ability. She can do whatever she wants. Nobody can stop her.
This is the first in a series about Telzey. I have book two around here somewhere, so I’ll probably read it. I’m actually curious as to whether or not this girl becomes a productive member of society. It really looks like she won’t. She’s a spoiled brat with incredible psychic abilities.
Remember that Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” or the short story by Jerome Bixby that it’s based on? I think this series will eventually just turn into that. Let’s find out!
2 thoughts on “The Universe Against Her”
Wow. This sounds incredibly horrifying. This girl seems to goes straight pass Mary Sue and right into Ubermensch territory, where her’s is the only morality which matters. Which might actually be an interesting premise, were it intentional.
Telzey is pretty much Nancy Drew with psychic powers. I found the stories a fun, quick read.