James H. Schmitz’s 1964 The Universe Against Her is a fix-up and expansion of the novelette Novice (1962) and the novella Undercurrents (1964).
Telzey Amberdon is a bright, fifteen-year-old second-year law student at the prestigious Pehanron College on Orado. Unfortunately for her, Telzey is not currently on Orado. She is on Jontarou, visiting her least-lovable aunt, Halet. Halet is full of saccharine spite; she has plans for her excessively intellectual niece.
Halet is not the only person in whose schemes Telzey features.
Telzey has a beloved pet, the crest cat Tick-Tock. The pair have been inseparable since Telzey first met Tick-Tock as a kitten. Halet’s malice leads her to attack Tick-Tock.
Crest cats are, as far as anyone knows, extinct in the wild on Jontarou. Conservation laws mandate relocating remnant endangered species to the Life Banks, where they will be preserved in a zoo. By drawing attention of the Life Banks bureaucracy to Tick-Tock, Halet can cost Telzey her pet while claiming to serve the greater good.
Telzey uses her legal training to verify the existence of the conservation regulation … as well as to identify various loopholes that Telzey can use to stall the case for decades.
But even more significant is the fact that crest cats are not extinct; they’ve only gone into hiding. They are more than large, smart predators with amazing powers of camouflage; they’re also intelligent beings with prodigious psionic powers. Now they’re figuring out what they’re going to do about the troublesome humans infesting their world. They see two choices: either humans recognize crest cats as an intelligent people with human legal status and rights, or the surprisingly numerous cats will wipe humans off Jontarou.
Telepathic contact with the crest cat’s intimidating leader, Iron Thoughts, has amplified Telzey’s rudimentary psi talent. She is now what the Federation of the Hub’s Psychology Service deem a Class Two psi. Where Class Ones have single, well-defined talents, Class Twos can in theory develop every possible psionic ability. The Psychology Service has a keen interest in Class Twos, both as potential resources and as potential threats.
The Psychology Service is quite aware of Telzey, who made use of her expanded talents to rewrite her aunt’s mind to be less evil. Having their own team of psionic agents, they imbued Telzey with a geas against abusing her talents, then left Telzey free to get on with her law degree.
Telzey’s close friend Gonwil Lodis is a wealthy orphan, almost old enough to have legal control of her finances. Coming as she does from Tayun, a world whose colourful customs the Federation of the Hub has yet to mitigate, the principle effect of Gonwil’s impending age of majority is to paint a giant target on her head. If Gonwil were to die before coming of age, her money would be transferred to closest living relatives, the Parlins.
Gonwil refuses to believe that the Parlins could have evil intentions; they’re her kin! Telzey has come to a very different conclusion. Assisted by her father, Telzey has discovered that those who come between Malrue Parlin and money have very short life expectancies. Since the plans to marry Gonwil to Malrue’s son have come to naught, Gonwil is now an impediment.
Malrue has a cunning plan but not one that takes into account the possibility that Gonwil’s closest friend might be a very well-connected, highly intelligent Class Two psionic.
Generally, I liked Schoenherr covers but this is not one of his better efforts.
The edition I first owned was the later inoffensive but also unremarkable Durke.
Surprisingly, while the German cover isn’t great, it is not as terrible as one expects from the Germans.
Some will like the rather Miyazaki-esque Japanese cover, although for some reason brunette Telzey is depicted as a red-head and not a brunette.
The Federation of the Hub loosely governs a thousand stellar systems with a total human population of six hundred billion. It has sweeping (and poorly defined) powers, but in practice has only loose control of the member worlds. As a consequence, evil-doers can get away with quite a lot right up to the moment they attract the attention of someone with Hub connections. At that point an entirely different set of rules come into play.
(The Watsonian explanation is that creating the Federation of the Hub out of a thousand independent worlds required compromises; centuries of history have only made matters murkier. The Doylist explanation is the enforceable rules are whatever Schmitz needs to move the story along.)
A side effect of being vast and poorly documented is that citizens of the Hub spend more time than you might expect explaining the minutiae of the Hub to each other. Given that the book is quite short — 160 pages — this as-you-know-Bobbing takes up space the book can ill afford.
Having last read this series decades ago, I forgot or overlooked that the detail that most annoyed me about Telzey, her habit of developing new powers as the plot requires, was in fact built into the series almost from day one.
As for the talents, anything a Class One can do, the Class Two who has developed the same line does better; and he’s almost never restricted to a specialty, or even to two or three specialties. In that respect, his talent corresponds more closely to normal human faculties and acquired skills.
This is very convenient for the author. As it happens, however, while Telzey’s powers are very useful for her, she relies almost as much on being very smart and on being connected to powerful people not over-concerned with ethical niceties when they get in the way of a higher cause. This is probably an apt moment to warn people who don’t care to see guilty people framed that they won’t care for some elements of this book.
The most remarkable aspect of these two adventures, given when the stories were written and where they first appeared, is that not only is Telzey herself as smart and capable as any man (more so than most), smart and capable women are commonplace in the Federation of the Hub. Telzey’s mother Jessamine is a Federation Councilwoman, while antagonist Malrue is a capable businesswoman who has filled graveyards with rivals who underestimated her.
The Universe Against Her is out of print; used copies, however, are available and usually cheap.