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The Houses of the Kzinti by Larry Niven

Cover by Larry Elmore

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Houses of the Kzinti is a compilation of stories from the first three volumes of the Man-Kzin Wars anthology series, in which Larry Niven opened one carefully-defined period of his Known Space universe to other authors. The three stories in this volume are all written by authors who had already established their professional reputations, although some of the later volumes have also featured stories by relatively new authors. As the title suggests, all these stories deal with the kzinti at home and look into their domestic arrangements rather than merely viewing them as humanity's relentless and often vicious enemies.

The first two stories, "Cathouse" and "Briar Patch," both written by Dean Ing, deal with the same major characters and locales, but are distinct enough that they have been presented separately as they were originally published. Both deal with Locklear, a quiet and unassuming etholgist (specialist in animal behavior) who was supposed to be traveling away from the war zone when the Fourth Man-Kzin War broke out.. Suddenly the ship was attacked by a kzin warship, leaving him the only survivor and captive of kzinti who were certain that he had to be some kind of a secret agent.

But they had more pressing duties in the new war, so rather than try to squeeze him for information, they decide to strand him on a mysterious planet that an unknown alien race turned into a sort of zoo. Although the planet itself is quite uninhabitable, the aliens equipped it with a number of micro-environments surrounded by cylindrical force-walls extending all the way up to space, thus avoiding a visible dome overhead to clue the inhabitants in to the artificial nature of the environment.

Or that's what Locklear thinks is the intention, if anybody were home. Not only have the alien architects of Zoo (whom he surmises to have been the mysterious Outsiders) vanished, but the environment in which he has been stranded is empty of anything but plant life. No animals, not even insects -- or rather their equivalent, since this is most decidedly not Earthlike vegetation around him. Far from it, the oranges and reds almost certainly hearken from the kzin homeworld, particularly given that the gravity here is noticeably higher than Earth-normal.

After some very careful testing he locates the leash device that the kzinti had planted to restrict his movements and takes it so that he can travel freely about the worldlet instead of being confined to a small area. Thus he locates the cave in which the alien architects of Zoo left the specimens with which they were planning to stock their kzin environment, all in stasis (but a different form of stasis from that created by the Slavers, since the field is transparent, allowing him to see what is in each of the numerous cages). After some careful consideration, he decides to awaken the smallest of the female kzinti.

He is quite surprised to discover that, unlike modern female kzinti, she is fully self-aware and able to use language. Furthermore, Miss Kitty (as he calls her, being quite incapable of pronouncing her kzin name) has a number of remarkable domestic skills and quickly puts them to use in order to create a manor which the other kzinti will respond to as an indication that she and Locklear are the top of the local social hierarchy.

When she awakens two of the other ancient females, ones she recognizes from her old life before the Outsiders snatched her up for their zoo, one turns out to be pregnant. Suddenly Locklear is confronted with the problem of a male kzin soon joining their little company, and the possibility of needing to kill it while it's still too tiny to pose a threat.

But not for long, because the spacegoing kzinti who originally stranded him here are back, and they're looking for trouble. Suddenly Locklear has not only the problem of defeating them, but of whether his feline lady-friends are going to stick with him or back their conspecifics.

"Briar Patch" takes up shortly after the end of "Cathouse," as Locklear takes the kzinti lifeboat he won in honorable combat and heads over to the next-door habitat, one that looks remarkably like Earth. He's hoping to find his own kind there -- or at least a form of humanity close enough that intimacy is possible.

He's happy to discover that the Outsiders seem to have used the same general plan for all their artificial environments, and soon locates the cave in which the specimens are stored. The attractive young woman he first awakens flees in fear, but when he awakens a woman of mature years and clearly Neandertal features, they soon are working together.

In this story Dean Ing develops an interesting theory about the Neandertals and their replacement by modern humans: the Neandertals were telepathic, and as such were particularly vulnerable to pain -- suggesting that not only were they unable to make war among themselves, but they were unable to defend themselves adequately against aggression by modern humans. This telepathy also has a significant effect on the role of sex in their society, one that disrupts Locklear's relationship with Ruth as soon as they awaken more of the Neandertals.

And then they get a surprise visitor -- a spaceship. When it fires upon the Neandertal village, Locklear immediately assumes it's more of the bloodthirsty warcats. But then they land and reveal themselves to be humans. He hurries to let them know that the Neandertals are not kzinti at all, but early humans.

However, the longer he's with his putative rescuers, the more he becomes certain that he's dealing with something not completely above-board. A suspicion they return with interest, which finally reveals the meaning of the title. It's not about Locklears thorny relationship with Ruth, but rather a reference to the old B'rer Rabbit story -- don't throw me in the briar patch.

Except throwing Locklear into the kzin habitat isn't quite the homecoming he had thought it would be. Things have changed during his absence, and not for the better. Somebody let loose those priests and acolytes, and they're imposing their narrow-minded bigotry on the entire community by force. Including death sentences for Locklear's two allies among the kzinti.

Except kzinti are capable of trickery too. Their stern sense of honor may bar them from outright lying, but they regard the creation of appearances contrary to fact as shrewdness, not deceit. Which means a very surprising happy reunion -- which quickly turns bittersweet. But Locklear is no longer the unassuming and rather retiring man he once was -- which is a surprising turnaround for two groups of very serious baddies.

It is interesting to note that the ending of "Briar Patch" leaves the door open for at least one more story about Locklear and his allies on Zoo. However, Dean Ing has since turned his hand almost entirely to technothrillers, so it's probably unlikely that we'll ever find out whether Locklear ever found his way back to human space.

"The Children's Hour" by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling was originally two stories, the second half being titled "The Asteroid Queen" in its original publication. It is set much earlier than the first two stories, during the First Man-Kzin War and specifically the closing days of the occupation of Wunderland, humanity's first extrasolar colony. Those were grim and desperate times, when humanity was still strugglilng to rediscover the arts of war and the UN guardians of that precious knowledge doled it out with terrible reluctance.

Worse, the kzinti seem to be developing some actual strategy, beyond the basic feline "scream and leap." Who is this Alexander the Great, this Robert E. Lee, this Mikhail Tukhachevsky who's driving this quantum leap in military thinking? The UN's intelligence agencies trace it back by means never quite explained to Wunderland and specifically to its occupation governor, Chuut-Riit. A member of the Patriarch's family (the kzinti equivalent of royalty), he's a noted military thinker with two books on strategy and tactics of interstellar warfare to his credit. Worse, he's actually teaching his subordinates his innovative theories and they're learning.

The UN's verdict is pretty similar to what the US decided about Admiral Yamamoto in World War II: his military skill is of such value to his people's war effort that it is the equivalent of many ordinary assets, and if he can be eliminated, it may well make the difference between victory and defeat. And harsh as the Japanese were in victory, it was still nothing compared to the routine brutality of kzinti toward their slaves, especially those with compatible biochemistry. Kzinti evolved from a predator that filled an ecological niche equivalent to the big cats of Earth, and like them are obligate carnivores, requiring large amounts of meat to fuel their massive bodies. And since they regard only their own species as being truly people, the line between "slave" and "livestock" is very blurred indeed.

Obvious though the theory of removing Chuut-Riit may be, accomplishing it is far more complicated than locating Yamamoto's plane and shooting it down. For starters, Chuut-Riit is on a planet four light-years away from Earth. Just getting there will take the fastest military ramscoop ship years, and then there's the problem of getting the agents onto Wunderland and into a position where they can actually bring about the target's death. It takes a very daring raid which is almost entirely a sleight-of-hand distraction to keep the kzinti defenders of Wunderland busy long enough to get their agents in -- and even then they have to rely upon an iffy copy of a piece of technology from an ancient race.

And of course the battle plan is always the first casualty of contact with the enemy. Jason and Ingrid were supposed to go to Wunderland immediately upon their daring braking maneuver through the photosphere of Alpha Centauri A (incorrectly called just Alpha Centuri -- Alpha Centuri B is continually called Beta Centauri, which is a completely different star light-years away). Instead they end up in the Serpent Swarm, the Centauri asteroid belt, and have to connect with Ulf Reichstein-Markham, commandant of the Free Wunderland Navy, in order to finally get their way to Wunderland proper.

Interspersed with the scenes of our doughty human secret agents are scenes of the domestic life of Chuut-Riit, who proves to be not only a brilliant strategist and tactician, but an attentive father to his hundreds of sons. Since female kzinti are nearly mindless, male kittens are customarily removed from their care shortly after weaning and begin their training to make them into proper Heroes. Chuut-Riit has equipped his children's creche with the best equipment to train both their bodies and their minds, and regularly visits them to offer instruction of his own. A situation that offers an opportunity for a truly horrific and Oedipal method of assassination.

And that's just the first half. The second half, which was originally written as a sequel to the first, takes up as the kzinti occupation government reacts to the loss of this prince of the Patriarchy. Not everybody among the leadership approves of the innovations Chuut-Riit introduced, and it's not long before these proud and fierce warriors fall to fighting among themselves about who is going to be his successor, and what faction's position will succeed.

But the civil war that erupts among the kzinti is almost a sideshow to what's going on out in the Serpent Swarm. Remember Ulf Markham and the Free Wunderland Navy? It seems one of the rockjacks prospecting among the asteroids has made a most interesting discovery.

And then there's that the stasis field Jason and Ingrid used to enable them to make a braking maneuver that took them right through the outer layers of the system's primary. The one that was originally invented by an ancient race that went extinct before the first multicellular organisms appeared on Earth. Well, the very existence of stasis technology means that their extinction may not have been so complete as it has always been presumed.

Dnivtopun was not a particularly high-ranking thrint, nor a particularly successful one, and in a way of thinking, that was actually to his good. It kept him out of the way of the War when the tnuctipun launched their rebellion. He wasn't the target of a terrorist attack in one of the great thrint cities, nor did he get brain-burn from a sabotaged amplifier helmet. And he even had a plan to get him through the Suicide Time by which his people were going to eliminate the threat of the tnuctipun rebellion once and for all. He had a ship, and he and his household would spend the entire time the suicide command was rebroadcast in stasis.

Except things didn't work quite as well as planned, and the stasis field failed to go off afterward. His ship had floated through the void so long it had managed to accrete an entire asteroid around it.

But now he's free, and as the only adult male thrint he sees the galaxy as his oyster. It's not that hard to suborn humans, even if they haven't been reshaped by generations of selective breeding to be susceptible to the Power as regular slaves are. Soon the arrogant Markham is a willing, even eager Chief Slave of a household of slaves toiling so frantically that they'll even neglect their most basic needs of nutrition and hydration if Dnovtipun doesn't remember to instruct them to feed and water themselves. Slaves toiling to make a new amplifier that will enable Dnovtipun to blanket the entire system with his Power and begin the process of creating a new Thrintun Empire that he and his descendants will rule over forever.

Which means that Jason suddenly has a new mission and gets to discover a whole bunch of very disturbing facts about the history of the human race. For his boss, General Buford Early, is far older than anybody imagines and doesn't just work for the UN, but for the super-secret organization that works behind the scenes and pulls the strings of the UN and its ARM. Think in terms of the Illuminati and the like.

On one hand, it's fascinating to get the deep-time element of ancient civilizations and super-technologies long forgotten. It's interesting to see the parallels between the thrintun and the kzinti -- in both cases, the males are the only fully self-aware members of the species, and the females are barely sentient, and they both have an overwhelming advantage (the telepathic Power for the thrintun and sheer physical size and strength for the kzinti) which has meant less stringent evolutionary pressure toward high intelligence.

On the other, the discovery of a gigantic conspiracy manipulating human history is really creepy, especially the idea that Communism was developed as a self-limiting tyranny. It's sad enough to think that the bloodbath of the Great Terror was the result of a moral panic resulting from the inevitable contradictions of an unworkable theory that couldn't be criticized because it was regarded as scientifically proven, turning good people into guilty people to the point that even saying they'd once been good can be regarded as being an apologist for evil. But to think that it was in fact the result of the callous manipulations of a super-secret cabal that thought they could create a system that would keep humanity tame forever -- it makes me want to go looking for a Louisville Slugger (what is the moral status of desiring to do bodily harm to somebody else's fictional characters supposedly acting to shape actual historical events?)

On the whole, it's a very interesting combination of two of the first major storylines to be developed in the Man-Kzin Wars series.

Table of Contents

  • Cathouse by Dean Ing
  • Briar Patch by Dean Ing
  • The Children's Hour by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling

Review posted August 19, 2010.

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