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The Man-Kzin Wars by Larry Niven, editor

Cover art by Steven Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Here is the first volume in what has become one of the best-known and longest-running science fiction anthology series. In Larry Niven's introduction, we learn the story of how the kzinti came to be, as well as how the series got started.

Like so many prolific writers, Niven started young -- but he didn't start selling right away. Although "The Warriors" was the first story he sent out, it bounced around a lot of markets before it finally found a place. Even after several revisions, the kzinti were still somewhat unformed at this point. But they proved to be a sufficiently compelling fictional species that Niven subsequently wrote them into other stories, developing their biology and culture to make them distinct rather than just another of the many feline races that populate science fiction (perhaps because so many writers share their lives with cats).

And sufficiently compelling to his readers that they began to pester him for stories of the Man-Kzin Wars that were obliquely referred to in numerous stories and novels of what eventually became the Known Space universe. However, Niven consistently demurred, feeling himself unqualified -- he had never served in the military, had never been in a war zone, and generally didn't have first-hand experience in war. Better to leave those years to people's imaginations than to write stories that would disappoint.

However, the clamor for stories of that era, of the terrible battles and campaigns only hinted at, became so intense that Jim Baen approached him with an idea. Would he be willing to allow other writers to take up the task of telling the stories of this period for which he considered himself unqualified? It would of course be done in a way that would protect his copyrights in the Known Space universe as a whole, so there would be no risk of him suddenly being shut out of entire sections of his own universe. At length he agreed, and was happily surprised when so many of his carefully-selected professional writers agreed that he actually had to turn down an outline and a completed story, because the two stories he did choose are more on the order of novels in their own right.

The very first story in this anthology is that seminal piece, "The Warriors." It's a First Contact piece, but with the difference that the two sides never actually come into real contact with each other until after the confrontation has been successfully decided, and by that point one side's representatives are all dead. In it we seen in embryonic form the key elements of the entire Man-Kzin Wars cycle. There's the aggression of the kzinti contrasted with the psychist-enforced pacifism and naive optimism of humanity, with the sudden and surprising emergence of humanity's suppressed capacity for violence when the ship is visibly endangered. And we have the basic technologies of the respective races at the time of that initial encounter that presaged the First Man-Kzin War -- the ramscoop colony ships, the kzinti gravity planer and reactionless drive -- and the kzinti technological edge defeated by human ingenuity.

Poul Anderson's "Iron" takes place shortly after the end of the First Man-Kzin War. Humanity attained a decisive advantage when the colonists of We Made It bought a manual for a faster-than-light drive from the mysterious Outsiders, and the kzinti have been soundly beaten. However, the scars of the war remain, particularly in the Alpha Centauri system where both the Earthlike planet Wunderland and the Serpent Swarm asteroid belt were occupied for generations by the kzinti. Robert Saxtorph, owner of the only private faster-than-light vessel, is visiting Tiamat, the largest asteroid of the Serpent Swarm (comparable to Ceres in Sol's Asteroid Belt) when he is suddenly attacked by a kzin. He's able to come out on top in the encounter, but he's attracted attention in Tigertown, the community of left-behind kzinti in Tiamat, which is not a good situation.

Worse, he's also attracted the attention of Ulf Reichstein-Markham, head of the Interworld Space Commission in Alpha Centauri space. A proud and unbending man whose commanding demeanor hides a deep sense of frustration that grows from his mixed heritage (his mother was a member of the Wunderland aristocracy, but his father was a Belter), Markham is considered one of Centauri's greatest war heroes. Yet he flaunts his admiration of the kzinti to the point he seems to actively scorn humanity, leaving some questions of his actual loyalties.

Soon Saxtorph and his crew are off to the system of a tiny, ancient red dwarf star. It's not one of the very first stars to have formed after the Big Bang, since it does have some metals (in an astrophysicist's language, anything higher on the Periodic Table than hydrogen and helium), but relatively little of the heavier ones that would be essential in developing industry. Because red dwarfs burn their hydrogen fuel so slowly, it has kept going while its planets' cores cool and tectonic processes cease. There's a really poignant scene in which our heroes find the last ruins of an ancient civilization which once existed on one of the inner planets -- a civilization that would have been stuck in the Neolithic (think the Aztecs or the Incas without their gold and silver, using flint and obsidian for tools), and thus wouldn't even be able to develop enough science to understand what was happening to them as their world began to die from want of new minerals being brought to the surface by volcanoes.

However, that's not the real point of the story -- rather, it's the covert activities of the kzinti. Like the Germans after World War I, they have had heavy burdens placed upon them by the victors in hopes of ensuring that they will not be a threat to humanity in the future. They have lost a number of planets from their empire, and even more importantly, a ceiling has been placed upon their technological activities so they won't be able to built fresh war fleets. However, rather like the Germans in the years between the Wars, they're turning to subterfuge to get around those restrictions. An obscure system, barely visible beyond a few dozen light-years and unpromising to industrial development, would seem to be quite the ticket.

So Saxtorph are soon running afoul of the kzinti, with horrible tortures and possible anthropophagy in their future. And the peculiar conditions on the first planet of the system have created a substance that mimics many of the functions of life without truly being alive. A substance that's rapidly devouring one of the Rover's auxiliary ships, leaving two members of the crew trapped and having to decide whether to die in place or appeal to the kzinti for aid. Assuming the kzinti will even deign to rescue them.

It's an interesting story that actually manages to be as much about the scientific speculation of a very different stellar system as it is about the military and political maneuvering. And perhaps it wouldn't be too much of a spoiler to say that our heroes work out a very surprising method to rescue their lost compatriots.

The second story, Dean Ing's "Cathouse," takes place centuries later, at the beginning of the Fourth Man-Kzin War. Locklear is an unassuming and rather bookish ethologist (specialist in animal behavior), and he's lacking a little in the way of social savvy. But even as he's trying to deal with the anger at an inadvertent insult which he intended as a compliment, the ship upon which he's traveling is attacked. Suddenly he's the sole survivor and a captive of the kzinti.

The small raider really doesn't have any provisions for holding prisoners long-term, but after having lost three wars to the humans, kzinti are no longer so cavalier about seeing captive humans as meat. On the other hand, they can't very well just turn Locklear loose, even if they had a spacecraft to spare.

When they discover a peculiar artificial planet orbiting a white dwarf, a planet whose presence defies everything both humans and kzinti know about stellar evolution, Locklear's captors decide they have the perfect prison for him. Even if he were able to remove the monitoring device they place on him, he's not going to be able to escape the little habitat in which they place him. A habitat built to imitate conditions on the kzinti homeworld during the earliest phases of their species' development.

Yet again the kzinti completely underestimate human ingenuity. Not only does Locklear manage to rid himself of their nasty little monitoring device, but he also finds himself allies. While he's exploring the habitat, he discovers a cave full of evidence that yes, this is most definitely some kind of project created by an extremely advanced technological species, like unto gods even in the eyes of modern humans. Within the cave is a great deal of sophisticated equipment, including stasis cages holding specimens. Most of them are animals, the native life of Kzinhome. But among them are male and female kzin.

The last thing Locklear wants right now is to have to deal with a huge, violent male kzin. But the females of that species are barely self-aware, and he really doesn't want to have to deal with a semi-moron that wields claws long enough to gut him. In the end his desperate need for companionship wins out and he awakens one of the females -- and gets a surprise when she talks back to him. She speaks an ancient form of the kzinti language, which suggests that female kzinti were not always so mindless, but were made thus at some point in kzinti history.

Thus begins a most peculiar partnership between man and kzinrett, which will prove quite a surprise to those kzinti who put Locklear into this situation.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Larry Niven
  • "The Warriors" by Larry Niven
  • "Iron" by Poul Anderson
  • "Cathouse" by Dean Ing

Review posted July 21, 2011

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