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Man-Kzin Wars XI by Larry Niven (editor)

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Larry Niven originally wrote "The Warriors," he had no idea that he was launching a career that would extend to numerous books and an entire universe of fictional worlds spanning centuries of future history. At the time, he was concerned only with getting the story out of his head and onto paper, and was happily surprised when a magazine editor was actually willing to give him money for the privilege of printing it.

But as his career developed and he explored various eras and worlds of Known Space, he realized that there was a noticable gap. Although he had written a number of stories referring to the wars between humanity and the catlike Kzin, and more than once hinted about the terrible struggles as humanity rediscovered the warmaking skills they had worked so hard to forget, he had never actually written of those years. As he had never actually served in the military, Niven did not feel equal to the task of writing of the events of those years. However, his fans persisted in begging him for stories of the wars against the Kzin.

About this time, Jim Baen was developing his idea of building the careers of promising new writers by pairing them with experienced writers for collaborations, and he suggested that such a technique would be a good solution for the problem of the missing war years. Thus was born the series of anthologies in which this volume is the eleventh, which has been important in building the careers of several writers, although it has also seen contributions by established writers such as Poul Anderson and S. M. Stirling.

In the first three stories, Hal Colebatch continues the sequence he has developed in the last two volumes, dealing with the war on Wunderland. During the First Kzin War, humanity's first extrasolar colony, the sole habitable world of Alpha Centauri A, was conquered and occupied for nearly three decades, during which the German-derived inhabitants were treated more akin to domestic animals by their feline overlords. When humanity liberated it in a daring raid using its entire fleet of new hyperspace-capable ships, the decades of slavery and fierce resistance had left deep scars upon both the planet and its people.

The first story of this volume, "Three at Table," is a tight, personal story of intense poignance about one of those deep wounds. When Arthur Guthlac, senior UNSN officer and war hero, decides to go hunting in the back country of Wunderland using antiquated equipment, he quickly runs afoul of the weather he was too careless to concern himself with. His very survival is at hazard as a sudden storm turns the river he had been following into a raging torrent, he struggles through one peril after another to be rescued by a strange woman who takes him to an even stranger house. If this were a fantasy story, the house would be inhabited by an ogre or under some terrible curse, but this is science fiction, and the inhabitant proves to be a kzin, but one of a most peculiar sort. Why else would he insist upon meeting his unexpected guest and dining together, but in darkness?

And when Guthlac does discover the truth, we get an opportunity to contemplate what exactly constitutes heroism. Certainly the kzinti have their own definition, tied up with military combat in a manner reminiscent of the old Viking warriors, but it is not the only one. Perhaps the kzinti despise those of their number who are responsible for attending the wounded and bringing them to medical care, but humans know that those who place themselves in harm's way to rescue others are brave in their own way. Reading it, I immediately thought of the first responders who rushed into the Twin Towers on September 11, and how many of them lost their lives trying to save others.

The second story, "Grossgeister Swamp," returns to the story of Vaemar-Riit, heir to the slain occupation governor Chuut-Riit and effective leader of the kzinti left on Wunderland after the Liberation. He bears his own scars upon his soul, memories of the horrible events described in "The Children's Hour," by which his Honored Sire was assassinated through primate trickery using kzin instinct and ferocity against themselves. He alone of Chuut-Riit's hundreds of sons survived, but he saw and heard them falling upon one another and upon their sire in the desperation of hunger. Yet he lives as much among the humans as among his own kind, researching the mysterious goings-on in the gigantic swamp which has filled an ancient meteor crater.

It is interesting to see the transformation of kzin society through the lens of a ruined kzin steading with its evidence of a more equitable distribution of females among the males. Under the Patriarchy, the top tier of aristocrats and senior military officers frequently had harems of hundreds of females, while the middle levels of kzin society might have only one or two and most of the ordinary kzintoshi had not a single female to call their own. As a result, kzinti society was hot with the tensions of continual sexual frustration, exacerbated no doubt by the latent telepathy of even ordinary kzinti. Humans, hoping to not only reduce the aggression levels of the kzinti remaining on Wunderland but to give them a greater stake in the long-term stability of the new society, have been encouraging even relatively lowly kzinti to have at least a few mates, and thus to have progeny of their own.

And that is not the only given of kzinti society that is being overturned in the darkness and slime of Grossgeister Swamp. For there is an old wreck buried in the heart of it, and within it are secrets born of the kzinti habits of enslaving every race they encounter. For slaves remain such only so long as the master remains strong, and under the mask of obedience accumulates depths of bitterness.

"Catspaws," Hal Colebatch's third and final contribution to this volume, builds upon both of these stories as well as the ones in the last two volumes of the series, and combines the threat of kzinti irreconcileables with an even older threat. In the Known Space universe, humanity was planted on Earth by the Pak Protectors, the post-reproductive phase of an otherwise barely sapient species (the original story of the Protectors was the result of Niven noddling about whether such maladies of old age as cataracts and arthritis might have originally had some kind of evolutionary purpose but become lost). During the desperate days of the First Kzin War when it seemed that humanity was in very real danger of losing against what was both superior forces and technology, an equally desperate plan was conceived, and an amount of Pak tree-of-life was sent to Wunderland.

However, the delivery was interrupted by a surprise kzinti attack which slaughtered almost the entire Resistance group and left the canisters of tree-of-life buried in the famous caves of the Hohe Kalkstein, home to an entire ecology strikingly different from that of the surface. An ecology which includes semi-sapient humanoids known as Morlocks from the subhumans of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

Except that the Morlocks aren't just a case of parallel evolution -- their DNA is far too similar to that of humans, and not sufficiently like that of other Wunderland species. There can be only one explanation -- they are the descendants of a colony of Pak breeders who were established and then lost by a long-ago Protector. Which means that they will be sensitive to the tree-of-life root in those long-lost canisters. And any Protectors arising from them won't be the products of a cultured society that has spent generations discussing the nature of ethics, unlike the only known human Protector, Brennan, who may well have been single-handedly responsible for navigating the human race through its most trying times.

So begins a race against time to find those canisters -- except it may already be too late. Not only are strange things afoot in the cave, but something is happening in the mysterious Hollow Moon, an astronomical feature of the Wunderland system that has long been suspected to be artificial. And Vaemar, confident in his kzin immunity to tree-of-life, walks straight into a trap, accompanied by the human super-genius who was able to translate the alien hyperspace manual which gave humanity the deciding edge in the recently concluded war. A situation that not only endangers them, but the fragile new society Wunderland is building in which kzinti live alongside humans in peace.

The Pak Protectors and their human variations are also the focus of two interconnected stories by newcomer Matthew Joseph Harrington, "Teacher's Pet" and "War and Peace." The latter being particularly funny to me as a person with a degree in Russian literature, since that is also the title of the famous enormously long novel by Leo Tolstoy -- however, in this case it is actually a play on the name of the main character of the two stories. Peace Corben was one of the few survivors of the kzin attack upon the world of Pleasance in the opening hours of the Fourth Kzin War, thanks to the fortune of being on her mother's spaceship at the time. Her mother being somewhat paranoid, that ship had some truly extraordinary -- and rather illegal -- defenses.

Once Peace discovered that the penal camp where her mother was being held was so thoroughly destroyed that there was no possibility of survival, she was free to chart her own course. A course which led her to the world of Home, where a mysterious plague wiped out the settlers and several subsequent missions. A planet which may well have the resources she needs to repair the ship she has now inherited from her mother.

Harrington develops some very interesting theories about the nature of the Pak, linking their origins with yet another of the races of Known Space which has attracted a fair amount of interest on the part of the writers participating in this anthology series -- the thrintun, known in later days as the Slavers because they used their telepathic Power to enslave every race they encountered, until they were frustrated by their own slaves to the point of using their Power to blanket the entire Galaxy with a telepathic suicide command, wiping out all life save the algae they had planted on a thousand worlds to serve as food.

However, to me he seems to be stretching a bit too far to posit such a connection, not to mention that it directly contradicts post-Thrintun galactic history as established by at least one story in another of these anthologies. In any case, I find her interactions with the psychist (either a psychiatrist or psychologist) turned vengeance killer in the second story far more interesting than all these speculations about the origin of the Pak in yet another scheme of the tnuctipun against their thrintun masters. Quite honestly, the humorous character interactions in each story's present is the real strength of Harrington's writing, and one that someone would do well to encourage.

Larry Niven's own contribution to this anthology, "The Hunting Park," appears on the surface to be an adventure story of a group of kzinti coming to Africa to hunt dangerous big game with naked claw and w'tsai (kzinti sword). However, the final comments of the surviving kzinti at the end put a completely different light upon their actions.

On the whole, this volume is yet another excellent contribution to a long-running series, and I hope to see further additions to the storylines that have been developed in it.

Table of Contents

  • "Three at Table" by Hal Colebatch
  • "Grossgeister Swamp" by Hal Colebatch
  • "Catspaws" by Hal Colebatch
  • "Teacher's Pet" by Matthew Joseph Harrington
  • "War and Peace" by Matthew Joseph Harrington
  • "The Hunting Park" by Larry Niven

Review posted April 15, 2009

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