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Man-Kzin Wars XII by Larry Niven (editor)

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Man-Kzin Wars series is one of the longest-running anthology series in science fiction, now reaching its twelfth volume with no signs of slowing down. It was originally created as a response to the pleas of fans for stories dealing with events that were only glimpsed in Larry Niven's own stories, often through historical references by various characters. However, Niven declined on the grounds that he had never served in the armed forces and as such did not feel qualified to write about actual combat operations. When the fans persisted, publisher Jim Baen suggested allowing other writers who did possess the necessary background to write stories set in that period.

The result has been a lengthy tradition of somewhat deuterocanonical stories covering not only the periods of actual fighting between humanity and the kzinti, but also the aftermath of them and the periods of tension in which both sides maneuvered for advantage and skirmished along their peripheries, often by means of various proxy groups, reminiscent of the Cold War between the US and the late and unlamented Soviet Union.

This volume's stories are scattered throughout the timeline of the Man-Kzin Wars, rather than all being clustered around a single period or event as some earlier ones have. As a result, it has much more of an anthology feel, as opposed to those which felt more like a mosaic, each story an element building toward a larger super-story.

The first story, "Echoes of Distant Guns" by Matthew Joseph Harrington, takes that feeling even further. It is made up of three brief scenes, almost vignettes, of events taking place right before the First War (the one that followed Niven's original Kzin story, "The Warriors"). Each of these scenes gives us the sense that there was a lot more going on under the surface -- that humanity may well have had some unexpected allies in that first, desperate conflict, when humanity was racing against time to relearn the skills of war after so long in which even the concepts of war had been removed from most people's awareness.

The second story, "Aquila Advenio," is a collaboration between Hal Colebatch and Matthew Joseph Harrington. The beginning, in which some Jotoki are observing the pre-industrial civilization of an unnamed planet, provides the key to the entire story -- and the alert reader will be able to identify the planet and the disaster by the dateline at the top.

When the story proper begins, it is some time after the First Man-Kzin War, and a kzin slave trader is visiting a kzin-owned planet to do some trading. As the story progresses, we discover that he is in fact not a kzin of the Patriarchy, as he presents himself, but one of the Wunderkzin, a group of kzinti who remained on Wunderland after its liberation and found an accommodation with humanity. Furthermore, he is actually a sort of secret agent, seeking humans being held in slavery so that he can buy them from their kzinti masters and take them home to human space and freedom.

However, he is not the only one who is playing a double game, as he soon discovers when invited onto a hunt for the most dangerous game of all. Kzinti consider outright lying to be dishonorable in the extreme, just cause for a duel to the death. However, kzinti draw a distinction between lying and subterfuge, and consider it good practice in subtlety and alertness to arrange half-truths in such a way as to appear to be saying what one is not. And this hunt is most definitely not what it seems, something that Ginger's Wunderkzin background equips him to detect while the kzinti against whom treachery is in fact being dealth are quite utterly oblivious to their own victimization by one of their own number.

At the same time he is seeing a rapidly growing body of evidence that the humans on this world are not all escaped slaves who were originally taken from Wunderland or other human worlds occupied by the kzin. No, some of them were already there when the kzinti first settled the world. When convergent evolution is discarded as a possible explanation and their DNA proves to be human to the nines, Ginger and his human partner know that their mission has suddenly expanded from buying a few slaves and taking them home.

Only how to pull off such a massive spacelift? Here the authors show the true heights of their ingenuity, complete with some truly hilarious sf-nal in-jokes for the alert. But it's not all fun and games -- there are some truly poignant moments of self-sacrifice as well.

After that epic adventure, Hal Colebatch's solo effort "The Trooper and the Triangle" seems almost like a literary "perfect little gem of despair," except set in the Known Space universe rather than the consensus reality of literary fiction. There is no happy ending, save that in how we treat the dead we show our regard for them.

Thankfully the next story, "String," another collaboration between Colebatch and Harrington, is a much more upbeat story. In fact, it's downright humorous, especially for anyone who's ever shared their life with a cat. It's another story of Richard and Gay Guthlac, who've appeared before in stories of joint human-kzin explorations of Slaver stasis boxes. However, this one is full of artifacts that seem to date not from the Slavers, but from the Pak -- although if the theory Harrington put forth in his stories in the previous volume of this anthology series are to be taken seriously, the Pak may well in fact date to the era of the Thrintun and be yet another Tnuctipun weapon. Certainly the biologicals in one compartment look an awfully lot like Pak tree-of-life -- which means it's far better for the kzin Slaverexpert, who is immune to its effects, to be handling it.

Except it's not tree-of-life root, but rubber impregnated with a most interesting minty scent. The authors plant suitable hints for readers not already familiar with cats, in the form of the Guthlacs' reminiscences about a cat of their own -- so everybody should be able to imagine the resultant hilarity when sapient felinoids are exposed to a certain herb. Particularly given the great emphasis upon honor and dignity in kzinti culture, it's going to be a rather embarrassing situation for them.

In "Peace and Freedom" Matthew Joseph Harrington continues the story of Peace Corben, who began life as a clone to be organ-farmed, only to have her life saved by a kzinti attack on the world where her "mother" was imprisoned for a violation of regulations. She's adjusted fairly well to her transformation into a Protector, and now she's discovered that humanity is being threatened by a combination of the familiar kzinti danger and a far older one.

This is a story about which I have intense mixed feelings. On one hand, I enjoyed the character of Shleer, the clever kzin kit -- he's not a total Wesley Crusher boy-genius, but just bright and inventive enough to give him the pluck to make you like him. However, I am not entirely comfortable with what Harrington has done with some of Niven's characters from the original Slaver novel, World of Ptaavs. Presumably this was with Niven's permission, but it still has that awkward forced feel that so frequently happens when a later author makes major changes on a character from the original canon of a series.

The final story, "Independent" by Paul Chafe, is a mystery set in the Sol asteroid belt. The protagonist wakes up in a cheap cube-dorm with no memory of how he got there, and the words "Opal Stone" written on his palm. He's no more gotten himself cleaned up than he's arrested by ARM and take in for questioning about the murder of someone he was supposedly conveying aboard his ship. His last memories are of agreeing to take on an extremely sensitive mission, one that involves accepting a brain-block covering the entire duration of the mission. His only clues are the appearance of the woman and her kzin escort, Bodyguard.

No sooner is he released by the law than he has to deal with Bodyguard, who is ready to kill him for honor's sake. Quick thinking enables him to think up another possible culprit in the killing, and off the two of them go on a quest to confront the most powerful man on Ceres, a man who has already shown his willingness to play hardball of the most brutal sort.

The ending is simultaneously surprising and satisfying -- unfortunately, all too many writers' attempts at a surprise ending instead feel more like a trick played upon the reader. This one develops naturally out of the elements already established in the Known Space universe, although it may well be more satisfying for long-term readers of the universe, who are familiar with all the various ins and outs of the technologies Niven has established over more than forty years of writing.

On the whole, it is another good addition to the history of the wars between humanity and the kzinti.

Table of Contents

  • "Echoes of Distant Guns" by Matthew Joseph Harrington
  • "Aquila Advenio" by Hal Colebatch & Matthew Joseph Harrington
  • "The Trooper and the Triangle" by Hal Colebatch
  • "String" by Hal Colebatch & Matthew Joseph Harrington
  • "Peace & Freedom" by Matthew Joseph Harrington
  • "Independent" by Paul Chafe

Review posted May 2009

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