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Man-Kzin Wars XIII by Larry Niven, (editor)

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The wars between humanity and the aggressive felinoid species known as the Kzinti were a critical turning point in the history of Known Space. Prior to First Contact, humanity had been busy creating paradise through the science of psychosurgery, treating all aggressive impulses as mental illness and wiping them away, and placing heavy memetic taboos on all historic evidence of humanity's warlike past.

Confronted with a species that lived for war, that viewed all other species as slaves, as cat toys, as food, humanity rediscovered the arts of war. In a single generation humans went from seriously believing that war was a relic of the Bronze Age to planning and executing innovative attacks on Kzin-occupied Wunderland using near-lightspeed ramscoop starships. They bought a hyperdrive owner's manual from the mysterious cryonic species known as the Outsiders and reverse-engineered the information into a working FTL war fleet, breaking the back of the Patriarchy, leaving the Kzinti quite bewildered at being beaten by a species of mischievous monkeys.

However, until the mid-1980's we the readers knew those events only by inference, from references in stories taking place afterward, or in the periods of peace between the various resurgence of the Kzin empire. We needed only look at the vast differences between the human society portrayed in those stories and those of Gil Hamilton, agent of ARM, to know that something monumental had taken place to so completely rearrange humanity's way of living. But we didn't have the stories.

When pressed, Niven averred that he didn't feel qualified to write military science fiction. He had never served in the military, had never seen combat, and as such lacked the knowledge to plausibly portray such events.

Still the fans persisted, so editor Jim Baen offered a compromise. Why not open that particular part of Known Space, currently lying fallow, to a stable of carefully selected professional authors? Thus was born a series of highly profitable anthologies and spinoff novels, originally headlined by heavy hitters such as Jerry Pournelle, SM Stirling, and Dean Ing, but over time bringing in authors who'd come to the editors' attention in other ways.

This volume, thirteenth of the series, includes stories by new authors as well as ones by authors who have become familiar to readers of this series. Some of the stories are humorous, while others are deadly serious drama.

One of the greatest challenges for a writer creating fictional aliens is to make them alien, yet still comprehensible enough to have an enjoyable story. If one is not using the fictional aliens as literary stand-ins for the Other within contemporary human society and actually wants to extrapolate the hypothetical inhabitants of exoplanets, it is necessary to think beyond the standard Bumpy Forehead Humanoids we see so often in media science fiction. And the inhabitants of Altair One, who call it Glot, fit the bill in a way that would've delighted the late, great Douglas Adams.

When we first meet the Dilillies, they seem superficially humanoid. Of course it helps that they are downright obsessed with humanity, as they have been ever since they started receiving our radio and television transmissions. But there are ample hints that the facts of their existence are at variance with the appearances they choose to project, and likely very much so.

And then they have to deal with a Kzinti conquest fleet, something these silly, absurd beings would seem ill-prepared to do. But there are more ways to skin a cat than killing him with a salvo of nuclear-tipped missiles, and the ending makes us think about just what sort of defenses a species of sessile sophonts might develop.

The next story, Jane Lindskold's "Two Types of Teeth," takes us back to those early days of the First Man-Kzin War when humanity was first trying to figure out just what they were dealing with. The kzin fight with a determination not to surrender that makes the Japanese in World War II look positively laid-back. As a result, most successful battles result in wreckage smashed so finely that a recognizable limb or two is a major find.

Jenni Anixter is a xenobiologist, and until the first battle reports came in, she'd expected her discipline to remain theoretical. When Intelligence recruits her for a program, she insists that she wants to work in isolation from the other teams so their conclusions won't contaminate her work with preconceptions. She starts with histological studies of kzin tissues on mounted slides, then recognizable body parts to dissect. And then she receives a badly injured kzin in cryogenic suspended animation, with orders to nurse him back to health.

And thus begins a three-way battle of wits as she, her Intelligence handler, and their alien captive maneuver to gain the advantage. All of them are playing the long game, but Jenni is playing a particularly long one, based upon her knowledge of biology. Kzinti are obligate carnivores, while humans are omnivores, with teeth adapted to eat meat and plant matter. A difference she explains to her captive in hope that he will take that information back to his own people. For she intends to let him escape with that psychosocial worm program and see what happens to kzin society as a result.

In "Pick of the Litter" Charles E Gannon gives us another story of humans trying to reshape the psychology of a captive kzin. Instead of an adult warrior, already shaped by his culture, this one is still a kitten, one of the survivors of a pleasure ship on which a number of high ranking officers kept their harems of females.

Hap was captured moments after birth, before he even had a chance to suckle his mother's milk. He's known nothing but human efforts to replicate the essentials of a kzinti upbringing. Because kzinti kits develop more rapidly than human children, he soon shows an awareness of his situation that would be quite precocious in a human child. An awareness that grows steadily more problematic as the contradictory loyalties of biology and upbringing begin to pull him apart.

Gannon's second offering, "Tomcat Tactics," takes place at roughly the same time period, but on occupied Wunderland rather than Sol System. The mysterious man who calls himself Captain John Smith claims to have a secret weapon against the kzinti. However, the resistance cell he's contacted have their reasons to doubt him, particularly considering the risk of what will happen to them and their families should things go wrong. More than a few of their number have had their entire families wiped out in the kzinti Hunts, simply because of suspicion that some family member was aiding the resistance. So their bitterness and desire to strike a blow against the hated alien conquerors is tempered by the knowledge that they dare not act rashly.

And that's exactly what Smith does, starting his mission by attacking one of those Hunts, in which cubs on the verge of maturity are given condemned humans as prey, the deadliest game of all. Not only does the hunter become the hunted, but Smith goes so far as to taunt the kzinti with his action, leaving behind a pouch containing a kzin ear taken as a trophy. His acknowledged intent is to work the kzinti into a fury of vengeance-lust and thus lure them into one of the most notorious swamps of Wunderland, as their frustration drives them to ever higher levels of aggression and thus irrationality.

Or is it just frustration? Is there more to this strange behavior on the part of the kzinti? It's known that their biochemistry, while compatible with that of humans, is not identical -- and perhaps some of those differences could be hijacked by clever humans. And thus we get the final revelation, that this is a bit of backstory to the novels of the liberation of Wunderland that appeared in earlier volumes of the Man-Kzin Wars series, yet also ties in with "Pick of the Litter."

In "At the Gates" Alex Hernandez gives us a story that hearkens all the way back to the very beginning of the kzinti in Larry Niven's very first story, "The Warriors." Specifically, the story of what happened to the ramscoop Angel's Pencil after its encounter with the kzinti and its crew's sudden rediscovery of the arts of warfare using makeshift weapons.

The people of Sheathclaws are painfully aware that their world lies deep within Patriarchy space, that the only hope for the survival of their unique society lies in strict secrecy. Yet the Founders' Effect, exacerbated by the extremely small genepool of the kzinti side of their society, means that if they do not bring in new members from different genetic lines, and soon, they will face ever-diminishing health as more and more delusory recessives pair up.

And then they discover a badly-damaged kzinti warship in the fringes of their system. Although some of them want it destroyed, and quickly, Healer-of-Hunters and Dan Gulthac believe that if they can successfully rendezvous with it, they may be able to gain new genetic material for the kzinti colony.

What they find is a desperate crew so young that they have not yet outgrown the spots that mark the fur of juveniles, commanded by an incompetent who at least had the grace to die in battle. Can they be convinced that there is an alternative to endless hopeless battles against an enemy they no longer have the means to effectively resist, let alone roll back?

David Bartell's "Zeno's Roulette" is the story of a commando raid to extract information from a kzin who's believed to have acquired some dangerous secret related to a mysterious object known as Zeno's Whirlpool. Flex and Annie are Jinxians, mercenaries and lovers, and that combination means trouble when their mission goes awry. Now their enemy has a perfect hostage situation to pit one against the other.

But it only makes Flex more determined to win, to force his way down to the real secret going on in S'larbo's setup. It's an astronomical oddity that hearkens back to Zeno's Paradox, a puzzle discovered by the ancient Greeks: one cannot traverse a given distance without going half that distance, and half that distance, and so forth -- yet if one has to overtake an infinite number of midpoints, how can one ever reach one's destination? The question proved insoluble with geometry, and stayed that way until Newton and Liebnitz invented calculus, enabling the integration of the entire series of infinitesimals into a completed journey.

The final story, "Bound for the Promised Land" by Alex Hernandez, is the story of Bobcat, a telepath of the Patriarchy who's visiting a resort on Canyon, a world scarred by a terrible human weapon in one of the Man-Kzin Wars. And then he's asked to come take a look at a strange little black kit that nobody can bear to euthanize (the products of these unauthorized breedings are not supposed to survive). And in doing so he discovers a whole host of secrets, including intelligent female kzinti and the possibility of a refuge where telepaths aren't hated and despised.

Overall, it's a pretty good set of stories. There were some typographical glitches, particularly mistakes of the sort that reveal an over-reliance on computer spell-checking that lacks the ability to distinguish when a word fits the sense of the sentence and when it is in fact a misspelling of a similar word. But on the whole they do not detract to the point that the stories become impossible to enjoy.

Table of Contents

  • "Misunderstanding" by Hal Colebatch and Jessica Q Fox
  • "Two Types of Teeth" by Jane Lindskold
  • "Pick of the Litter" by Charles E Gannon
  • "Tomcat Tactics" by Charles E Gannon
  • "At the Gates" by Alex Hernandez
  • "Zeno's Roulette" by David Bartell
  • "Bound for the Promised Land" by Alex Hernandez

Review posted October 9, 2015.

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