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Man-Kzin Wars III by Larry Niven, editor

Cover art by Steve Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This book is the third volume of the Man-Kzin Wars anthology series, in which Larry Niven decided to open one very carefully defined section of his Known Space universe to other professional writers who were better qualified than he to tell the stories of that era. For years readers had been pestering him to tell the stories of the epic wars humanity fought against the felinoid kzinti, wars which put a permanent end to the artificial Golden Age of ARM and the psychists, who actually had most people convinced that it was impossible for an advanced race to be warllike. However, Niven had steadfastly demurred, saying that he had no experience in military service and thus could not write such stories adequately -- until Jim Baen convinced him that those stories should be told, even if the task needed to be handed over to other writers who did have the relevant experience.

However, that doesn't mean that Niven completely abandoned that period of Known Space history, as is demonstrated by the very first story in this volume. In "Madness Has Its Place" the master himself explores the consequences of the situation created by the attack on Angel's Pencil way back in "The Warriors," the first story he ever wrote to submit for publication.

In UN-ruled Earth, most people are kept to a narrow range of mental states that are regarded as sanity, including an almost ridiculously naive presupposition of goodwill on the part of others. However, certain employees of ARM, the UN tech police, are not only permitted but actively required to be paranoid as a part of their job. They are to be the watchers at the ramparts nobody else is allowed to be, able to see the possibility of threat in the actions of others, even in the seemingly unrelated actions of many people across society. Because no matter how carefully the psychists adjust law-abiding citizens to docility, there are still those who manage to slip the net and prey upon their fellow human beings. Not to mention the perils of the natural world.

Thus the protagonist begins noticing strange patterns of incidents in deep space. However, his ARM superiors don't want him to investigate it -- which only make him more suspicious and lead him to realize that humanity's Golden Age is just about to come crashing down around our ears -- and ARM would be perfectly willing to plug its ears and pretend that there's nothing going wrong until those cat-creatures are pouncing on Earth's billions and it's too late to do anything useful.

The next story, almost a novel in its own right, is a direct sequel to "The Children's Hour" in the previous volume of the Man-Kzin Wars series. In "The Asteroid Queen" Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirlng continue the story of the assassins of Chuut-Riit, the kzinti master strategist who had become governor of the Alpha Centauri system who was actually setting the kzinti on a good position for conquering Earth, after four fleets had failed miserably.

Now that Chuut-Riit is dead, the kzinti military and civil hierarchy on Wunderland is in chaos. Traat-Admiral considers himself to be the ranking official in-system until they hear otherwise from Kzinhome, but he has earned himself only a partial name, and as such is not automatically respected by all kzinti in the system. As a result he has many rivals, some of whom are attacking his position openly, others who prefer stealth. With so many potential and actual enemies, he has to be harsh in order to scare off other would-be claimants.

And then there's the matter of Chuut-Riit's surviving sons, who participated in the cannibalistic frenzy which killed him. Their actions strike at the heart of kzin society, echoing every adult kzin's memories of frustrated anger while still under the heavy paw of their fathers, of longing to rise up against him and take his place. A thing that, as adults, they cannot tolerate because it now threatens their own positions as heads of their own households.

But it doesn't mean that humanity's situation has improved all that much, for in the Serpent Swarm, the asteroid belt of the Alpha Centarui system, a new and even more terrible threat is arising. A rockjack, a prospector who travels among the asteroids, has stumbled upon one with physical characteristics that would suggest an enormous find of valuable heavy metals. Thinking to be able to buy his way into the Free Wunderland Army with it, he notifies Ulf Reichstein-Markham of its existence. Soon Markham's ship is investigating.

Except this is no ordinary asteroid. Instead it is an accretion of space debris around an artifact of almost incredible antiquity. In particular, a ship, locked into a stasis field. And when that stasis field goes off, its owner emerges.

Billions of years ago, a race known as the thrintun ruled this part of the galaxy. Like the current kzinti threat, they regarded their own species as the only true people, and all other intelligent species as slaves, intelligent cattle to be used as they wished. But unlike the kzinti, they didn't rely upon strength and martial prowess to rule their empire. Instead they had the Power, a telepathic ability to dominate any other organism with a central nervous system. On their native world they had used it to summon prey to them, an ability which other species developed a resistance to. However, the curious spacefarers who visited their world had no such evolved resistance, and quickly became willing, even eager to help their Masters build a star-spanning empire.

However, the intense evolutionary pressure for ever-stronger Power to keep ahead of their prey's growing resistance to it meant a comparative absence of selection for intelligence. As a result, thrintun are phenomenally stupid. As in, the brighter specimens of their species are about comparable to the bottom end of what's considered normal intelligence in a human. So when one of their slave races began waging a successful rebellion, the thrintun elders come up with the bright idea of wiping them out by blanketing the entire empire with a telepathic suicide command.

Dnivtopun considers himself quite a brilliant thrint. He's got a plan to escape Suicide Day, along with his household. They'll all pile into his spaceship and activate the stasis field right before Suicide Day. Once the final transmission of the suicide command is completed, the timer will deactivate the stasis field and he and his will emerge to a galaxy scrubbed clean of all enemies of the thrintun, a galaxy he can fill with his seed and they will rule forever.

Except things rarely go as planned. The timer failed, and instead he emerges to a universe that has had enough time for intelligent life to re-evolve and develop the necessary technology for interstellar travel.

A more intelligent being might have been overwhelmed by the situation, but Dnivtopun has just the right combination of intelligence and stupidity that, after an initial shock, he soon sees this unexpected situation as just as big of an opportunity as his original plans. In fact, it may well be an even better opportunity, since he won't have to spend decades breeding a suitable number of slaves. He can turn all these beings into his slaves.

Except there's one huge problem -- an individual thrint's mind can only control a limited number of slaves over a limited range, and his amplifier helmet was sabotaged by the rebel tnuctipun. Dnivtopun needs it repaired or replaced, and he has no concept of the principles involved. To him, it's something one buys at the store, and it takes a little effort to get across the idea that the creatures of the present have no idea where to even begin working on it. But once he grasps the concept, he has them working with a will.

Now we've got two separate and very dangerous clocks running, which means our heroes have to divide their attention and their forces. And if that's not enough, an ARM agent is nosing around the Alpha Centauri system, having arrived in a second parasite fighter during the lightspeed raid. An agent who may in fact represent the real power behind ARM, an organization going back not just centuries, but millenia, manipulating behind the scenes where it dared not rule openly, which claims to be acting for the good of humanity but generally holds human beings in contempt.

The second story, Poul Anderson's "Inconstant Star," is another adventure of Robert Saxtorph and his independent FTL ship Rover. However, it appears to take place earlier than "Iron," which was published in the original Man-Kzin Wars volume. The wounds of the occupation of Wunderland are still an open sore, and the families of those who are regarded as collaborators are still stigmatized pariahs, punished for the real or perceived sins of their relatives.

However, Tyra Nordbo is certain that her father's trial in absentia was in fact a gross miscarriage of justice, and wants to clear his name. He was the Landholder in his district, and tried his best to protect his people from the depredations of the kzinti. But it meant having to work with the kzinti, at times giving them concessions in order to keep them from taking even more by force. And then one day the kzinti took him away, presumably offplanet, and he was never heard from again.

Although Tyra's convinced that her father was taken away against his will for some nefarious purpose, the courts didn't see it that way. He was stripped of all but a modicum of the family's traditional holdings, and although she, her mother and her brother weren't reduced to complete paupers, the loss of social standing that came with the conviction was a blow they never really recovered from. Her mother, already weakened from having to try to stand between her people and the ever more rapacious kzinti, was completely broken in spirit and died not long after. Tyra and her brother Ib have spend the years since then struggling to gain some respect in the eyes of others.

Her only lead in her quest for her father's redemption is a mysterious star that flashes bright light occasionally. It doesn't have the pattern of a typical variable star, which suggests something very strange is going on there. Given that her father was an amateur astronomer, and that he may well have talked to the local kzin commander about astronomy, thinking it was sufficiently abstract to be safe, Tyra thinks that he may well have been taken on a mission to investigate that star. And Saxtorph is just enough of a space cowboy to be willing to investigate this mysterious star.

It's very interesting to see how Anderson uses the established physics of Niven's hyperspace shunt in the resolution of this story. However, to say more would be to give away a big chunk of the ending. I'll limit myself to saying that it does have a satisfying ending in which the good characters are rewarded and justice is done where injustice has previously prevailed.

Table of Contents

  • "Madness Has its Place" by Larry Niven
  • "The Asteroid Queen" by J. E. Pournelle and S. M. Stirling
  • "Inconstant Star" by Poul Anderson

Review posted July 21, 2011

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