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Man-Kzin Wars V by Larry Niven, editor

Cover art by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The fifth volume of the long-running Man-Kzin Wars anthology series contains only two stories, but both of them are of a length that bring them closer to novels in their own right. Furthermore, both of them are further developments of storylines that originally appeared in earlier volumes of the Man-Kzin Wars series, showing how it has developed its own ongoing culture and continuity.

Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" continues the story of Jonah Matthieson, Sol-Belter and secret agent. In "The Children's Hour" he helped mastermind the assassination of Chuut-Riit, the kzinti Yamamoto who was actually having success against humanity and might well have brought about the fall of Earth. In "The Asteroid Queen" Jonah became enmeshed in a horror out of deep time when a thrint was released from billions of years of stasis and tried to take over the Alpha Centauri system.

Now he's down and out, no thanks to UN ARM General Buford Early. This man, ancient beyond imagination and part of a shadowy conspiracy to turn humanity into nicely domesticated sheep for their own protection, tried to manipulate Jonah and got told to perform an anatomically impossible act. Now Early's gotten Jonah blacklisted and unable to find employment anywhere.

When a mysterious woman offers him a job, Jonah jumps at the opportunity. In the process he acquires a pair of kzinti partners, dispossessed brothers who are trying to restore the honor and holdings of their household. Bigs and Spots don't even have proper job titles, let alone names, just the nicknames they had in the nursery. Although they claim they want to restore their family holdings, they spend as much time bickering about one thing or another as they actually do working.

That job proves simple enough, but it's still not enough to get Jonah what he really wants -- passage to the Serpent Swarm and a singleship of his own, so he can resume his career as a rockjack. Or better yet, passage back home to the Sol System, where there aren't so many reminders of his unpleasant adventures in the recent War. Then he talks to an old man who tells him there are still plenty of valuable deposits of heavy metals in the Jotuns, the huge mountain range that is one of the more striking pieces of Wunderland wilderness.

So off Jonah and his kzinti business partners go with this crazy old coot. Distance never seemed so large when Jonah was zooming through it in a singleship, but now that he has to slog across the kilometers on foot, packing in his equipment, he gains a new appreciation for it. Then there's the hand-labor of building the sluices they need in order to separate the commercially valuable ores from the materials in which they're found -- which provides the authors with an opportunity to show the biomechanical differences in the human and kzin bodies. Like all felids, the kzinti have longer, more flexible spinal columns, which makes them more agile pouncing hunters -- but which makes them far less able to deadlift heavy loads than their greater size would lead the average human to expect.

But the mining expedition isn't the real heart of the story. That's just to get Our Heroes to the real menace that was introduced to us in the very first scene of the story. Namely, yet another horror out of deep time. Remember how the thrintun decided in their infinite stupidity to destroy all life in the galaxy -- the ultimate negative-sum game -- because they were losing a war against a slave rebellion? Those clever slaves were the tnuctipun, a race about which we've heard numerous hints, but we've never actually gotten to see one.

Now that's changing, with the introduction of Durvash, the rebel who was desperately trying to stop Suicide Night, that moment when the thrintun clan elders would send an amplified telepathic command for every living creature to die, all at once. Except he was found at the last minute, and even as the continent-buster was descending upon his position, he managed to activate his stasis field.

Now our protagonists have stumbled upon him. Within his stasis field he's been decoupled from the entropy of the surrounding universe, so it's as if no time whatsoever has passed for him. So it comes as a shock to discover that not only did Suicide Night happen as planned, but enough time has passed for an entire new range of intelligent species to evolve and develop the technological base necessary for interstellar travel.

I'm very glad to see that the authors have averted the black and white Oppressor-Victim dichotomy, in which anybody who is being oppressed must necessarily be a Good Guy and therefore all friendly and cuddly. Durvash may be a valiant freedom fighter from the reference point of his own species, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he's going to be a Nice Guy towards our protagonists once he discovers that the hated Slaver Empire is no more.

In "Hey Diddle Diddle" Thomas T. Thomas takes us forward in time to the uneasy peace following the Third Man-Kzin War. After the harsh peace settlements of the first two Man-Kzin Wars, which sought to strip the kzinti of their warmaking capacity, failed to bring about the hoped-for peace, the human governments have decided on a scheme more along the lines of the Marshall Plan. The shattered industries of the kzin worlds will be rebuilt, but in a more peace-oriented way that is hoped will make the kzinti more able to live peaceably with their neighbors.

Except what worked for human nations may not necessarily work for a species of intelligent obligate carnivores, for whom aggression against other species is hardwired into their brains. There's growing evidence that the ratcats are finding ways around the restrictions that were placed upon them and are rebuilding their warmaking capacity in hopes of yet another try at beating those damnable monkeys.

Thus our protagonists, the crew of the scoutship Callisto, are checking out a radar return that may be a secret kzin fleet, or maybe just an asteroid kicked out of its system by a close encounter with a passing massive body. And in the process they discover a Slaver stasis box.

While they're trying to dodge some trouble-making kzinti, one of their number decides to deactivate the field and open it. The thing is rather large and awkward, and quite an obvious target for the kzinti to track, since it responds to a deep-radar ping.

Within the box are several plastic-sealed patties, a curious device like a musical instrument, and a fluffy white creature that resembles a dog. Thinking it may have been a pet, they name it Fellah. However, they soon discover this creature is in fact sapient, a member of a species called the Pruntaquilun, who were capable of mild telepathy, although not the sort of projective Power the thrintun used. He was the slave of a thrint who was attempting to conceal Powerloss, and the mysterious flutelike object is in fact a device to create an artificial simulation of the Power.

Which gives the humans a plan for defeating the kzin expedition and getting themselves out of this jam. Except by this time the kzin captain, who's no slouch in the brains department, his ancestors having been smart enough to survive two previous Man-Kzin Wars, is beginning to see the value of that mysterious device.

I will say that it comes to a satisfying conclusion. Maybe a little disappointing to those who were hoping to see a whole new science develop from study of the thrintun device, but completely in line with the axiom that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And what more absolute power can one conceive than the Power of the thrintun?

Table of Contents

  • "In the Hall of the Mountain King" by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling
  • "Hey Diddle Diddle" by Thomas T. Thomas

Review posted July 21, 2011

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