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Man-Kzin Wars VIII by Larry Niven

Cover by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Man-Kzin Wars series began when fans of Larry Niven's Known Space series kept pestering him for stories of the wars between humanity and the feline kzinti, a period that brought an end to the enforced pacification of humanity by the United Nations and their ARM technological police. Although the hints of what went on during those tumultuous times which could be gleaned from Niven's various stories were fascinating, the author steadfastly declined to write any stories set during that period. He had never served in the armed forces, he firmly averred, had never heard a gun fired in anger, and thus was quite thoroughly unqualified to write about warfare.

Jim Baen saw in this problem an opportunity -- if Niven would be agreeable, it might be possible to bring in other authors to write stories of the period. Authors who had the necessary background, who had a proven record of writing about future warfare. Thus was the Man-Kzin Wars series of anthologies born, and not only did it give those eager fans stories by established authors, but it also has ended up providing opportunities for relatively unknown authors to establish themselves.

This installment of the Man-Kzin Wars series opens with a story by the master himself, "Choosing Names." Although Larry Niven always insisted that his lack of military experience made him unsuited to write about the war eras, he proves himself quite capable of writing about the aftermath of battle and the subtle combat of mind against mind that is a well-conducted interrogation. A kzin Telepath has been taken prisoner and is being questioned by the humans about his experiences during a recently concluded battle in the First Man-Kzin War, when the kzinti threw four successive conquest fleets against the Sol system and each time were thrown back.

Among the kzinti telepaths are despised, regarded as scarcely better than the slaves that do all the labor which is beneath the dignity of a Hero. As such, it is almost unthinkable for a telepath to earn a Name, even a partial Name. But humans have different ideas about the role of names in social interactions, and find it most decidedly awkward to deal with a POW who has no name by which to address him, just a descriptor. Thus Niven is able to work in some references to other science fiction worlds, as well as a little political commentary. The latter may not be to everyone's taste, but it does give reason to chuckle a little.

Hal Colbatch's contribution, "Telepath's Dance," is a sort-of sequel to the origiinal kzin story, "The Warriors," telling of what happened to Angel's Pencil after that initial deadly encounter with the kzinti. Even after they barely survive their violent encounter with the kzinti ship, the crew of the human slowship still can't quite believe the evidence of the wrecked ship before them, so total has been their conditioning to believe that war is solely a phenomenon of primitive races. It's only with an enormous amount of mental effort that they're able to break through that conditioning enough to process the evidence in front of their eyes instead of comfortably slipping a wall of denial between themselves and the facts.

But the story doesn't stop there, instead being intertwined with the stories of two other ships. One is Gutting Claw, another kzinti ship, this one belonging to a senior admiral and containing a small harem of kzinretti (female kzinti, barely sapient) for his pleasure. Also aboard it is a telepath whose memories include a mother capable of far more extensive speech than any female kzin should be -- memories he's not quite sure are real, and most definitely does not dare discuss with any other kzin, not even the other telepaths who have formed a sort of resistance network against the contempt of the Heroes.

The other vessel is Happy Gatherer, a human research ship. Aboard it is Selina Guthlac, who never quite completely fit into Earth society. Her brother Arthur, a museum curator at Greenwich, gave her a keepsake before leaving -- a tiny model of a ship from a display that was being eliminated to make room for a new exhibit on dance traditions around the world. Readers who are even slightly aware of the history of the Royal Navy will recognize the ship, which only helps underline just how completely these characters have been conditioned to believe that war is something out of ancient history, to the point they insist that the tubes coming out of the ships' superstructures must have been augers for some sort for bulk-freight transfers.

As the Gutting Claw is investigating the destruction of the other kzin ship, they realize that they are also in the vicinity of another alien ship of the sort which destroyed their fellows. Being a warrior race descended from stalking carnivores, they immediately set to hunting it down, and its crew does not have the unusual perceptivity that permitted the crew of the Angel's Pencil to get the jump on the ship that attacked it. Thus begins a story of captivity and terror, yet with a thread of hope running through it.

During World War II one of the popular slogans for the homefront was "food will win this war." It was intended to raise awareness of just how important food was to the war effort, but since much of the food available to civilians was unfamiliar and often regarded as less than desirable, it was not long before some wag quipped, "sure, if we can get the enemy to eat it." And that is precisely the problem which faces the protagonist of Jean Lamb's "Galley Slave."

Marybeth Bonet isn't even a soldier. She's a civilian dietician who was brought aboard the Cormorant to work on the autochef in the ship's galley (kitchen), improving the quality of the meals it produces in the interests of better crew morale. She certainly wasn't expecting to be attacked by a kzin warship.

Suddenly she's the sole human survivor, and is determined to find a way to keep herself in that condition. That means convincing her captors that 1. she's harmless and 2. she's more valuable alive than dead. Given that she's the captive of quarter-ton obligate carnivores who consider human flesh quite tasty, that second one's no small trick. But as she's working on readjusting the autochef to serve up foods that will particularly appeal to kzinti, she realizes that she can apply her knowledge of digestion and metabolism to modify those foods into a weapon that'll slip right past the warcats' trained defenses. It's the perfect Zen weapon that's no weapon at all -- if she can just make it tasty enough to tempt their palates.

It should be noted that Ms. Lamb is following a fine science fictional literary tradition in her play on words in the title. Isaac Asimov also wrote a story of the same title, with a completely different punning use of the term "galley."

In "Jotok" Paul Chafe takes us back to the earliest days of the kzinti, and gives us a somewhat different view of how they became the interstellar conquerors that terrorized this part of the galaxy. While it's generally accepted that they acquired their technology as a result of being hired as mercenaries by the Jotok and instead enslaved their employers, Chafe's story suggests that it was not the most advanced cultures of the kzinti who were approached, the ones who fell somewhere between the Bronze Age and early gunpowder weapons in technology, but rather the increasingly marginalized primitives who were already hungering for revenge against those they termed the Mage-Kzin, whose females were fully intelligent and betimes even fought alongside their males.

Not to mention that he even suggests that the so-called Mage-Kzin had such advanced technology as the gravity-planers, and had already been making a nuisance of themselves in the space around their star system. That of course raises the question of whether they actually developed it on their own and the fact was conveniently forgotten at a later point, or if they too had been armed by another race and promptly used it in ways their benefactors never intended.

The final story, "Slowboat Nightmare" by Warren W. James, is yet another story of the rediscovery of the arts of war. Ib is a Sol Belter who was getting increasingly tired of the restrictions the UN was clamping down on his kind, so when he heard that a ship was being prepared to settle the rich zone of asteroidal bodies surrounding Vega, he jumped on the possibility.

When he awakes from coldsleep, he knows that something is terribly wrong. He is soon informed by his old friend Tom, the ship's doctor, that they have been captured and boarded by a newly-discovered alien race of aggressive carnivores. In the process of capturing the ship, its drive was damaged, and their kzinti overlords want it fixed, now. Ib is the closest thing they have to an engineer after the crew was slaughtered on the bridge, although he doesn't have any direct experience with ramscoops, just maintaining the fusion-torch singleship he used while prospecting in the Belt.

But the kzinti have made it clear that they are not a patient folk, and slaves who fail to please will have a very short life. So Ib sets to work with a will, and all the time he's being given strange drugs by Tom. Supposedly it's to repair damage that occurred while he was being thawed from coldsleep, but soon he feels other changes. Shifts in his attitude from the enforced placidity of the Long Peace to a seething anger at the creatures who have invaded his ship and killed people he cared about. Soon he is plotting how to make these vicious felinoids feel his wrath, especially when he discovers that they're treating the coldsleep chambers full of colonists like a frozen-meat locker.

Except how can he wipe out an entire warship crew with an extensive tradition of warfare when there isn't a single weapon on the entire ship? Sure, there's the knives in the galley, but against a creature the size and strength of a tiger, but with intelligence behind those hungry eyes, they're little more than a messy way to commit suicide.

However, not every weapon is necessarily designed to be one, and we the readers get a very clear demonstration of Robert A. Heinlein's aphorism that there are no deadly weapons, only deadly men. Which is a very disturbing discovery for a man who had been brought up to be a sheep and trained to believe that a sheep was a very noble thing to be.

On the whole, it's another good addition to the Man-Kzin Wars series. A couple of the stories may be lightweights that don't make that much contribution to the larger picture, but even they help us remember that wars aren't just the great clashes of the wills of the vast abstractions we call nations, but of individuals with hopes and dreams who are willing to put their lives on the line to help preserve what they believe in.

Table of Contents

  • Choosing Names by Larry Niven
  • Telepath's Dance by Hal Colebatch
  • Galley Slave by Jean Lamb
  • Jotok by Paul Chafe
  • Slowboat Nightmare by Warren W. James

Review posted August 19, 2010.

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