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Man-Kzin Wars IX by Larry Niven

Cover by Stephen Hickman

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The history of the Man-Kzin wars continues with the ninth volume in this series of stories set in Larry Niven's Known-Space universe. Although the anthology series originally began because Niven did not feel qualified to write stories of the wars between humanity and the kzinti on the grounds that he had never served in the armed forces, the scope of the series has moved well beyond the purely military science fiction tales that appeared in the first several volumes and has become more generally the story of relations between the two species, which often take the form of a struggle of a more subtle nature, the Long War or Endless War.

The first story in this volume is the last story of a departed Grand Master. Poul Anderson's "Pele" tells the story of a voyage to study a world being torn apart by its sun. Although humanity and the kzinti are at peace at the moment, both species know that it is a temporary state, and have no desire to allow the other side to gain even a slight advantage that could be used against the other when hostilities next erupt. Thus the peace has included clauses requiring each side to allow observers from the other side to be present at any major scientific investigation that might conceivably have military applications.

Thus the fiercely honorable Ghrul-Captain comes to this system, to the dismay of the humans who are studying the cosmic disaster in the making. The long history of war between the two species, and particularly the bitter memories of the atrocities of the occupation of Wunderland, mean that his arrival will be treated with suspicion. Surely the ratcats are up to something nasty, even if the humans can't figure out what it is.

However, suspicion cuts both ways, particularly given the touchy honor of the kzinti. Things quickly deteriorate into a confrontation in which neither side is willing to give way to show good faith, yet neither side can afford to hold out indefinitely.

In "His Sergeant's Honor" Hal Colebatch takes us to Wunderland shortly after the Liberation, after the human hyperspace fleet routed the kzinti, already weakened by a civil war among themselves in the wake of the assassination of Chuut-Riit (a story originally told in the second and third volumes of the Man-Kzin Wars anthology series, and later reprinted in Houses of the Kzinti). Humanity must now decide whether to follow a path of vengeance or a path of reconciliation, not only with the kzinti left behind on Wunderland, but among themselves. On one hand, people want to see justice done, the perpetrators of atrocities punished unmistakably -- and there were atrocities aplenty. On the other, there is a real danger that an excessively harsh peace will produce hard feelings that will persist for decades or even generations, creating stigmatized out-groups with no stake in society and nothing to lose -- and there are far too many kzinti on Wunderland to simply deport or exterminate, many of whom were born there and know no other home.

Raargh-Sergeant is a non-commissioned officer, one of that breed upon which the daily operational readiness of a military force depends. High-ranking officers may plan strategy and tactics of an important battle, but sergeants make sure that the troops are where they need to be when the fighting starts, and that they have the necessary supplies to do the fighting. So while he is a bit nonplussed at being forbidden a heroic death, his eminently practical mind sets to work on the problem of how to salvage the honor of his small unit of survivors when everything is coming to pieces.

Then he makes a discovery that is political dynamite -- not all of Chuut-Riit's hundreds of sons perished in the horror of the assassination. One little kitten was hidden away in a secret place and survived the cannibalistic frenzy of kits left starving by sabotaged feeders so they would turn upon their sire at a critical moment. Vaemar has inherited his father's greater mental flexibility and self-control, characteristics which made Chuut-Riit a an outstanding leader both at war and at administration. However, there are many humans filled with bitter memories of the occupation and its horrors to the point that anything associated with it is to be destroyed, even a kitten too young to be a moral actor. Which means that Raargh-Sergeant has a particularly difficult job ahead of him, finding some way to keep this promising kit alive both physically and mentally.

It's fascinating to see the development of the kzinti as not merely enemies focused on the conquest and enslavement of humanity, but people with internal lives and interests -- but at the same time, not just humans in furry suits. And it's also interesting to see how a new author has continued a storyline originally developed by Jerry Pournelle and S. M. Stirling in two of the earliest volumes of this series. Many of the supporting characters of those stories, particularly the human collaborators, reappear in this story as the victors try to determine whether they were acting in their own self-interest or in a desperate hope to try to salvage something of civilization for humanity by working with their conquerors to create an orderly relationship between kzin and human.

Paul Chafe's "Windows on the World" is a murder mystery set in Tiamat, capital of the Serpent Swarm, the Centaurian asteroid belt. A dismembered body is discovered in one of the transport tunnels which handle freight passing through the giant asteroid's main axis. The brutal way in which the young woman's body was mangled is particularly disturbing, since neither of the possibilities it suggests for a perpetrator are exactly comforting. The occupation and the Liberation are still open sores on the minds and souls of the Centarian humans, which makes the suspicion that the killer may be a kzin potential political dynamite. On the other hand a human perpetrator is very likely to be mentally disturbed, and thus unpredictable and unlikely to respond to normal human motivators.

So with some reluctance the protagonist heads off to his counterpart in Tigertown (the kzin part of Tiamat), Hunter-of-Outlaws. Once an officer with a partial name, he has set aside that honor in recognition of defeat and is known only by a job descriptor. But he still has a firm sense of honor which informs his police work -- something which he approaches in a kzin manner very different from human notions of law and justice.

He thinks the culprit is a kzin whose self-control was less than optimal and felt insulted by some bit of body-language on the victim's part, perhaps something as simple as a primate smile, which looks like an aggressive baring of teeth to a kzin. But the humans are thinking of other possibilities -- rebel kzin who think she stumbled across their activities and decided to secure her silence in the most permanent way possible, or Kdaptists, cultists who believe God has abandoned the kzinti in favor of humanity and hope to lure Him back by masquerading in human pelts and eating human flesh.

When a kzin is discovered with the victim's flayed hide and boasts of killing her, it looks like it's going to be case closed. Except a bit of tough questioning by Hunter-of-Outlaws reveals it to be a red herring -- this honorless creature lied about his method of obtaining the skin, and now the clues point back at a human killer. But our protagonist is still no closer to identifying the culprit or reconstructing a motive -- until he makes some interesting discoveries about the inner workings of the computer system controlling the transport tunnels, which lead him to some most disturbing things, including the revival of a crime that had been something out of the history books for the past several generations.

In many ways it is reminiscent of the robot mysteries of Isaac Asimov, which also used the elements of an established science fictional universe (in that case, the Three Laws of Robotics) to set up and solve a murder mystery. When Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel, he was setting forth to disprove the then-common claim that it was not possible to write a story that was simultaneously science fiction and a fair mystery, because a work of science fiction had by its nature to deal with the unknown, whereas to be fair, a mystery had to deal with things known to the reader. Asimov resolved that problem by carefully planting the necessary information about the Three Laws of Robotics and their operation in the early part of the novel, so that an alert reader can piece the clues together along with the detective.

Finally, the master himself weighs in with "Fly-By-Night," a story of the society created by the people of the Angel's Pencil, the first humans to encounter the kzinti. This story draws not only upon Niven's first story ever, "The Warriors," but upon Hal Colebatch's story "Telepath Dance" in the previous volume, Man-Kzin Wars VIII: Choosing Names. Generations have passed since those times, and the humans and kzinti of Sheathclaw are making cautious forrays into the outside universe.

Fly-By-Night is one of those kzinti, although he's masquerading as a kzin of the Patriarchy -- a masquerade that starts coming apart as soon as their ship is attacked by a ship captained by a kzin claiming to be of the Patriarch's own family. A kzin whose agents take hostages from among the human passengers in cold sleep in order to secure the surrender of Fly-By-Night.

Among those passengers may well be the family of the first-person narrator, who is carrying on a masquerade of his own, one which can strip him of his rights if it should be discovered and reduce him to the status of prey. But he's willing to take that chance to protect his family, so off he goes with Fly-By-Night, all the time looking for opportunities to outwit his captors. Thus the story becomes an intricate and subtle battle of wills and wits between the bigoted kzinti of the Patriarchy and the three-way cooperation of a kzin, a Jotok (itself a composite entity), and a human.

It is also interesting for featuring one of the first ever looks inside the sanitary facilities of a kzinti ship. Somehow it seems quite appropriate that they should use a litterbox, albeit one with sand that rakes itself, perhaps by being embedded with nanomachines.

Although the stories are scattered across the timeline of Known Space, and each has a very different flavor, they still manage to achieve a certain thematic unity of stories in which war is carried out by means other than battle.

Table of Contents

  • "Pele" by Poul Anderson
  • "His Sergeant's Honor" by Hal Colebatch
  • "Windows on the World" by Paul Chafe
  • "Fly-By-Night" by Larry Niven

Review posted August 19, 2010.

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