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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Man-Kzin Wars XV, created by Larry Niven

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Man-Kzin Wars XV

 

 

Created

 

 

by

 

 

Larry Niven

 

 

(Baen, February 2019, tpb, 335 pp.)

 

Sales Pitch” by Hal Colebatch

Singer-of-Truth” by Martin L. Schoemaker

The Third Kzin” by Jason Fregeau

Excitement” by Hal Colebatch and Jessica Q. Fox

Justice” by Jessica Q. Fox

Saga” by Brendan DuBois

Scrith” by Brad R. Torgersen

 

Reviewed by C.D. Lewis

The reviewer has enjoyed Larry Niven’s Kzin and their conflicts with humans (and everyone else) since the ’80s and could not pass up an opportunity to review an anthology full of new stories set in Niven’s Known Space. Six authors provide seven SF works ranging from shorts to a novella. They range in tone from military SF to Trek-like diplomatic adventure. Each opens a window on Known Space, showing how established facts came to be or revealing the consequences of a prior work’s resolution—or both. Fans of Known Space will love the color these add to the universe and enjoy the opportunity to revisit landmarks like Wunderland and see Kzin dueling over honor and all those glorious things we’ve grown to love. An enjoyable trip back to Known Space and recommended for anyone in love with the place.

Hal Colebatch whets the appetite with the 3,000-word “Sales Pitch” delivered on a Puppeteer trading post. Set before the advent of human contact with alien life, and having no humans anywhere in it, the action occurs in two scenes: a Puppeteer interacts via hologram with an alien (extinct by the time the Man-Kzin Wars opens), then two Puppeteers discuss the next steps in the manipulation of some potentially threatening races. Fans of Niven’s Known Space, familiar with the introduction of humans to Kzinti, will enjoy seeing the Puppeteers at work setting up the Man-Kzin Wars. Those unfamiliar with the Man Kzin Wars (in which case, why not start with vol. XV?) may feel a bit lost wondering what the punch lines mean.

Martin L. Shoemaker’s novelette “Singer-of-Truth” follows a human Strategic Psychoanalyst assigned to a POW outpost housing captive Kzinti. He wants to gain the respect of the Kzinti he’s there to study (cue laughter). A cultural mismatch in space that resonates with classic Man-Kzin conflict, “Singer-of-Truth” is set far into the future beyond the human-Kzin first contact. The complexity of human society—different lines of command, corruption within command structures—contrasts with the relative simplicity of Kzinti social structure. Not only is this piece a rollicking good time—how many kinds of trouble can one new officer find?—but in the finest tradition of the Man-Kzin Wars Shoemaker delivers a beautiful manipulation of human and Kzinti social rules to produce a climactic solution perfectly suited to the protagonist’s character. It’s a clever-over-strong victory that resonates with themes of self-sacrifice and values imbedded throughout the work.

The Third Kzin” by Jason Fregeau is an SF mystery that opens in the German-themed Wunderland city of Munchen on a traveler hoping to meet an old friend. Set in the aftermath of Chuut-Riit’s demise and the surrender of Wunderland to humans, “The Third Kzin” uses third person voice principally to follow two characters—a newly-arrived human and a Kzinti veteran—as they separately try to make sense of their world after they’ve lost their bearings. Fregeau explores how enemies with nothing in common are deeply alike, how seeming friends can be dire enemies, how apparent foes can work well together—it’s a fun twisty mystery that juxtaposes cruel, prejudiced, bullying, crooks with kind, tolerant, earnest human beings heroes to comment on who the good guys are in the world, and who the villains are, and how to tell the difference.

Hal Colbatch’s and Jessica Q. Fox’ “Excitement” follows a pilot hired to fly a secret mission for a high-ranking Kzin who wants off Wunderland on the sly … a mission involving excitement. In the Kzin sense of the word. It’s an opportunity to see Kzinti posturing and fighting amongst themselves, interacting with humans, risking their lives for honor and duty, and using archaic weapons in an era of FTL. Entertaining badass Kzin employer, fun fight sequences—a light romp in Known Space.

In under 4,000 words Jessica Q. Fox’ “Justice” depicts a remotely-observed scientific experiment into which a criminal thinks he’s clever to escape from the law. Dialogue reveals offscreen activity that addresses questions involving ethics and morality, but nobody makes an onscreen character-defining choice or sacrifice of the kind ordinarily associated with a story climax. It’s not a revenge-plot, as the main characters have no personal grievance to avenge. The story’s resolution derives its power from its description of the acute misery experienced by a criminal whose offenses convince everyone he’s really got it coming. Since that action occurs by remote monitoring at a great distance and the decisions how to respond all occurred offscreen, the reader is never asked to judge a scene character, which protects gentle readers from guilt should they find themselves reveling inside contemplating the abject misery of a horrible specimen of humanity. In other words, the plot doesn’t turn on the climactic action of the protagonist but the resolution of anticipation; it’s structured like a horror tale, except the good guys are all spared the woeful fate and the victim is someone easy to despise. The result is a kind of horror/revenge offering that doesn’t get anyone you care about hurt, even in backstory. It’s like Fox mated a cozy murder mystery with a revenge plot horror story to breed happy horror for fans of harsh punishment.

Brendan DuBois’ “Saga” retells Beowolf from the perspective of a renegade Kzin who flees with his pregnant mate from the Patriarch’s plan to breed intelligence from kzinretti. Their craft and all its technology having been destroyed crash-landing on an unknown world, the Kzin behave as Kzin: they set out to conquer the world, prioritizing glory over strategy—to predictable results. In the final scene, a post-Contact archaeological project in Denmark presents evidence of a two-Kzinti visitation to Earth during the Dark Ages. A visiting Kzin speculates what kind of saga Kzin would have told about Earth had the Kzinti prevailed in the year 600 and Beowolf not ended with the monsters’ death.

At over 40,000 words, Brad R. Torgersen’s SF diplomatic mystery “Scrith” is nearly a novel by itself. “Scrith” builds on plot threads born in Ringworld and its sequels: the human and kzinti reacting to samples the material from which the Ringworld was built, the fate of Ringworld’s escapees, and so on. Accordingly, the plot and conflict are richer than one finds in a short story. More characters, more factions, and more time spent exploring new Ringworld-related background, technology, and worldbuilding. “Scrith” delivers all that, and exciting character backstories, but the climax is largely a physical conflict, free from the kind of character-defining hard decisions that reach the heart. The strength of “Scrith” lies in the portal Torgersen opens on Known Space, its aliens, the huge scope of their aeons-long operations, and the tragedy of lost knowledge and lost technology. Torgersen’s denouement resolves “Scrith” on a perfect note for a Man-Kzin Wars diplomatic adventure: both sides will inevitably pursue a parallel strategy with no more real advantage than before, in a universe that at one time contained something more dangerous than either … and may yet still. Cue sequel!


C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.