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The Evolution of the Kzinti

Larry Niven's story The Warriors introduces the Kzinti. It was one of the first stories he ever sold, and in the introduction to the first Man-Kzin Wars book he relates how they seem seem slightly out of focus compared to the directions they have developed in since. Of course when he wrote The Warriors he had could not have known that the Kzinti would go on to become the best developed alien species in science fiction, bar none. I suspect that even when he wrote that introduction (a dozen Man/Kzin Wars books ago) he little knew how far the Kzinti would go from that point. I really liked the first three Kzin books, but it was in the fourth one that the Kzinti leapt (screamed and leapt) into full and sharp relief. The story was Donald Kingsbury's Survivor and it was told in large measure from the Kzinti point of view. It was moreover a story in which the main character was not a human, nor even the archetypical warrior Kzin, fearless and deadly but a Kzinti coward and an outcast. This was a side to the Kzinti that had never been shown, but when you think about it, had to exist. Confrontations of honour are zero sum games, for every winner there must be a loser. When honour is everything in a society there is a strong motivation to fight to the death, both because a known willingness to win or die is an effective deterrent to challengers and because living without honour in such a world is barely living at all. We don't need to look to the Kzinti to see this, human society provides many examples, from the Jivaro headhunters, feudal knights and Samuri to the honour duels of the Antebellum South and the delicate diplomacy of the Cold War. The cold mathematics of honour driven confrontation are well documented in game theory and the results are as brutal as a game of chicken. Some forty percent of Jivaro males could expect to die in male-male combat, a result barely distinguishable from the Kzinti. Had the Cold War ever turned hot we would have envied their relatively safe existence.

And yet, as game theory also shows, "He who fights and runs away will live to fight another day." Co-operation is hardly as dramatic a strategy as confrontation, but it greatly reduces the death toll. Modern mass society would be impossible without the well defined violence limiting structures of law and law enforcement. These structures change the game payoffs to tone down violence and enable co-operation for the collective benefit of all. It is no coincidence that societies where the rule of law is strong and evenhanded do far better than societies where every man is a law unto himself. Liberal democracies are by far the best at applying the law with reasonable impartiality and as a result the average American is about fifty times less likely to die by violence than the average Jivaro, the average Canadian is five hundred times less likely and the average Icelander five thousand times less so. As another result the Jivaro, along with the Samuri, feudal Europe, the Old South and the less democratic half of the Cold War are all part of history, while today more than half the world lives in a country with some form of reasonably law-governed democracy. Libraries worth of books have been written on the subject of how human behaviour makes the whole system tick, Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype) and Stephen Pinker (How the Mind Words and The Blank Slate) are good places to start.

And so the Kzinti! The underlying mathematics of conflict and co-operation apply to any species with the ultimate payoffs measured in reproductive success, and we can see variations on the theme being played out by earthly species from wolves to wolf spiders. Math is the same everywhere in the universe, and so we can expect alien races to follow the same logic. So we have this catlike species, less gregarious than humans but more aggressive. They are intelligent and long lived and thus inevitably reproduce sexually. Their natural social arrangement is barely tribal - imagine prides of lions, where groups of related females stake out hunting territories to feed themselves and their cubs. Wandering males come along, singly or in small groups to dominate the territory (and impregnate the females) for as long as they can hold off the challenge of other males. The Kzinti live like this in the wild state, thought the groups are larger. Niven established early that kzinti females aren't intelligent, but Dean Ing shows us in Cathouse that once upon a time they were. Why would a culture breed the brains out of half it's population? The same reason that a culture would consign half its population to life behind the veil. Ultimately intra-specific competition is about reproductive success, and the limiting factor on sexual reproduction is the availability of unfertilized eggs (which are by definition the less available gamete). As a result the competition to fertilize eggs is a strict zero sum game for males, success for one is a loss for the other. One strong strategy to win the game is to keep as many females as you can away from other males. Roosters and elephant seals fight to the death to maintain harems, and sometimes humans do too. Human females have always been as smart as human males but for most of history women have been the literal property of the men in their lives, and subject to stringent control of their sexuality. In The Chosen One (published as Jotok) I work this point into the story. A segment of the ancient Kzinti line have adopted a tradition of breeding out intelligence in females.(Donald Kingsbury covers the genetics of how this might work in Survivor). Such a tradition (really just an extreme version of the Burhka) might lead to the short term success of the Patriarchs who initiate it because more tractable and less clever females are easier to keep from sexual straying, but inevitably it will cost the culture as a whole compared to those who prize brainpower wherever they find it. There's another parallel with human society here - the fastest way to increase a nation's standard of living is to make sure its girls get educated.

So fifty thousand years ago the Kzinti prides who follow these traditions are well on their way to extinction as a result of them, while their less repressive brethren have mastered spaceflight. A twist of fate in the form of a Jotoki agent provocateur hands high technology weapons to the fading primitives, and suddenly the roles are reversed. My hero Swift-Son becomes the first Patriarch, and his tribal social structure is suddenly superimposed on an advanced and technological culture. The canon shows clearly that Patriarchy is essentially a feudal empire, and in Prisoner of War I make the point that this works only because its stabilized by a process of continuous conquest that keeps internal conflict from ripping it apart. Choose any human empire at any point in history and you'll see the same thing - those not busy expanding are busy collapsing. There are important differences though. One logical result of the Kzinti lifestyle, with its emphasis on fresh meat and room to run is that their population density will necessarily be orders of magnitude lower than ours. They won't have cities as we know them, certainly nothing like the sprawling megopolises of Tokyo, Jakarta, or Los Angelos. They will have small, spread out clusters of (usually) related males, built around a central market area which once upon a time would also have been the local stronghold in case of attack. In turn a few of these will make up the feifdom of some minor Pride Patriarch, and again most of its inhabitants will be blood related, though less so than the smallest clusters. A pawful of feifdoms will form a Lesser Pride, and it won't take very many Lesser Prides to fill a continent. All the Lesser Prides on a world owe fealty to a Great Pride, whose Great Patriarch represents his charges to the Patriarch of the Patriarchy himself. The political associations implied are loose, and while slave races greatly increase the available working bodies and maintain the machinery of the Kzinti's advanced civilization they don't make the Patriarchy a unified political entity. The leadership at every level is not much more than first-among-equals and there's always someone willing to take advantage of any perceived weakness to scream and leap in challenge. Outwardly the system is a success. Kzinti fleets are organized like pirate fleets, with everyone signing on for a share of the booty. They are unequaled at raiding, fearless conquistadors and the Patriarchy has fifty thousand year track record of expansionist victory behind it.
But despite its outward strength the empire has weaknesses. The piratical nature of Kzinti conquest make sustained campaigns are difficult for them. Chu'ut Rritt in Pournelle and Stirling's The Children's Hour sees the need to advance their strategic thinking, but imposing his will on his subordinates ultimately proves impossible (although the sneaky humans don't help his cause any). Within the power structure Pride vies against Pride, and the various factions of the Priesthood have their own secret agendas to advance as well. In Telepath's Dance Hal Colebatch hints at the link between Kzinti female intelligence and the ability of Telepaths. Beneath the more-or-less placid surface of the Patriarchy are the deep, slow undercurrents of a long hidden rebellion. Only the aesthetic Conserver's, whose role combines judge, historian and advisor hold themselves above the fray, and hence provide cohesion and continuity to the explosive brew. It is against this backdrop that Kingsbury's cowardly kzin shows the hidden side of the feudal coin, he trades honour for life on the game theory grid, and ultimately turns humiliation and compromise into personal victory. Even in an expanding empire we know there have to be a lot of Kzinti like this, the ones who train slaves and tend machines, the meek and downtrodden who can never aspire to hold land or have sons. It takes effort to contain their thwarted ambition, effort which is then unavailable for the larger fight. We see this in Niven's Choosing Names where an outcast Telepath switches sides for a human-gifted name and access to captured females.
When the Kzinti meet the humans their stabilizing expansion suddenly stops, and the Patriarchy's problems begin. Humans don't beat kzinti because they're smarter, faster or stronger - they aren't. They win because the Kzinti system doesn't require victory, only pressure release, an avenue for aggressive young males to go and win death or glory somewhere in the great beyond without upsetting the applecart back home. Niven established in Ringworld that conflict with humanity (engineered by the puppeteers) has evolved the Kzinti at a tremendous rate, and in the ultimate success of Kingsbury's Eater-of-Grass we see the start of this process. This is completely in line with game theory. The meek really shall inherit the world, so long as they aren't too meek. The gradual mellowing of Kzinti aggressive instinct is a theme of many stories in the series, especially those set on Wunderland where the two species have to learn to co-exist in the middle of the larger war. My own Windows of the Soul is an example, as is Hal Colebatch's His Sergeant's Honour and Steve Stirling and Greg Bear's joint effort In the Hall of the Mountain King.

Of course human society is changing too. In The Warriors Niven portrays humans as complete pacifists who have eliminated aggression as a mode of interaction. The story's protagonists seem to live in an idyllic and peaceful world, until they are rudely awakened by first contact with the Kzinti. They manage to win against the technologically superiour Kzinti only by exploiting their supreme overconfidence and using their relatively primitive technologies as weapons in unexpected ways. By the time of Madness Has Its Place the shine has come off of Niven's world government, and we see the pervasive surveillance and enforced psychodrug administration required to keep everyone happy and peaceful all day every day. The image is no longer idyllic, this is a world where organleggers traffic in body parts and the paramilitary ARM has to hunt down pregnant mothers to keep population pressure from drowning the world in human flesh. After the Kzinti first contact humans are quick to recover their feral instincts, and by the time the Kzinti invasion fleets get serious about taking on the Monkey Menace the humans have caught up enough to be a serious challenge. Of course the Kzinti control many worlds and many slave races, they command high technology and have vast collective experience of interstellar conquest, but the reality is they are actually outnumbered by humans, and more importantly lack the political ability to bring their full might to bear on a single point. The races are actually well matched for combat, something which the Kzinti haven't experienced before. We don't actually get a lot of information about why their previous slave races lost their respective wars, but we can imagine that each must have had some fatal flaw that rendered them vulnerable to Kzinti style conquest.

We see this most clearly with the Jotoki, whose lifetime symbiotic bonds and asexual reproductive biology drive them far up the co-operation/competition curve from Kzinti. They're fantastic traders but it makes sense to have others do their fighting for them. They recruit the Kzinti as mercenaries (again in The Chosen One (Jotok)), and they wind up conquered before they can adapt their social structure enough to fight back effectively. Perhaps the Kdatlyno didn't have enough technology, perhaps the Whrloo were too physically fragile for combat. ("The Whrloo?" I hear you ask. "I've never heard of them." No you haven't, they make their debut in Destiny's Forge.) So it is the humans who finally stop the Kzinti conquests, and when they keep stopping them the Patriarchy starts to implode. In Ringworld Louis Wu tells us the Kzinti lose about two thirds of their population in each war. Taken at face value, even allowing for their population to rebound 50% between the wars, this amounts to the literal decimation of their species, genocide on a galactic scale. Of course we know from later stories that the first few wars at least were nothing like this. Perhaps the Kzinti lost two thirds of those who went to Wunderland in the first couple of wars, and we can certainly imagine a catastrophic final war that costs them two thirds of their population at once. Louis isn't a historian, but he sets us on the track.
So this is the way I see the Kzinti and their society. In exploring how different they are from humanity I have been forced to understand how much they are the same. We go back to the underlying mathematics of conflict and co-operation. I believe any species intelligent enough to develop advanced technology will show behaviour patterns broadly similar to our own. They will trade and fight, form coalitions and manoeuvre them for advantage, communicate ideas with a symbolic language system. Males will compete for females, and females will compete for resources and (perhaps) the best males. They will know love and hate, pain and pleasure, desire and fear, plan for the future by considering the past. Dolphins do all these things, lions do most of them, even squid do some, it comes with the territory of being alive. There is nothing in the Kzinti way of life that a Samuri warrior would not immediately understand. There will be differences of course, but only in detail. I didn't expect to learn that when I sat down to write Destiny's Forge. This kind of surprise is why I love being a writer.


Paul Chafe
Halifax, NS

The War Starts in -3425 Days

Cover Story:
Stephen Hickman

On the Wars:
Toni Weisskopf

     Chapter 1  
     Chapter 2  
     Chapter 3  
     Chapter 4  
     Chapter 5  

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