By Luke Forney
A lot of times, shared universe settings are interesting ideas and fun experiments that ultimately fail miserably, simply because taking a large number of disparate authors and trying to have them all join under one banner and one vision is a difficult task. Not necessarily because they are unwilling or demand too much control (although that likely is the case some of the time), but because getting everyone on the same page, all understanding the shared universe creator’s vision, is tough. How can you get someone to see what you see in your head?
However, sometimes the magic works. One might point to the Thieves World series, or George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards superhero/science fiction setting. They aren’t common, but when they work, they prove to be that elusive gestalt whole, the synergistic piece greater than the sum of its parts. One of these cases is the Man-Kzin Wars setting, created by Larry Niven.
In 1966, the magazine Worlds of If published “The Warriors,” a short story by then-new author Larry Niven. The story was one of Niven’s earliest endeavors, as well as one of the first stories set in his Known Space universe. It detailed a history of warfare between humans and the alien Kzinti that had a much broader background than the otherwise small-scale story that was set in it. Of Niven’s Known Space, the period of war with the Kzinti was the one that was a black hole, empty of content although frequently referenced.
In 1988 the situation was finally rectified. Larry Niven stated in numerous venues that he didn’t feel qualified to write a war story, citing the complete lack of war in his background, and felt that the matter would be mishandled by him. However, a number of his writer friends were more experienced with this subject, and Niven invited them to explore this period of his universal saga. Thus, The Man-Kzin Wars was published, featuring an introduction from Niven, along with a reprinting of “The Warriors,” as well as stories from Poul Anderson (“Iron”) and Dean Ing (“Cathouse”). The success of this first volume prompted the publication of Man-Kzin Wars II the following year. The two anthologies sold so well, the series kept on, and runs to this year, with new volumes appearing in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1998 (subtitled “Choosing Names”), 2003, 2005 (subtitled “The Wunder War”), 2007, 2009, and the upcoming Man-Kzin Wars XIII arriving in 2012.
Outside of the main anthologies, the series found ways to expand elsewhere. 1991 saw the publication of three novels set during the Man-Kzin Wars era, all three of which were fix-up novels based either in part or in whole on earlier stories. Inconstant Star by Poul Anderson featured a combining of his first two Man-Kzin Wars stories, “Iron” and “Inconstant Star.” The Children’s Hour featured the two stories by Jerry Pournelle & S.M. Stirling, “The Children’s Hour” and “The Asteroid Queen.” Cathouse by Dean Ing featured “Cathouse” and “Briar Patch.” The success of “A Darker Geometry” by Gregory Benford & Mark O. Martin in 1995’s Man-Kzin Wars VII lead to the 1996 publication of A Darker Geometry, a novel-length expansion of the story, in which Benford & Martin expanded the tale, as well as adding substantially to the ending. In 1998, the series got its greatest hits volume, with The Best of All Possible Wars: The Best of the Man-Kzin Wars, which featured four stories (two by Niven). The Houses of the Kzinti was published in 2002, to coincide with the relaunch of the series with Man-Kzin Wars IX, and it was an omnibus of Dean Ing’s Cathouse and Pournelle & Stirling’s The Children’s Hour. 2007 saw the publication of Destiny’s Forge by Paul Chafe. It was the first Man-Kzin Wars novel to be entirely original, not an expansion of previous stories, or a combination of stories and their sequels. It was also a behemoth of a novel, clocking in at around 1,000 pages, and helped prove that this shared universe saga can handle the depth and exploration of a large novel, and isn’t constrained to just short fiction.
In all, the publication of Man-Kzin Wars XIII will be the nineteenth book in this shared universe saga. Few series ever manage to last that long, let alone a shared universe one. It is a testament to the great foundational work done by Larry Niven, both with the Known Space future history as a whole, and the seeds of the Man-Kzin Wars that he planted, as well as to the authors who embraced his vision and created such a rich playground from which their ideas can grow. Fans of strong, well-written science fiction, particularly that which involves human/alien interactions and military science fiction, should jump at the first chance to check out this great collage saga.