‘The Survivor’ by Donald Kingsbury
Previously, the only thing I’d read by Kingsbury was this. It was enough to scar me for life. Expectations were further lowered for this story by the fact it is a sharecrop story, part of the Man-Kzin Wars series set in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe. But Hartwell and Cramer say that John Clute described it as one of the best SF novels of 1991 so I tried to approach ‘The Survivor’ with an open mind.
The Kzin are a martial race of giant cat people. Short-Son of Chirr-Nig is a runt, a coward in a society where being a coward is not just disgrace but death. But ‘The Coward’ would make a good alternative title since it is this that makes him the survivor. By embracing his cowardice he becomes Eater-of-Grass, beneath contempt to these carnivores and hence safe. In his exile, he learns the way of the other creatures in hunting forest he hides in and becomes Trainer-of-Slaves (and, to the slaves themselves, Mellow-Yellow). By the end of the novella, he has become Lord Grraf-Nig; through he survival he has achieved the greatest honour, a full name. So, to my surprise, ‘The Survivor’ is a fascinating character study of an outsider within a well-observed alien society.
Unfortunately, the novella weakens as it progresses through its three acts. The first act confines to the claustrophobic confines of his home planet and is commensurately intense. In the second, he is drawn into the war against humanity and travels with the fleet to a captured Earth colony. For some reason, Alpha Centauri has been settled by Germans who have given the habitable planet the name Wunderland; presumably Niven set this back story decades earlier but knowing this doesn’t make it any less bizarrely incongruous. Inevitably, the story takes on the flavour of military SF and, whilst Kingsbury is not an obsessive like David Weber, the rigidity of the military still has a tendency to crush the life out of space opera.
But it all goes really wrong in the third act when the first woman speaks. This is a deliberately uncharitable characterisation but does point to a fairly fundamental issue with the novel (and, I now have to assume, Kingsbury’s work in general). The Kzin are a patriarchal society; in fact, their society is called the Patriarchy. Female kzin are considered by male kzin to be non-sentient with no rights and only bastardised language. Now, the kzinrreti are undoubtedly cleverer then the arrogant and self-deceiving menfolk believe but we are still told – outside of the scope of our unreliable narrator – that they are genetically inferior. So it is no surprise that there are hardly any women in this story. The first human woman we meet is quickly eaten. It is 70 pages until we get the first female character, UNSN Lieutenant Nora Argamentine. She is the main alternative view point to Trainer-of Slaves but unbalances the novella by being introduced two-thirds of the way through and being conspicuously badly written. For example, we have this scene immediately after her capture:
She wasn’t crying anymore. She was grinning. “Lots of kzin killing in that one. I loved it! You monsters killed my beloved Dad. That holo won an award for its acting. Passion, the spirit of mankind that you’ll never crush”
Awful stuff. Kingsbury would have never given Trainer-of-Slaves dialogue like this; it is as if when he writes from the female perspective, he deliberately drops his IQ. She is also constantly twiddling one of her curls in a Robert Jordan-style character tic. And what is her character arc? It starts promisingly with her executing an escape plan when Trainer is put into hibernation for insubordination. As soon as Trainer is defrosted, the narrative weight swings back to him, however, and Argamentine is lobotomised and genetically altered to become his sex slave. The final words of the story are: She snuggled up to Mellow-Yellow. “My Hero,” she purred-spat in her charming human accent.” What are you meant to make of that?