BOOK REVIEW: "Destiny's Forge" by Paul Chafe (2006)

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

The Man-Kzin Wars series has been running for about 20 years now, but I've generally avoided them. I read volume 1 when it came out, and though there was nothing wrong with it, it had the feeling of product rather than passion to me. While I enjoyed the idea of other writers "Playing in Mr. Niven's Garden" so to speak, it just felt wrong to me in actual practice. For me, personally, Niven's "Known Space" universe is inseparable from Niven's own jaunty writing style and everpresent neat ideas. Niven has more random off-the-cuff brilliant ideas in any given short story than most writers have had in their entire careers. Still, it was a couple decades ago when I last read this series, and decided it was time to give it another try. "Destiny's Forge" was the first full-length novel in the series, so that seemed like a logical place to start.

Perhaps I simply misunderstood the pre-release propaganda surrounding this book. As I understood it, it implied it was co-written by Niven himself (It isn't), and that it's a full chronicle of the sixth-and-final war (It isn't). Again, that mistake may have been my own since the promo stuff I'm remembering was from four years ago, but caveat emptor just the same. For those interested, this book takes place during the 3rd Man-Kzin war.

This is not a *bad* book, mind you: it held my interest and I don't feel cheated by reading it. It is on occasion, quite clever and the protagonist - a Kzin named "pouncer" - is quite likeable. It is not by any means a brilliant book, however, and I'm at a loss as to why it takes 963 pages to tell a story that could easily have been wrapped up in a third as much space. Frequently, it feels padded out, as when characters spend an entire chapter discussing game theory or the statistical probabilities of being able to effectively test for Psi powers.

I've never read anything else by him, but based on this one example, Mister Chafe strikes me as a merely-adequate writer. There's nothing here that sings and dances and grabs you by the hand, compelling you to pour through it for sheer love of language. To be fair, there's every sign this book was dashed out in a hurry with little time for rewrites. He may be better in less made-to-order stories.

Just the same, he makes some pretty interesting stylistic decisions in the book, For instance: It's mostly told from the Kzin point of view. Humans (Generally referred derisively to by the Kzinti as their word for "Monkey") don't even get a mention in the book until more than twenty pages in. Humans don't actually show up in the book until more than sixty pages in, and when they do they're more-or-less background characters for the first two hundred pages thereafter. This is kind of refreshing, actually. Then, however, it becomes a scattershot mess of plotting. Dolphins - Sentient, but generally overlooked in Known Space - eventually show up and play a logically prominent role later on in the book, and it's always nice when they appear. We get a very good look at the organization and workings of the somewhat feudalistic Kzin society as well, and some interesting insights that, unfortunately, were more interesting than the story itself. For instance, the Patriarch tells us in no uncertain terms that the existence of
Faster-Than-Light travel is just as big a threat to the survival of the Empire as "The Monkeys" are, because of the sociological changes this innovation has caused. That's neat stuff, commonly overlooked in mass-market skiffy.

Of course it's anyone's guess as to whether any of this counts as 'cannon' or if it's as ephemeral as all those Star Wars comics that came out between 1978 and 1980. That's kind of my problem with the Man/Kzin war series: I'm never sure how much of it is *real* and how much of it is just filler cranked out for the ammusement of drooling fanboys like me. I can't completely discount it - Niven's current "World" series weeves in and out of some elements - but a lot of it seems to contradict stuff we already know, and frankly a lot of it just isn't all that good.

I digress. Anyway:

That said, Chafe makes some rather unfortunate decisions, too: the book starts out with a pretentious reprinting of Blakes' "The Tyger" (Ok, we get it: they're cats) followed by a dry, boring, 11-page sociological essay explaining Kzin society that fundamentally breaks the "Show, don't tell" rule of storytelling. This is followed by a spectacularly ill-advised 10-page hunting scene when we're introduced to Pouncer in a poorly-written sequence where every other phrase is full of Kzin nonsense words that utterly kills any interest in the story. Imagine an immersion-lesson in learing Klingonese while playing poker, and you'll get the idea of how annoying this is. There's also a pretty nasty torture scene late in the book that probably will prevent my being able to enjoy fondue again for a long time.

The human sections of the story seem to contradict a lot of what we know of earth in Known Space: While never a Utopia, Earth is consistently a pretty nice place to live, and it's certainly not a dystopia. In this novel, however, there's a large grey-market economy that simply isn't present or implied in Niven's own stories, and a larger black market beneath it. The United Nations Government in Niven's stories is portrayed as rather invasive and somewhat uncaring, but not at all evil. Granted, there's little-or-no privacy, but it's not government paranoia, it's just the price you pay for living in a hypertechnological society with 18 billion people on earth, if you want to make sure the guy in the next apartment isn't a terrorist building bombs.

In Destiny's Forge, however, Chafe chooses to portray this in the Orwellian mold where everyone is being spied on more or less constantly, which nearly costs one of the human characters his life. This just doesn't fit, stylistically, with what we've seen of Earth in Niven's stories.

Once Earth is introduced, The novel kind of sprawls out of control. We meet a whole bunch of ancilliary characters, including - I kid you not - a jailbait hooker with a heart of gold who unfortunately will kill most of the drama in the second half of the book. Once she shows up, you kind of know which way the story is gonna' play out, because she has an early version of a preternatural ability that Niven introduces in his later Ringworld stories. Is that vague enough for you? I'm not trying to give out spoilers here.

Though I enjoyed the book, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was rather derivative of Dune. By "Rather Derivative," I mean huge tracts of this tome are essentially Fuzzy fanfic recreations of Herbert's novel. Seriously, the entire plot is virtually the same. So it wasn't so much 'derived from' Dune or 'hommaging' Dune so much as it was taking a kitty cat and nailing it to a hardback edition of Dune. It's still better than Brian Herbert's crap, though.

To tell more would be to give spoilers about both this book *and* Dune, and I don't want to do that. Granted, really none of the themes in Dune are original or unique to that book, and the basic 'one man overthrows the empire single handedly' plot was a staple as far back as the Byzantine Empire, but still, it grew distracting after a time. Despite the fact that we're centuries in the future, most of the action is swords-and-shields stuff, which is, well, very dune-like, though to his credit the author manages to come up with a pretty good reason why aliens with starships insist on fighting with mideval weapons.

Ignroing the plagiarism, and the irritating contradictions with the established Known Space universe, and some very sloppily-written scenes that clearly weren't edited at all, my only really huge beef with the book is its length. This thing is an almost-thousand-page doorstop. In 963 pages, you could tell the entire rise and fall of the Roman Empire, you can tell four pretty damn good pulp SF novels, you could write a compelling and pretty complete history of the American Civil War (Winston Churchill does a damn good job of this in just 145 pages, counting an index), you can tell the entire New Testament, and have plenty of room left over for tons of apocrypha, you can tell two or three good Nabokov novels in that amount of space, or one-and-a-half bad ones. 963 pages is an ENORMOUS number of pages - longer than many of my reviews, even - and a lot of the time Mister Chafe seems to just be filling space. Why is it so damn long? It's like they decided they wanted a 1000-page book before they found a writer. Even still, the ending seems rather abrupt (Also like Dune, now that I think on it).

Despite all this - and again, I have to point out that this isn't a *bad* book, I've read far worse. I've read far wors in the M/KW series, actually. It's entertaining enough but hardly a treasured heirloom of the Known Space universe. It is definitely not the kind of thing one hauls out and reads over-and-over again. I suspect if you're already a fan of the Man-Kzin Wars series, you'll probably kinda' enjoy this book, but if you're not a fan, it might be best to hold out for Niven's next "Fleet of Worlds" novel.

If that sounds like a not-terribly-glowing review, well, it's not exactly a glowing book. It's a potboiler with a steroid dependency.


That's a good question, actually. It's hard to say. I think, guardedly, yes. The UN is portrayed as fairly oppressive, dystopic, and evil, which is a frequent staple of our tribe, there's no real liberal ideology here, though there's some gratuitious sex and some gratuitious icky alien sex. And of course the torture scene is nasty and uncalled for.

Will Social Conservatives like the book? No. In general they don't like books with aliens, and most of the other stuff would be offensive to them as well.