Kren of the Mitchegai was the last book that Leo Frankowski published through a major publisher before his death in 2008. Ostensibly the third (of a seven-part series never to be completed) entry in the timeline begun in A Boy and His Tank, it spends most of its time narrating the life of Kren, an alien on a distant planet who will eventually go to war with Mickolai, the series’ protagonist. The book is notable for a number of reasons, not least of which because it highlights Frankowski’s general inability to write believable villains; it’s no wonder that Jim Baen (his publisher at the time) believed the series to be dead.
Though interspersed with short chapters of Mickolai (to remind us, I suppose, what series we are reading), the novel is about the rise of Kren, now a powerful member of a race known as the Mitchegai. Told mostly as a flashblack (with the meager contrivance of journaling helmet), the story begins with Kren as a dull-witted mine slave, a job he will hold for many hundreds of years and many resurrections before managing to escape with a combination of luck and guile.
I should pause here to explain just what I mean by “resurrection”. While authors like Lem posit that alien life would indeed be so alien as to preempt the possibility of communication or mutual understanding, Frankowski tends to be a populist sort of science fiction writer and imagines that aliens will be largely humanoid in shape and function. It was his stated aim, however, to make the Mitchegai an evil race, not simply in a slavering pervert sort of way, but in an amoral, biological way. Thus it comes to be that the Mitchegai are humanoid, with recognizably human technology and social constructs, but seen through a Bizarro World lens: the Mitchegai are an extraordinarily simplistic burlesque of humanity, superficially resembling them except for the “evil” twists that Frankowski adds. For instance, they cannibalize their own young; the entire planet is essentially a grass farm where dumb “juvenals” graze, and these are caught and eaten alive by adult Mitchegai; an intermediary stage between the young and the adult is a ferocious teenhood, which are caughty, caged, and used as a form of immortality. When a teenager eats an adult’s brain, the motile brain cells travel through the bloodstream and supplant the existing brain cells, bringing the adult’s knowledge and memories with them. This is, in fact, how Kren managed to stay alive for many hundreds of years; as a good mine slave, his owners simply kept feeding him to teenagers when his old body wore out.
Frankowski’s explanation of how a species can survive while eating its young is a little hard to swallow. Males and females essentially eject sperm and eggs all the time, and young Mitchegai hatch like fungus spores if they manage to land in a spot with sufficient resources. There are no microorganisms on the planet, which is probably the hardest to swallow, considering they are necessary for most biological functions (including allowing grass to grow), but I don’t think Frankowski’s biology knowledge is quite as thorough as his optics and electrical engineering. But more disturbing than a shallow and unconvincing species is that fact that he still manages to botch it, even inventing their characteristics wholecloth.
Eating their young and being naturally sociopathic would more or less qualify them as evil to a human, but in order to make them comic exaggerations of the sort he reserved for Germans and Mongols in the Adventures of Conrad Stargard, he also made them naturally sadistic. Not only do the Mitchegai eat their own young, therefore, but they also eat them alive, torturing them over a long period of time—the screams and whimpers apparently elicit the closest thing to pleasure that the Mitchegai feel. This is a terrible enough thing to write about—and Frankowski, with all the subtlety of a brick, talks about it every other chapter—but even more surprising is the author’s ability to take an act as horrifying as torturing and eating the children of your species alive and turn it into something blasé. So ineffective and stultifying is the narration that things which should shock us fail to register at all—compare that to the cannibal island in Consider Phlebas and see how wide the gulf between a good sci-fi writer and one (sadly) past his prime.
It doesn’t help Frankowski’s case that Kren is, if you simply ignore the incongruous cannibalism and casual murder, a lot like every other protagonist that the author has ever written. He’s naturally even-tempered, good at most everything he does, capitalistic to a fault, and shares an internal narrative voice with Frankowski, who can apparently only write as himself. Kren, by virtue of killing other adult Mitchegai and eating portions of their brains (a practice known as “vampirism” and technically illegal), becomes a successful fighter, athlete, businessman, and eventually Duke of more or less the entire planet. None of this is ever really left in doubt, and the complete and utter lack of narrative tension makes for bland reading, indeed. Nothing ever poses a challenge for Kren: each chapter is merely a laundry list of fights, competitions, or meals that he dispatches as easily as flipping a light switch. Frankowski’s practice in taking his protagonists from rags to riches is so sufficient that he fails to hide how much Kren resembles a bluer and scalier Conrad Stargard—even the particular human distinction of nobility is present here, if for no other reason than he likes to write about engineers and dukes.
Though I would have been curious to see where Frankowski eventually took this series, it’s little wonder that Jim Baen put the kibosh on it; if Kren of the Mitchegai was any indication, it would end up mired in torpid, masturbatory narratives and cheap prose, dwelling overmuch on logistics and rather pedantic explanations of unlikely situations.