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I'm looking for a novel or novella about humans fighting against insect-like alien conquerors that are trying to reshape human society into their insect-like model. Unfortunately, I don't remember a whole lot about it.

The protagonist is a human male who was born on the aliens' side and is a "warrior caste". Somehow, he winds up socializing with free humans and turning against the insects. For some reason, I recall that at one point he's walking down a road with a harem-like group of liberated females (the female humans 'belonging' to the aliens were used as breeders, and only as breeders). I also want to say they're trying to get to the top of a tall building or structure, possibly to sabotage a communications system.

The good news is I'm almost certain this was published by Baen, probably around 2000-2015, and was (at least at one point) available as a free eBook; I recall reading it on my phone, and it isn't the sort of story I would have been likely to purchase. I also believe it was by a less-well-known author.

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    Ah, yes, the well-known eusocial insect social mold with female individuals exclusively being reproductive and warriors being exclusively male.
    – Adamant
    Mar 14 at 6:31

1 Answer 1

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The Forlorn, by Dave Freer. His first published novel, in fact, so he certainly wasn't famous at the time of the first edition (1998).

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Like you, I read it for free here on Baen's website, way back when. The point-of-view actually rotated among various protagonists, but one of those co-stars definitely was the guy you described.

Here are some excerpts from Chapter 3, the one which introduces that character -- he's called S'kith 235 -- and gives us some background on how the insect-like aliens (the Morkth) have tried to keep their human slaves under control with selective breeding programs and so forth. Freer also brings us up to speed on why they had not been as successful as they hoped in keeping their humans properly docile.

Humans are the vertebrate equivalent of the cockroach. They can, and will, adapt to nearly anything. The Alpha-Morkth hives pushed this adaptability close to its limits. At this point most humans crack. Some go insane, some try to rebel, and some become catatonic. Still, after more than three hundred years of selection, the Alpha-Morkth had to weed out about seventy percent of each crop of humans they bred. The culls went back into the food supply for the others. The remaining thirty percent were almost all perfect Morkth-men. Almost all . . . but there were always a few exceptions. Adaptation to survive could always be pushed one step further. A few of the humans the Morkth bred had learned not only to survive, but to exploit the system. S'kith 235 was one of those. He was a great danger to the entire hive system. Not only had he learned to exploit it, but also he still had his balls.

The Alpha-Morkth wanted uniformity, absolute obedience, and antlike industry from the humans they bred to replace workers and, reluctantly, warriors of their own species. The warriors were a problem. A good fighter needs a certain amount of flexibility in their response to an enemy. A degree of tactical adaptability is also needed. A soldier may also have to be deployed at a variety of tasks, given the chaotic nature of war. The sheer stupidity bred for in workers was thus unsuitable, but with too much intelligence and flexibility the warrior Morkth-men could be dangerous to their creators. The cull rate here was over ninety percent, and the resultant warrior-breds were still somewhat less effective than wild-human fighters. The selection bias toward strongly left-brain-dominant warriors failed to adequately deal with the erratic nature of hand-to-hand combat. It was the main reason for the hive cities' lack of speed in their advance against the internecinally squabbling city-states.

And a bit later on, we have this material about how clever some of the human females in that hive happen to be -- a fact which is entirely unsuspected by the Morkth.

Since the Morkth denied that female humans were capable of speech, communication could be easy enough, so long as one did not make too much noise. Noise caused punishment. And punishment meant pain. The Morkth were expert in the administration of pain . . . to other Morkth. Unfortunately, the frail humans died quite easily. The less intelligent and less logical worker brood sows, kept separately from the warrior broodstock, had never realized that they could talk, so long as one kept speech quiet and away from high-pitched sounds. Their section of the hive was virtually silent, apart from quiet, purely animal sounds.

It was different, vastly different, in the layer of hive where the warrior brood were kept. Here there was always a susurration of low-pitched cage-to-cage talk. The human mind needs stimulus of some kind. Without stimulus it atrophies. But speech, even only speech, can be enough to keep sanity and, if the selection pressures favor intelligence, can produce far more . . .

The oral tradition had generated a strange and distorted picture of the outside world, passed down from the first captives, but the women had a very real idea of the function and structure of the hive. They had time, endless time, to talk, to theorize, to plot and to scheme, until they became reproductively dysfunctional and were taken away to the rendering rooms. The only other distraction in the tiny cells was one's own body, and the products thereof. The Morkth were unaware that in the eternal semidarkness of their warrior breeders' bare cells they had been fomenting a rebellion for generations now.

As you say, S'kith ends up working alongside the other protagonists in the ongoing struggle against the Morkth. His inside knowledge is invaluable when the "wild humans" (meaning a bunch of the ones who were never domesticated by the Morkth) attack one of the big hives and liberate some of those "warrior brood" women.

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  • Hahaha, "He was a great danger to the entire hive system. Not only had he learned to exploit it, but also he still had his balls." Priorities....
    – Adamant
    Mar 19 at 0:24
  • @Adamant If you read the rest of Chapter 3, you will realize that the condition of his genitalia was highly relevant to the long-running quiet plan to someday destroy the Morkth.
    – Lorendiac
    Mar 19 at 0:27
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    From the description of the book, I think it seems as if that would be 3 chapters too many.
    – Adamant
    Mar 19 at 1:31
  • Oh, good, someone else found it! I'd looked at that in my search, but the preview chapters aren't at all what I remember, nor IIRC did Baen's description give me cause for optimism. But last night I happened to dig out GoodReads' list of former-free-library books, and their description matched. (I subsequently dug up a copy — which, frankly, I wouldn't care to pay for — and was able to verify that, yes, this is the right book.)
    – Matthew
    Mar 19 at 15:58

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