Protector by Niven, Larry, 1973

Protector by Niven, Larry - Book cover from Amazon.co.uk

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It is really not that often that I have genuine mixed feelings about a book, but Larry Niven's Hugo winning novel Protector leaves me floating in that anti-polar place between affection and ambivalence. How ironic that one of the major props in this story are monopoles. Anyway, I have often been torn over Larry Niven's work, especially over his solo novels. As a die-hard SF fan who happens to love hard-SF, I think that Larry Niven has written some of the best, most well thought out SF adventure stories out there. His topics more often then not deal with massive-scale engineering projects, far future scientific devices, belligerent, believable aliens, quests to the stars and many other things. Protector, is a hard-SF alien invasion story of first contact, but Niven, in typical form for his earlier years, is all over the place thematically. It was not that quality of the book that bothered me though. What did bother me was that with unforeseeable regularity parts of the story just dragged and dragged, while others roiled onward with breathless ferocity. I suppose the reason for that was that in 1976 Niven expanded one of his novellas from 1969, The Parents into this full length novel. Several years went by between the time that he finished the novella and started writing it up to a novel, so I imagine that he got a bit lost and had some trouble remembering where he was. It shows, but overall the book is worth the acquisition aggravation.

Protector is broken down into two separate yet interrelated novellas, Phssthpok and Vardervecken The first, Phssthpok tells the story of a member of the race of Pak named, appropriately enough, Phssthpok. The Pak were the progenitors of the human race. They came from a planet, called Pak, near the center of the galaxy. Members of the Pak race lived their individual lives through three distinct forms: juveniles, breeders and protectors. Protectors were breeders who had made it to age 35 or older. If they lived that long the breeders, who were basically homo habilis, would feel compelled to eat of a root called "tree of life," which before had only repulsed them. A chemical in the root transformed them into a massive and highly intelligent engines of death: They had armored skin, a giant beak, drastically elongated limbs and enlarged joints, and were incapable of breeding. The protector's job was to watch over its family of descendants. They not only protected them from other protectors, they actively sought out resources to exploit and eliminated other protectors and their clans of breeders.

A protector without descendants is a being without purpose. Such an anomaly must find a purpose, and quickly, or die. Most die. In their minds or their glands a reflex twitches, and they cease to feel hunger. Sometimes such a one finds that he can adapt the entire Pak species as his progeny; but then he must find a way to serve that species. Phssthpok was one of lucky few.

War on Pak was never ending, except in one case: When another protector wiped out your clan - which is exactly what happened to Phssthpok clan - most protectors would just lie down and die. Phssthpok was one of the lucky ones though. Rather than wasting away and dying, Phssthpok managed to find something else to protect. Approximately 2.5 million years prior a group of protectors succeeded in manufacturing a hydrogen ramjet space ship and left Pak with their clans of breeders. That ship found Earth and colonized it, realizing too late that Earth's soil would not support tree of life. The protectors on Earth died and their homo habilis breeders evolved up and down into homo sapien and other hominids. But before they perished the protectors got a message off to Pak pleading for help and providing general coordinates. Phssthpok found everything he needed to know to travel to Sol in the Pak library, so he built a ship and shot off to Earth with modified seeds for tree of life. When he arrived thousands of years later his ship was intercepted by human Belters - frontiersmen miners of the asteroid belt. One in particular, Brennan, ate of the root and was transformed into a modified Pak protector. Once the transformation was complete Brennan feinghted fraternity with Phssthpok, then killed him, stole part of his ship and his supplies, then sent his ramjet out to the stars and disappeared into the dark parts of the outer solar system.

The second novella, Vardervecken tells the story of an Earthling, Elroy Truesdale, who awoke one morning in the middle of a park outside of Los Angeles with no memory of the past four months and a promise of guaranteed income for life if he remained silent and promised never to investigate someone named Vardervecken, who told Truesdale in a recorded message that he was responsible for the gap in his memory. Posessed of a hatred of letting sleeping dogs lie and a massive enough fortune that he could ignore the promise of income, Truesdale set off to find out who Vardervecken really was. During his investigation he learned about several other belters (again, inhabitants of the asteroid belt) who had stories similar to his, so he set off to investigate. His curiosity eventually took him out to an asteroid past Pluto where Brennan, aka Vardervecken, had set up shop to watch the heavens for approaching fusion flares from the direction of Pak: Brennan was aware that Pak's ability to survive more cataclysmic wars was coming to an end, and that the Pak people would have to immigrate to a new planet. Since all the information about the original journey and Phssthpok's trip were in the Pak library, it made sense to assume that they would come to Sol. Once Brennan detected the flares he and Truesdale moved to intercept the waves of migration from Pak. This part of the story was space-battle in the extreme: High stakes combat at relativistic speeds, fought with gravity, fusion and neutron weapons, with a winner-take-all prize for the victor, and racial death for the loser.

When I was a kid I used to think that Larry Niven was the best thing since sliced bread. It was his novel, Ringworld, - which incidentally is in the same Known Space sequence of stories that Protector is in - that transmorphed me into a serious SF fan. My love for him only grew as he and various others, mostly Jerry Pournelle put out one blockbuster after another in the late 70's and 80's. But as I go back and read him now, I am more and more struck by how truly horrible a wordsmith he is. I've said before, and I still maintain, that Larry Niven's enthusiasm for SF and the stories he told more than made up for his inability to craft a well written tale. The man loves SF and fandom, and has a seriously fantastic imagination, but he writes like an engineer. About Phssthpok:

An autopilot, of course. The Outsider was only a back-up for an autopilot: It didn't matter what happened to him, he was only a safety device. The autopilot would get this crop to where it was going.

More, the idea of metaphor is generally lost on Niven. Consider the Pak. As sophisticated a description and background as they have from Niven, the Pak protectors are really nothing more than beefed-up codgers. They have no teeth as they have fallen out; their hair has likewise fallen out. Their joints swell, their skin toughens, their eyes bug out and become dry, their reproductive organs atrophy, they host knowledge and wisdom and they watch over the young. They are the elderly, given the strength that ordinary eldery lack. There is nothing mysterious, mythical or derivative about them. Does that mean that this book is a failure? No, not really. Niven's point is to draw a strong comparison so that the characters could figure out the origin of man. That he did it with no mystery or intrigue is merely his personal writing style.

That, of course is not all that Niven is about. In Protector he also manages to deliver, fantastically I might add, a strongly libertarian frontier civilization in the belt, and belters who have a wonderfully romantic job of blasting out into the depths of space in single-ships to make or break their fortunes. He also gave an amazingly detailed space battle. Niven's characters may be crap, but that is not all that SF is about. This one won a Hugo award, and though I personally doubt that it is good enough to be in that category of winners, others obviously disagree. Especially if you are into Niven's Known Space books, get this one and add it to your library.

Copyright 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2.5 star(s)

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