Having re-read Ringworld I thought my next Niven re-read would be Ringworld Engineers so I could go on to read Ringworld Throne. However I was reminded of Protector – partly because it takes place in the same universe as the Ringworld stories and partly through thinking about the books I read during the same era that I read Ringworld. So I decided to go with what I felt like reading, also knowing it was relatively short.
Protector concerns an alien species known as the Pak. They have three distinct phases to their life-cycle: child, breeder and protector. The change to the later stage is triggered by age and the consumption of a yam-like root known as tree-of-life. The changes are dramatic and the protector becomes vastly more intelligent, significantly stronger and extremely protective of its offspring – hence the name. On the Pak homeworld this trait gives rise to constant war with the effect that many protectors are left with no living descendants and they soon find themselves lacking the will to live, unless they can find a purpose.
One such childless protector is Phssthpok. He does manage to find a purpose and that requires him to travel 32,000 light-years to our solar system in search of a lost expedition of Pak millions of years previously. The first part of the book concerns what happens when Phssthpok encounters humanity in the form of an asteroid belt miner. The second part of the book is set two centuries later when the effects of that meeting and Phssthpok’s original mission are still playing out.
It’s becoming a cliche of mine to say I like Niven for his big ideas so I’ll try to avoid just saying that here. Let me expand on it by saying that there’s a particular type of idea, or execution that he does well in Protector. He takes an existing set of known facts about humanity, evolution and aging, and some make-believe about a possible alien race and weaves a connection between the two that is plausible enough to tell a good story around. It’s a bit like a SciFi equivalent of what Richard Matheson does in I Am Legend. There he takes an existing fantastical monster and creates a scientific ‘explanation’ for how that might actually work. Here there’s no existing monster but there is that same sense of slotting together the known science with the speculative and made-up. It has the same pleasing sense of “this could actually be true“.
I’m still not wowed by his characterization but it’s definitely better here. Although the ease with which two characters part forever for the sake of humanity is notable by the speed with which it’s dealt with.
There’s a rather extended space battle sequence near the end which takes a look at what a ‘dogfight in space’ might look like over vast distances and at significant fractions of lightspeed – ironically the answer is: slow. Not being overly interested in astrophysics for its own sake I found that section dragged a little. However I had genuinely misremembered the ending and so had the pleasure of realising it was not what I’d thought, figuring out what it might be and having that confirmed.
7/10 – another good old-fashioned romp through space and time with Niven.
(P.S. for those keeping score, another paper read.)