Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Larry Niven

Protector cover  

What if the survival of an entire race depended on one individual? It's the premise of a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but Larry Niven gives it a different spin with this story of aliens who pass through three distinct stages of life, from infancy to breeders, and finally to sexless Protectors whose sole aim is to care for their descendants.

Phssthpok is a centuries-old Protector of the Pak species, hurtling through space on a lonely mission for the benefit of other Pak he has never met. He carries a precious cargo that could change their lives altogether, bringing them to the next stage of evolution. But if he feels his purpose is at an end he will lose the will to eat, and he will die.

Meanwhile at the outer edges of the solar system asteroid miners make a living far from the strictly regulated societies of the inner planets. Jack Brennan is one of these people, an optimistic Belter who isn't above a little smuggling now and then. When he notices a very unusual object in space he sets out to investigate, hoping to make a fat profit. But when he arrives he finds himself facing a first contact situation. It's a meeting that threatens to change him profoundly.

The Pak are hideous but advanced, although they have a few major flaws. They're very warlike, and it's their practice to exterminate any other species that they encounter simply as a precaution. Although mankind isn't guiltless of this type of behaviour the Pak's casual exterminations seem shocking when they're put in the context of a civilisation that's supposed to be more rational and advanced than we are.

Larry Niven's solar system is populated with a species of native Martians as well as humans, so there's suspense about who Phssthpok has come across the galaxy to meet, or even if his Pak descendants are here at all. Who will he try to kill, who will he attempt to enlighten, and will he be able to find a use for the remaining species instead of destroying them?

Protector is inevitably dated due to when it was written. It suffers more than most late 20th century science fiction because the technology of spaceships and future human civilisations are brought into sharp focus. Some of Niven's projections are glaringly wide of the mark. There are lots of ideas, such as organ trading and the buying of news tapes, that may have been reasonable assumptions in 1973 but which now appear risible in the era of the internet and stem cell technology. It might seem unfair to pick on these things, but they're far from isolated cases. This is a novel littered with guesses about future technology, and since there are so many of them quite a few are bound to turn out otherwise, and when they do it jolts the reader out of the story somewhat. There's also an abundance of meaningless technobabble about pretend physics and impossible machines.

What Protector could do with is more emphasis on its characters. It jumps forward a few hundred years in time so it's not dominated by one set of people, but that's no reason to let the characters become bland ciphers. Roy Truesdale and Alice Jordan team up to find a mysterious character who has been abducting people and then putting them back where they came from with their memories wiped, and they're prepared to cross the solar system on the trail of this elusive snatcher. But although they have spirit they don't stand out from the legions of brave yet insipid space adventurers who have featured in so much science fiction before and since.

Weaknesses in characterisation don't ruin the story though, since it moves forward with plenty of pace and tension. This is still an enjoyable tale with good imagery and an interesting scenario. However, when you have a character smart enough to think up the answers to any problem it can lead to stodgy plotlines, where no matter what happens you know they'll find a way to sort it out. But what really glues up the gear in Protector is its emphasis on technology and the over-use of technobabble, which dates the story and dilutes its appeal.

4th October 2010

Book Details

Decade: 1970s

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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3 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson

Read more about Larry Niven