Jul 11 2012 12:00pm

More Than Alien: Larry Niven’s Protector

Jo Walton rereads Protector by Larry Niven

Protector (1973) is like a type example of the benefits of writing a future history. It’s set in Niven’s Known Space universe, early in it, before humanity has FTL travel or contact with aliens. It begins with the point of view of a seeming alien, a Pak Protector in a spaceship headed for Earth and a first contact. We learn all about what it meaks to be a Pak and a Protector, and they really are a fascinating invention. Then the Pak get to the solar system, and it’s a fully developed and complex solar system, full of complex details that Niven thought up for other stories and can therefore just throw in here to provide texture — Belters, organ-legging and so on. Niven later wrote about the disadvantages of having a future history when it comes to painting yourself into corners because you have too much stuff, but he wasn’t at that point with Protector. Here it has everything going for it, he can take his new nifty science fictional idea, the Pak, and bring them to a future solar system that has enough worked out complexity to be interesting. This has always been one of my favourite early Niven’s, and I enjoyed rereading it now almost as much as I did when I was twelve.

Is it just me, or are Niven’s best characters always aliens? When I think about his characters it’s Speaker-to-Animals and Nessus I like from Ringworld and it’s Phssthpok I like here. All his human characters blur together — they’re all competent men or perky girls, but his aliens really stand out. Maybe it’s because he has to make an effort to get into their mindset?

Jo Walton rereads Protector by Larry NivenIn any case, Phssthpok is great. He’s a Protector, the supposed third stage of humanity. On the Pak planet this happens to everyone, they get to a certain age and go through another form of puberty. Niven has taken the visible signs of aging and made them into a failed transformation — what a terrific idea. After transformation they are entirely focused on protecting their descendants. Niven’s finding an interestingly odd answer to the question of why we live on after we can no longer breed — animals pretty much don’t. It’s also an interesting take on the Eden myth, the tree of life is the root people need to become Protectors.

But the Pak aren’t sentient before they become Protectors, and humans of course are, and so the other terrific character is the Brennan monster — a human transformed into a Protector, who gets the enhanced strength and intelligence and the drive to protect. In his case what he wants to protect is humanity from the Pak, who he is sure are coming.

Of course, the biology is a little old fashioned. In 1973 it was more reasonable to suggest that homo habilis might have come from another planet. Niven first played with the idea of the Pak in a short work called “The Adults” in 1967. Since then we have learned a lot more about how much genetic code we share with the rest of this planet, but he can’t be blamed for not predicting that. Also, clearly on the Pak homeland this is a change that happens to everyone, but absolutely all the Protectors we see are male, to the point that I hadn’t considered the possibility of a female Protector until I read Ringworld Engineers, even though the transformation really is more analogous to menopause than anything else. Women in this book are just sexy scenery, but they are very ignorable. And Niven pays lip service at least to the idea of gender equality in the Belt, and it was 1973 just at the beginning of second wave feminism, so I’m giving him points for trying.

Jo Walton rereads Protector by Larry NivenThere’s an bouncy enthusiasm about early Niven that’s charming to read but very hard to pin down. This is a story of a first contact and Earth as a lost alien colony and an alien war, but what’s great about it is how much fun it is to read, how the details dovetail just so, how the shiny ideas get thrown at you just precisely as fast as you can catch them and toss them back before you get hit with another one. It ’s not a very long book, I tore through it in an afternoon, but there’s just precisely enough of it. It’s like a well simmered dish where the ingredients compliment each other to make something delicious if not subtle so you can’t stop until you’ve licked the plate. It well deserved its 1974 Hugo nomination.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Nebula winning and Hugo nominated Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

1. LizardBreath
I can't believe I'm defending Niven from a charge of sexism (loved his books growing up, but on looking back the Sexism Fairy has done them a lot of damage), but there's a clearly referred to female protector;
Phssthpok's death sentence is the lifespan of his youngest breeder relative, a female baby sterilized by radiation. Unless he can transfer his allegiance from his family to the whole Pak species, he's going to die when she gets old enough to change into a protector -- with no remaining breeder relatives, she'll stop eating and then when she dies, he will. I'm not sure if she's mentioned after changing, but it's definitely a plot point that she's going to.

There are only three protectors who appear as real characters, and they're all male, but it's clearly stated that the process happens for both sexes.
2. Jeff R.
No, it really hasn't been reasonable to suspect Homo Habilis came from another planet since somewhere closer to the turn of the (previous) century. (It did cross over from 'wildly implausible' to 'literally impossible' in the 80s-90s era, but it was never not bad science.)
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
LizardBreath: You're right, and I'd overlooked that. But we never see any female protectors.
Sean Fagan
4. sef
Jeff, my preferred hypothesis (aka fanwank) was that the Outsiders took a group of h. habilis to the core, and turned them into Protectors. It explains a lot more, while also leaving plenty of room for stories to continue it.
5. a1ay
4: mine too. The biological wobbliness has always bothered me about what's otherwise one of my favourite Niven books and indeed favourite SF books generally.

IIRC, on women being present: Alice is a bit more than scenery, surely? She's better than Truesdale at pretty much everything. Truesdale's only there because he inherited a load of money.
6. J. Bradford DeLong
Let me for the first time in human history attempt to outflank LizardBreath on the feminist side, and say that even though the Protectors are (explicitly) sexless they are profoundly gendered as male. Take whatever humans have historically done. Subtract everything that women have historically done--whether or not men have done it too. And you are left with what Protectors do.

However, it doesn't suffer as much from the sexism suck fairy as the Kzinti or the Thrintun with their non-sentient females. That creeped me out when I was 11...
7. Stefan Jones
Phssthpok's female relative IS mentioned again, just once, during the preperations for the space journey, so she presumably did become a protector.

I really loved this book as a teen, but (because of the biological wobbiliness) it doesn't have staying power and it is also one of the weak points in the Known Space setting. Niven could just as easily have made up a new setting for it. Oh well. As it is, now we've got a whole Ringworld full of Pak descendents.

RE Jo's comment: "In 1973 it was more reasonable to suggest that homo habilis might have come from another planet."

I have to disagree. Now, I adored Niven as a teen and twenty-something, and I still feel a lot of fannish loyalty. But for a hard SF author he sometimes didn't do his homework. And Niven wasn't alone; I think evolution and biology was a weak point for the whole Campbell stable. If you'd asked a paleontologist -- even one from the 1950 -- about human origins, she'd facepalm if an extraterrestrial solution was suggested.

Here is Loren Eiseley, writing in 1957*:

"Darwin saw clearly that the succession of life on this planet was not a formal pattern imposed from without, or moving exclusively in one direction. Whatever else life might be, it was adjustable and not fixed. It worked its way through difficult environments. It modified and then, if necessary, it modified again, along roads which would never be retraced. Every creature alive is the product of a unique history. The statistical probability of its precise reduplication on another planet is so small as to be meaningless. Life, even cellular life, may exist out yonder in the dark. But high or low in nature, it will not wear the shape of man. That shape is the evolutionary product of a strange, long wandering through the attics of the forest roof, and so great are the chances of failure, that nothing precisely and identically human is likely ever to come that way again."

"In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanisms of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible. As the only thinking mammals on the planet--perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe--the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning, however; it is thus we torture ourselves.

Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greenly overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever."

* "Little Green Men and Flying Saucers," The Immense Journey.

What Eiseley wrote about humanoids also applies to primates and the whole mammalian family. Actual extraterrestrial megafauna would stand out like a sore thumb.

Eiseley thought and wrote as big and cosmic as an SF author, but there is little reassurance or glamour in his essays. His writings wouldn't have appealed to my 30 years ago. Today, they mean far more to me than virtually all of the SF I've read.
8. herewiss13
Given that Protectors are essentially neuter-caste, it never occured to me that their previous gender was even relevant...but that could say more about me than the book.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Herewiss13: I can't remember, does the text in RE call Teela "she" once she's a protector? Because all the ones with speaking parts here are "he" and used to be male.
10. James Davis Nicoll
The weird thing is Known Space has panspermia thanks to the Slavers and yet when it comes to species like the Kzin, who did share a common ancestor with humans over a billion years ago, Niven knew enough not to give the Kzin the same bauplan as terrestrial tetrapods. Hominids, on the other hand, manage to be pretty much bone for bone your standard tetrapod despite supposedly being aliens.

It makes a lot more sense that the Outsiders grabbed some homo habilis and created Protectors for some reason and that the reason why the Protector missions kept heading to Earth was that they had some hint from their ancient records Earth would be of particular interest to them.

I also think it makes more sense for the Outsiders to have created the Ringworld. Interestingly if you assume the Ringworld's star has the same general magnitude of net velocity with respect to the Sun as other stars in this region of space do and that that it is currently headed away from the Sun, then it could have been a close neighbor of the Sun right around the time Homo
habilis evolved on Earth. Dun dun dun!
j p
11. sps49
I don't care that it's impossible. It sounds plausible, and is excellent SF.

I found Bussard ramjets much less likely, and didn't worry about that either.
12. James Davis Nicoll
It only sounds plausible if you don't know anything about terrestrial biology.

I found Bussard ramjets much less likely

Yeah, turns out the slowness of the proton-proton reaction and drag are show stoppers; ramjets absent some magic technology are about a billion times better at disappating energy as they are at generating it. On the plus side, they make good brakes (so potentially you might not have to pay to slow down from interstellar speeds) and looking at reasons why a classic Bussard ramjet does not work led, iirc, to the idea of magsails.

1: Some sort of fusion inducing catalyst, say, or even better, a way to make proton decay happen on demand very quickly.
13. Raskos
Stefan - glad to seee that someone else likes Eisely, or even remembers him. Simpson had similar sorts of things to say about extraterrestrial humanoids about the same time - The Meaning of Evolution was published in 1958, I believe. And you're probably right about most of the Campbellians omitting biology from their competences - Campbell himself showed little sign of knowing, or caring, much about any aspect of it. The only one from that era who seemed to, not only know a bit about the subject, but think it worth using in his formulations of alien species and their worlds, was Poul Anderson, something he became better and better at as time passed.

Niven reminds me of one of his fithps in his approach to the subject - picking up bits and bobs of evolutionary and biological knowledge, not integrating them or bothering to learn more, then charging ahead on the basis that it's good enough, this is soft stuff anyway. Not charging ahead to invade the earth, but to write books that set biologists' teeth on edge.

Jo, I'd argue that his aliens are just human beings in rubber suits, with caricaturized, one-note human personalities - pathologically-enraged kzin, agoraphobic puppeteers, and, well, we never do find out enough about the kdatlyno to make their particular quirk clear. And I don't see how entire species with crippling handicaps like these could possibly erect and maintain interstellar civilizations.

Niven knew enough not to give the Kzin the same bauplan as terrestrial tetrapods
No, he didn't. Kzin are standard tetrapods, going by the evidence that he gives in his texts.
Eli Bishop
15. EliBishop
Raskos @13: I know what you mean about Niven's characterization of aliens, but... 1. I can't help grading him on a curve since nuanced, diverse alien personalities are still very rare in SF and were even more so 40 years ago; 2. it's all written from a human POV, and I don't think it's implausible that we would be unable to recognize variations in alien personalities and would just perceive them as all sharing whatever trait stands out most to us, just as we do with cultural or physical traits of human groups we're not personally familiar with.

As for "crippling handicaps," he does sort of address that. Kzinti didn't build their own interstellar civilization, they acquired the tools for it at gunpoint, and they weren't really viable-- they kept blindly starting wars and losing them. Puppeteers did fine in groups in their own environment, they only froze up with fear when forced into unusually exposed situations on their own.
16. NullNix
Raskos @13, though I loved Known Space when I was a teenager, you are pretty much right: its biology doesn't even deserve to be called rubber. Still, at least the one-note aliens in it are more alien than his humans, who all seemed strange to me because they all act pretty much exactly like southern Californians, and I'm not one of those. (Now I'm working in a company saturated with Californians I keep on thinking I'm surrounded by Niven protagonists.)

I suspect the one-note aliens served two purposes: firstly, they were easy to invent (take humans, amplify one trait, extrapolate), and secondly, they left a nice hole for humans, as generalists, to be the heroes in. Very Campbellian really, humans uber alles and all that.

I note that it's not just biological knowledge that Niven was lacking. His repeated characterization of herbivores as universal cowards is hilarious, as there are plenty of herbivores that are thoroughly non-cowardly (rhinos, cowardly? Baleen whales, cowardly? Heck even a bull is something to tiptoe around). The correct distinction is probably that species that are heavily predated are likely to be fearful of their predators, and that everything is likely to be fearful of things considerably but not enormously bigger than they are (humans are scared of rampaging elephants but ticks are not and amoebae don't even notice them).

It was a very humanocentric viewpoint really. A lot of small herbivores are frightened of humans, but that doesn't mean they're "cowards" (rabbits living on railway tracks are not frightened of high-speed trains passing 5cm from their heads for instance, which would scare the hell out of me). It just means humans are bloody dangerous super-predators. *Everything* sensible is frightened of humans, even apex predators.
17. Raskos
Eli@15 - Fair assessment - Anderson said something similar about any intelligent alien being a caricature in human eyes (God knows he had his flaws, but I think that he really did make an intelligent effort to deal with these issues). However, Niven was supposed to be the last word in hard SF chops back in the day, and he just repeatedly dropped the ball when it came to extraterrestrial biology. Not just when it came to what was going on inside their heads (or wherever they kept their brains) - take the bandersnatches with their chromosomes as thick as a human thumb, ensuring that they didn't mutate over a stretch of a billion years. Made up of special bandersnatch carbon atoms visible to the naked eye, I assume. Even as a high-schooler, I coud see that this was ludicrous.

And yeah, I'd defend the "crippling handicaps". As I recall, the kzinti only got their uplift when someone pointed out to Niven that he'd better do some retconning, as nothing this reflexively savage would ever make it out of the Stone Age, if that. And I guess I should have been a bit more swingeing - I can't see either of these species ever getting to the point where they could develop a planetary technical civilization. How would the puppeteers ever manage to engineer their own sardine-can environments in a world that must have originally been a wilderness, with all that goes along with that? No, they're there for the fanboys. The only Known Space extraterrestrials that I find even faintly plausible ate the tnuctipun, and that's probably because Niven had so little to say about them.

@NullNix - your post just went up as I was finishing this and I have to get back to work, but you made a couple of points that I agree with whole-heartedly, about herbivores etc. And I can't tell you what joy that it gives me to read that someone else sees Known Space as The Future As Los Angeles. I thought that it was just me.
18. James Davis Nicoll
However, Niven was supposed to be the last word in hard SF chops back in the day,

I remember it more as "one of the few trying their hand at that niche at that time". I mean, who was writing hard SF in the mid-1960s? Clement and Anderson and who else? And Niven at least could be playful when he wanted to be.
19. Stefan Jones
@Raskos: Poul Anderson was my second SF-author "crush," because he was so damn concientious about alien-creating. I was just starting to create SF-RPG worlds as I was discovering his books, and he was an immense influence.

Anderson had herbivores who were violent jerks (the bull-like people), and carnivores you'd want to pal around with. And he showed alien civilizations that weren't uniform . . . they had multiple societies within them.
* * *
Protector remains a great tale. I still think about it, maybe 25 years after I last read it.
20. AlBrown
I will never forget when I got this book. Del Ray has reissued the Known Space series (or at least, the whole series as of 1977 0r 78), and I bought a book back home in Alaska, fell in love with it on my way to Hawaii, and then found Protector and the rest of the series in a bookstore in Kauai, and read them all the way back across the Pacific. Lost a lot of sleep on that trip.
I remember how much the idea of being neutered, and turning into a protector, creeped me out as a young man. The thought is not quite so scary now that I am an old grandpa--the mindset of a protector seems more familiar to me now.
I always felt that Niven's characters were a weak point in his work, often being pretty one dimensional. That was one of the reasons his work with Pournelle was often better than the sum of its parts, the two of them created very different characters, and the interaction and clashing of those characters made the stories much more interesting.
I know the science doesn't hold up to close scrutiny, but it was plausible enough to be fun. Having grown up reading about Barsoom and hollow earths and FTL drives, and other improbable devices and settings for adventure, I am willing to accept a little looseness with scientific details. And every sailor knows one simple fact about storytelling, you never let the truth stand in the way of a good yarn.
Eli Bishop
21. EliBishop
An earlier commenter-- who seems to have deleted the comment-- used the phrase "expository chops", which I think is a really good description of what's so effective about Niven's flavor of hard-SF-with-squishy-science. "Hard SF" has never really been about having good science (despite Jules Verne's protestations), it's more about a story that feels "sciencey" because of the general category of ideas that the author has built the story around, and the priority they're given. That can be approached in many ways; Niven's approach in his early stuff isn't as thoughtful as someone like Anderson, but he's very good at laying out the central ideas one at a time in the setup, building a lot of pulpy narrative momentum toward a conclusion that is entirely dependent on those ideas, and throwing overboard almost anything that might interfere with that. In the final sequences of Protector, A Gift from Earth, and World of Ptavvs, you can see all the expository balls he lobbed in the air at the beginning fall into place at exactly the right time and it's awfully satisfying. I think that's what makes it possible to describe Protector as "fun" despite it being a very dark story (and that darkness, which I don't think Niven really got close to again even when he was exterminating millions of people on the Ringworld, is probably what makes it my favorite).
Eli Bishop
22. EliBishop
Oh yeah, the other thing that makes Protector my favorite Niven is that the central idea actually does considerable violence to a firmly entrenched tradition in hard SF. Protector proposes a superintelligent form of humanity that's somehow "more evolved", a notion that's just about as old as SF; protectors even have the traditional big heads. But they're not ethereal, epicene creatures who have risen above physicality and emotion: they have an exaggerated physicality, they look earthier and more animalistic, they're uninterested in anything abstract; they're driven by a single intense emotion that severely constrains all their goals and makes them constantly destroy each other; and if you become one, your life is basically over. It's a pretty cynical commentary on the assumptions that evolution equals progress and intelligence equals rationality. Other SF writers had made similar comments, but they tended to do it in terms of "if we become too smart/evolved, we might lose touch with our human roots", whereas Niven is suggesting that this horrifying form of life is fully consistent with our human roots.
23. HelenS
Is it just me? Every time I try to say "Phssthpok" it comes out sounding as if, hm, this might be what Spock's name would really sound like if you could speak Vulcan better.
john mullen
24. johntheirishmongol
I agree with those who feel scifi is about a sciency story, not about whether the science itself is perfect. Protector is a great story. Maybe the science sucks but I don't really care. The idea is great and it holds up with its own internal logic and that is good storytelling, no matter how you cut it.
Michael Grosberg
25. Michael_GR
I never cared about the science of Protectors being ludicrous. I liked it how Niven combined the4 visible signs of aging, the myth of paradise, and the "missing link" problem and explained all of them with a single theory. Sure, it was a preposterous theory, but, as Philip K. Dick once said, the point of science fiction is not to ask "what if" but to ask “my god, what if..?!!”.
The important point that should be remembered is that this is a work about the idea of immortality. Niven was the first author, I believe, possibly even the only one, that came up with an evolutionary role for an immortal being.
26. a1ay
I can't remember, does the text in RE call Teela "she" once she's a protector?

Yes. And, I think, the other formerly-female protectors in the subsequent books.

His repeated characterization of herbivores as universal cowards is hilarious

Oh, come on. The fithp (in Footfall) and the Grass Giants (Ringworld Engineers) are hardly cowards!

Take whatever humans have historically done. Subtract everything that women have historically done--whether or not men have done it too. And you are left with what Protectors do.

...being librarians?

However, it doesn't suffer as much from the sexism suck fairy as the
Kzinti or the Thrintun with their non-sentient females. That creeped me out when I was 11...

I am not sure that either of those are meant to be desirable. The Slavers (and the Kzin, at first) are the bad guys.

22 is a very good point. Nice one.
27. SqueakerToAminals
I remember discovering Protector in my High School Library one boring lunchtime, and finding it difficult to remember to return to class.

Yes, he is good at papering the crevices in his backstory; you don't actually notice they are there until you have the background knowledge in the first place.
David Levinson
28. DemetriosX
@17 Raskos
How would the puppeteers ever manage to engineer their own sardine-can environments in a world that must have originally been a wilderness, with all that goes along with that?
I think that Niven at least implies that much of the Puppeteer "cowardice" is a result of their very long time as a technological society. In either Ringworld or Ringworld Engineers, we see a Puppeteer spin and deliver a murderous kick to a threat. He is shamed by this atavistic behavior, but Louis Wu comes to the realization that the Hindmost was originally the primary defender of the herd, who stayed back to fight threats while the rest fled. There's even implications elsewhere in Known Space that this is something of a consequence of advanced technology in general. There's the story "Safe at Any Speed" which Niven has used to justify not writing anything set much after the time of Ringworld. There's also a Bey Schaeffer story where he's on Earth and watching a bunch of enthusiasts racing around in antique 20th century cars on a stretch of leftover freeway. He doesn't see the big deal since they're only doing about 100 km/hr (60-65 mph), but then realizes that they don't have all the safety equipment he takes for granted and goes a little weak in the knees. The Puppeteers' flaw is the result of hundreds or thousands of generations of advanced technology coupled with herbivorous caution.
29. Jeff R.
Thing is, Niven has had decades to make those retcons to habilis origins. (Or to let Lerner or any of the Man-Kzin Wars crowd do it, for that matter.) And he hasn't. And there's a reason for that; because even if there is an alternate explanation, you then have the problem of why all of the supposedly smart people in this book would believe such utter nonsense if it's not somehow actually true...
30. Doug M.
Kzinti bauplan: it's been canon in Known Space for a long time that the Kzinti internal skeleton is very different from a mammal's. The ribs, for instance, are in a sort of geodesic or basket pattern that goes all the way down. It's actually a nice touch that made them a bit more than "cat people".

Doug M.
31. Doug M.
Humans as a lost colony: the death blow for this idea really came in the 1920s, when humans were definitively shown to be running the same biochemistry as other mammals, right down to hormones like adrenalin and insulin. (The first use of insulin for diabetes was in 1922, and it was spectacularly successful; within a couple of years it was clear that insulin could be swapped back and forth between a wide range of mammal species, including pigs, sheep and dogs, and humans.)

You could maybe let a SF writer from the Golden Age get away with it, but by 1960 it was just obviously a ridiculous idea.

That said, "Protector" is still a tremendously fun read.

Oh, and: the second half of that book doesn't generally get enough love. A space battle with relativistic STL spaceships, spread out over decades? Come on! That was fantastic stuff 40 years ago, and it's still pretty neat today.

Doug M.
32. Doug M.
Having expressed some love for the space battle scenes in Protector, I now have to nerd it back a bit by noting that you cannot use a neutron star to make a right-angle turn in deep space while moving at relativistic velocities.

At those speeds, any turn steeper than an arc-minute or so will produce tidal effects that will kill you exceedingly dead. A turn of a degree or so will vaporize your starship. Yes, some of us did the math back on a few years ago. We are nerds; this is what we do. We enjoyed it.

Anyway, it's still a fun read, and Protectors are still a cool idea.

Doug M.
33. James Davis Nicoll
The neutron star in Protector is the same one as in "Neutron Star", right?

A space battle with relativistic STL spaceships, spread out over decades?

Something Niven had done before: "The Ethics of Madness" has a running fight that goes on for centuries (ship frame) and kajillions of years (stay at home frame).

Say, why is it when humans were stuck with slowboats and ramjets, they'd hurl themselves into deepest space but as soon as FTL shows up, they pretty much stop doing that? Is it just that's about the point the humans realize if they keep poking around, eventually they will run into someone with a Puppeteer's taste for intervention, an Outsider's tech base and a Kzin's friendly disposition?

You know, Known Space has about one intelligent species of tool user per 40 Population I stars. Potentially there are hundreds of millions if not billions of other races out there, if Known Space is a representative sample of the Milky Way.
34. James Davis Nicoll
Speaking of Niven, did any of the, uh, vintage posters here ever play the Ringworld roleplaying game?
35. Raskos
@DougM 30
As I recall, Niven just said that the rib cage extended down to the pelvis, which you see in most tetrapods outside of mammals. The reticulate rib network was a fanwork elaboration, I believe. In any case, something like this is found in Terrestrial tetrapods as well - bird ribs have orthogonal uncinate processes which effectively make the ribcage a basket rather than a barrel.
So kzinti are just very large, angry, tool-using cats that continue to get the stuffing knocked out of them by us clever monkeys - raw meat for the Baen reader.
I should have said that Bauplan is not the right word to use anyway - it has a phylogenetic component - animals which share a bauplan have a fundamentally similar body plan which they inherited from a common ancestor, which also displayed this body plan. Kzinti and terrestrial tetrapods are analogues. Nothing wrong with that but every organ, bone etc. in the two groups woud have been evolved independently.
Enough geeking out from me, I agree to a great extent with those that think that this sort of thing can suck the juices out of what can otherwise be an enjoyable story. Everyone's a Tory about the subject they know best, however, and when the errors get too flagrant, and it seems as though they aren't glossed over for the sake of the story, but there to promote a particular way of looking at the world, it gets a bit gravelling.
@DemetrisoX 28
Good points, but puppeteers don't seem like realistic herding herbivores to begin with. Herd animals generally don't run when they're faced by a predator, they circle, and the armed adults take the periphery. Still difficult to see why anything with a defensive strategy based upon flight would ever develop a technological civilization. I won't even get on to the ludicrous anatomy.
Andrew Love
36. AndyLove
Say, why is it when humans were stuck with slowboats and ramjets, they'd hurl themselves into deepest space but as soon as FTL shows up, they pretty much stop doing that? Is it just that's about the point the humans realize if they keep poking around, eventually they will run into
someone with a Puppeteer's taste for intervention, an Outsider's techbase and a Kzin's friendly disposition?
Yes. I think that's right. The wars with the Kzin took the wind out of humanity's "exploring the empty galaxy" sails.
Andrew Love
37. AndyLove
Protector is one of my favorite Niven books, by the way - I read it as part of a minicourse on "Science Fiction and Philosophy"; my philosophy professor considered it to be a critique of the "Philosopher-King" ideal. In discussions of Niven's work, protectors seem to inspire a lot of talk - they allow all sorts of thought-experiments about the response of creatures with perfect strategy and arbitrary goals (Protectors are like the people in Martin Gardner/Raymond Smullyan riddles).
38. lakesidey
Flaws notwithstanding, I loved both Protector and World of Ptavvs (another book which doesn't receive much love, I feel) enough to re-read them multiple times. While accuracy is a good thing, I also read for enjoyment, and Niven has provided enjoyment aplenty.

Known space is oozing with cool stuff - lots of imagination, and science (or pseudo-science which is believable enough) and lots and lots of moments which make me go "whoa" (The Klemperer rosette in Ringworld, the Engineers weapon in RWE, the long distance space war in protector....oh, loads of them). And just the descriptions of some places - Beta Lyrae II (aka Cue Ball), the Core, Home (Before Truesdale) - make me want to visit.

And then there are the chilling moments (like in "Wait it Out" (literally chilling) or the creepy Bordered in Black (which isn't a Known Space story, technically, but whatevah, it's a favourite)).

Against all reason, I am looking forward to the new "Worlds" story. ;) Niven is an least for me.

39. NullNix
DougM@31, another death blow for the 'lost colony' hypothesis is viruses, since unlike bacteria they're utterly dependent on the details of the machinery of the host cell. Now maybe human-specific viruses were brought with us from the lost colony, but we can get flu from birds, and there are a few viruses that can infect both humans and *plants* (though as far as I know none that can cause disease symptoms in both). It was always a stretch to ask how come we were mammals if the whole of Mammalia hadn't been brought with us, but maybe mammals are common (yeah, right, but it's a common SF conceit). But if they brought the plants as well the Ancient Colonists must pretty much have replaced the whole ecosystem when they arrived. Note that this argument does not depend on knowing any fine details of cellular metabolism: all you need to know is that *whatever it is*, viruses depend on it.

(Despite that, _Protector_ is a wonderful story, nicely dark, and the Brennan-monster is compelling, to me at least. But I have trouble looking past the rubber biology every time I read it.)
40. AlBrown
This was fun, Jo. Feel free to go back and review more Niven in the future!
41. ofostlic
There’s an bouncy enthusiasm about early Niven that’s charming to read

Yes, this. He could also do creepy back then, eg, All the Myriad Ways and to a lesser extent The Coldest Place.
42. Gene Miller
There's lots of Niven to love, but my farovite non-Known Space book is A World Out of Time. It's bent over double with sense of wonder.
William S. Higgins
43. higgins
Lakesiedy writes in #38:

Flaws notwithstanding, I loved both Protector and World of Ptavvs
(another book which doesn't receive much love, I feel) enough to re-read them multiple times.

If you're looking for a vote for World of Ptavvs, Niven's first novel, you can count on me. I've re-read it to death... but I haven't re-read it recently. Maybe it's time for a trip to the basement.
William S. Higgins
44. higgins
Jo, thanks to you, I re-read Protector this weekend. It was entertaining, and I was filled with nostalgia for the days when classic Niven was being read by classic Higgins.

I'd been wondering how the older Higgins would react to this novel. One thing leapt out at me: This book has been visited by the Planck Fairy.

I probably should write a column explaining what that means.
46. Hellfire695
On the kzinti never making it out of the stone age bit, it's explained in ringworld and more in cathouse.
Kzinti are an old civilization, and in the beginning were more like humans in term of society. But that society being a touch mysgenist and war like progress more slowly, and when they made into the iron age they discovered breeding. they however you used it on them selves to begin breeding a more aggressive and better warriors and breed the intelligence out of their females. that was 40,000 years ago. after that they never got passed the middle ages until the jotoki fount them.

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