It took me over a week to read this little 200-page book, but not for any reason other than lack of time (and the embarrassment of reading the above pictured paperback in public*). I would have preferred to read it in one or two quick sittings, in order to match the pace and style of the story. The story itself covers lots of temporal space, taking place over a few centuries (and thousands of millennia, really), but Niven’s style is sparse and germane enough to skip over that unnecessary human content and get down to the brass tacks. “Time. Setting. Person. This is what happened. This is what the characters need to find out. This is how they investigate. And this is how a Bussard ramjet works.”
It sounds boring, but it’s not. Niven’s brochure-style writing is enriched by his imaginative ideas about human origins, evolution, and wonked-out space worlds with weird grav. And I really just stuck around for the sweet potatoes. <– this is fun (here, too!)
Pssthpok (which sounds like a type of urinary tract infection—“I’m afraid you have a bad case of the Pssthpoks”) is a Pak alien from a world close to the galactic core. A worldwide war erupts, and Pssthpok loses most of his species, along with his will to live. After some research, Pssthpok realizes that the Pak once attempted to colonize an unknown planet, and he attempts to find his lost ancestors, in order to repopulate his people and revive his Protector status. After 32,000 years of travel, his navigations bring him to our solar system, where he subdues an asteroid miner who devours the Pak’s Tree of Life root reserve (basically sweet potatoes with evolution boosters), and quickly evolves into a Pak alien, which confirms Pssthpok’s theory that humans are the ancestors of the ancient Pak. But without the Tree of Life, humans have not achieved their final stage of development, in which they become scaly green immortals who are designated as the Protectors of life.
So, that’s why your estranged dad is having a mid-life crisis. Not enough sweet potatoes!
In Protector, parenthood is the driving theme of Pak/human development. The Pak experience three phases of life: Child, Breeder, and Protector. Humans are stuck in the Breeder phase, “a biped just short of intelligence, whose purpose is to create more children” (p. 83). As a Protector, the body changes, the brain grows, and there is “no urge except the urge to protect his bloodline” (p. 84). This urge to protect can be extreme enough to wipe out the entire Martian population when they pose a tiny threat to Pssthpok’s plans, or severe enough for a Pak individual starve himself to death when there is no one left to protect. This extreme characterization of parentage is enough to wonder about Niven’s own fatherhood status, but I found little info online about it,** which means he either has no children or he is doing a really good job of protecting his brood.
But the ultimate question posited by Protector is just how protective are we of our humanity? If given the choice, do we maintain our unintelligent, sexualized mortality just to avoid eternity as knobby, overprotective aliens with eating disorders? Or do we taste the Pak-bidden fruit and usher in a new age of superintelligent, beak-faced homo sapiens who can live forever, provided that we care strongly enough for someone? Niven could have dazzled the plot with these themes of parenthood, xenophobia, and mortality tradeoffs, but he chose to piddle around with physics, instead.
Protector is 70s SF that reads like 50s SF, in which the charm is in its didactic language and scientific imagery. In the spirit of SF euphemistic expletives like “frak” and “frell” and, my favorite, “great galloping galaxies,” Niven gives us “Finagle,” as in, “how in Finagle is that woman walking on a Mobius strip?”*** And it may be one of the first (and last) SF novels to explicitly use the clichéd “Take me to your leader” (p. 81) line. I’m not Finagling you.
Niven’s Protector is good, quick fun for SF readers seeking an ethically-light read. It’s not rich enough to satisfy literary-minded readers who desire character development, motivation, intrigue, and symbolism, but Niven’s reputation as a hard scifi author should scare away no one.
*Not an art critique. I’m just really, really embarrassed of the kind of books I read, and that neon green alien isn’t going to win any SF converts.
**I didn’t look that hard.
***That’s not a quote from the book. I just wanted to work in “Mobius strip” somewhere. It was kind of a cool scene.