Phssthpok is a protector of his race, the Pak. For thousands of years he’s been traveling space, looking for the Pak breeders that left his war-torn planet millions of years before. This is, biologically, the only thing Phssthpok lives for and if he doesn’t find them soon, he’s likely to stop eating and die. Finally, in our year 2125, Phssthpok thinks he may have found the lost breeders, though they have evolved so differently than they would have if they had remained at home that they are almost unrecognizable. When Phssthpok meets Jack Brennan, a human who’s been mining in the outer asteroid belt, he kidnaps him, takes him to Mars, and initiates a project that will (again) change the course of human history.
It may not seem like it at first, but Protector is a novel of ideas, mostly having to do with the origin of humanity and its place in the universe. Niven’s extra-terrestrial origin of mankind is nothing new in science fiction, but the way he meshes it with the Biblical creation account in Genesis and explains it with evolutionary psychology makes for an intriguing premise.
This idea takes a while to unfold (Protector covers centuries of time), and there are some associated pacing problems, including a few dull sections filled with spaceship technobabble (gravity fields, thrust, drives, deceleration, fuel, etc.). Part of the pacing issue is explained by the novel’s structure. The first section, which tells Phssthpok’s tale, is Niven’s story “The Adults,” which was published in Galaxy magazine in 1967. The second part of the book, called Vandervecken, follows a completely new character, Roy Truesdale, a man who was abducted and has lost years of his memory. While he searches for answers, he discovers that humanity is once again in danger. The solution to Earth’s imminent problem is directly related to the events that occurred with Phssthpok and Jack Brennan in the first half of the book.
If Protector had been written and published in 2014, it would have been extended over several volumes, and I think many readers will wish it had been. There’s barely enough time to get to know Phssthpok, Brennan and Truesdale (and others) before their particular contributions to humanity are history. There is little character development and there are few extraneous characters. (Though I’d like to thank Niven for creating several strong women, including a black female doctor — this is uncommon in books written by white men in 1973.) However, readers who are more interested in ideas than, let’s say, what every character is thinking, wearing, and eating at every moment of every day, will be rewarded with an impressive and exciting grand-scale view of mankind’s place in the universe.
Protector, first published in 1973, is related to Larry Niven’s KNOWN SPACE and RINGWORLD series. It’s not at all necessary to be familiar with these books to understand and enjoy Protector, but readers who are may appreciate the extra context. Protector was nominated for the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1974.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s version of Protector which was read by Tom Weiner. I always love to see his name on old science fiction audiobooks — he’s so good at it. He has a great voice, he’s not overly dramatic, and his pacing is perfect. I recommend this version of Protector to audio readers. Blackstone Audio has plenty more of Niven’s work on audio, too.