Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review - World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven

Short review: Larry Greenberg reads the mind of an alien. Larry Greenberg thinks he's an alien. Larry Greenberg and the alien threaten to destroy humanity.

Larry Greenberg and
The thrint Kzanol, now awake
Fight to rule us all

Full review: Although this is not the first story set in his Known Space, this is one of the earliest (and as far as I can tell, is the first novel). As a result, the parameters of the fictional future that Niven has mapped out over most of his writing career were not particularly well-defined when World of Ptavvs was written. Through the novel one can see glimpses of the elements of Known Space in embryonic form, but the details are hazy and in some cases have been altered by subsequent books.

The basics of the story revolve around two individuals: Larry Greenberg, a human telepath who has spent a fair portion of his adult life trying to communicate with dolphins, and the thrint Kzanol, a a powerful alien telepath from the past whose race held sway over much of the galaxy when he went into suspended animation in a desperate attempt to save his own life. Their paths cross as a result of an experiment on an archaeological find with less than happy results. The conflict between these two individuals holds the fate of humanity in the balance, and Larry must use his hard won insight into the mind of the thrint to try to stave off humanity's eternal servitude. These events all play out against a backdrop of political tension between Earth and the Belters that the revelations caused by the Greenberg/Kzanol conflict threatens to push into open war.

(As an aside, one wonders what would have happened to humanity when the events of Angel's Pencil taken place had the events in this story taken a different turn, probably nothing good for us it seems).

As noted before, this is a fairly early example of the Known Space setting, and it shows. A lot of material that will be fleshed out later is merely hinted at in this story. In addition, Niven's storytelling style is fairly linear and direct. In the resolution of the story, Niven makes what I consider to be one misstep, in that he seems to argue that technology can be suppressed merely by throwing out an example of that technology, which I find implausible. On the other hand, a large chunk of the subsequent Known Space stories revolve around suppressing technology with military applications via the organization known as the ARM, so it isn't really unexpected.

Although not a good as many of his later works in the Known Space universe, World of Ptavvs is still a good action story with enough mystery and science to jump it above the average. Though his writing career began in the 1960s, Niven's material tends to be similar in tone to the writers of the 1940s and 1950s, so fans of Heinlein and Asimov will probably be comfortable with his output. While not some of Niven's best work, Niven's average fare is better than the best many other science fiction writers turn out, so this book is worth reading.

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  1. So can you see his development from this to Ringworld?

  2. @Julia: Yes. A lot of the ideas that eventually made their way into Ringworld are here in embryonic form. Actually, most of Niven's work weaves together into a single imagined future - I sometimes think Niven is a little dogmatic about the shape the future will take, but at least his dogmatism is interesting.