World of Ptavvs, by Larry Niven

My summer reading goal this year is to get through all 11 of the Larry Niven books published by Ballantine in the mid 70’s.  This includes the Hugo-winning Ringworld, plus a few short story collections.  Everything in these books takes place in his “Known Space” series, a loosely connected set of stories written over a period of 10+ years (with many more that came later) recounting the interactions between a number of sentient species that are subjected both to Niven’s droll sense of humor and his sense of scientific rigor.  I’m not sure that up to this time anyone else had attempted this on this scale with such a broad shared universe, but for many years thereafter it was the standard model for SF writing.

Niven’s first novel is “World of Ptavvs” from 1966, an expansion of an earlier story.  The title highlights one of the first things you notice about Niven’s work, his odd naming conventions for alien planets and species.  The reader is routinely introduced to names beginning with consonants that don’t go together (tnuctipun being my favorite, just don’t spell it backwards), or free-associating from literature or folklore (bandersnatchi).  Did he spend days and weeks wrestling with just the right name to call these individual alien races, or did he just use the first word that popped into his head?  I suspect the latter, but I could be wrong.  While the made-up names are jarring, they’re at least consistently pronounceable, which isn’t always the case with other writers.

While the Known Space series spans a reasonably concise timeframe of a thousand years or so, this book has its origins more than a billion years prior to that, when the thrints rule the galaxy, and have an outpost on early Earth where they grow some yeast-based substance they use for food.   Kzanol (more leading consonants) loses control of his spaceship and goes into hibernation expecting to crash into Earth and be revived by the staff of the outpost, but he ends up at the bottom of the ocean until he is discovered and revived by humans long after the thrintun species has died out.   Much of the book deals with the relative telepathic abilities of the various characters, Kzanol can use mind control quite easily, where the first human he encounters (whose name is Larry, an interesting choice for the author) has a modest ability to communicate with dolphins.  In the 50’s and 60’s telepathy was a common trope of science fiction in everything from Sturgeon to Fred Brown to Dune and everything in between, you tend not to see nearly as much use of it in current SF I think as people realized there was no basis for it actually ever coming to pass.

Kzanol uses Larry and one of his co-workers to hijack a spaceship to get him to Neptune, in order to find his own ship and retrieve some equipment that would allow him to take over Earth (having realized he’s the last of his kind so there’s no point in going back home).  It was a bit confusing to me why he takes over Larry’s mind and escapes in one ship while at the same time he himself follows in another ship, I understand why having access to Larry’s knowledge is useful, but it seems they could have all traveled together.  While in transit, which takes a while, Niven doesn’t spend much time on the main characters and instead switches to a number of other characters trying to figure out what’s going on and organizing a pursuit.  Throughout the book, which has no chapter numbers or titles and is just broken into scenes through the use of a squiggle between paragraphs, Niven will introduce a new character with a brief backstory and then put them into some action which may take a while to come round to advancing the main plot.   He does it enough to notice it as a stylistic method, I’m curious to see if it continues into subsequent books.

The Ptavvs are a slave race of the thrints, and since Kzanol’s intent is to enslave humanity that makes Earth the world of the title, which is a nice touch.  The book is reasonably short and very readable, the characters are almost entirely men (for various reasons human population is tightly controlled and women seem to have to focus on their childbearing potential above all else), and Niven does an admirable job of keeping all his ideas at the forefront while still keeping the book entertaining.  A few key points are probably rushed a bit, when Niven stops to wax poetic for a minute its actually an image worth savoring, maybe moreso because it doesn’t happen that often.  But his obvious intent is the story he wants to tell, and with such a potentially large canvas to work from Niven keeps his focus on the necessary details and produces a worthy novel, first or otherwise, and a good introduction to Known Space.

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