Larry Niven: World of Ptavvs

Review of the novel World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven.

  • World of Ptavvs

    • by Larry Niven
    • PB, © 1966, 188 pp, Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-34508-8

Astonishingly, I’ve read very little by Larry Niven in the past: A couple of his story collections, and I tried reading Ringworld, but was not able to finish it at the time This was 20 years ago, but it’s a mystery to me. But I’ve collected his early novels over the last few years, and figured my recent trip to Florida was a good time to get through a few of them. In particular, his Known Space novels.

World of Ptavvs is the chronologically earliest-occurring of the novels in Known Space, taking place in the early 22nd century (and is one of the earliest written, as well). The alien Kzanol is a Thrint, a race which, millions of years ago, controlled most of Known Space and enslaved all other races it found. (This Thrintun are referred to as the “Slavers” in other stories.) A mishap while travelling forced Kzanol to put himself into stasis, and he landed on Earth and remained there until the present day, until he was dredged from the ocean and dubbed the “Sea Statue”.

Larry Greenberg is a low-level telepath who specializes in communicating with other species, notably dolphins. A scientist develops a stasis field and reasons that the Sea Statue might also be a creature in such a field, and recruits Greenberg to telepathically connect with the Statue when he frees it from stasis. However, it goes horribly wrong: The Thrint are true telepaths, able to control other creatures mentally. Kzanol imprints his mind on Greenberg’s, and Kzanol/Greenberg escape with a Thrint disintegrator weapon. The real Kzanol revives and steals a spaceship, and Kzanol/Greenberg follows him, the group heading for the outer solar system where Kzanol believes some of his equipment should also be stored in stasis, which could allow either incarnation of Kzanol to take over the world. A member of Earth’s police force, ARM, follows, as do a number of ships from the asteroid belt, as Earth is in an uneasy cold war with the Belters.

The novel is primarily an action/adventure yarn with some interesting underpinnings. Unfortunately it never quite rises above its basic structure of the “good guys” chasing the “bad guys” after the McGuffin of Kzanol’s device. Although this proves to be an interesting little travelogue, showing us the state of Earth writ large, and its tense relationship with the Belters, it’s still pedestrian stuff.

What engaged me in the book were the supporting ideas, especially the long-dead Thrintun, their slave races, and the remnants of their era which have survived into the present day. I’m a sucker for stories involving bits of the past coming to impact the present (which may be why I continue to read Jack McDevitt’s SF mysteries such as Seeker), and besides Kzanol himself qualifying (and ending up as a man-… er… thing-out-of-time) there are a few other leftovers which rear their heads here as well. While they’re not integral to the plot so much as a portent of what humanity will have to deal with as they head into the stars, they’re still pretty neat.

The story also includes two pieces of showstopping technology. Well, Kzanol’s mind control abilities aren’t really technology as such, but they’re so powerful (if limited in the number of people he can control at a time) that it’s easy to see why the Thrint were able to control Known Space in their day with ease. Niven is clever in introducing a Thrint as a single creature isolated from everything he knows, turning Earth into a little cauldron to see how it reacts to Kzanol (and vice-versa). The second element is the stasis field, which naturally is tremendously powerful, and apparently plays into the later Known Space stories to a large degree. Being able to stop time around some area, and consequently rendering that area indestructible, has many applications, which are explored pretty widely in the introduction. (Vernor Vinge of course explored these issues in his later pair of novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime, but it’s interesting to see Niven working with a slice of the implications here, almost 20 years earlier.)

World of Ptavvs is a little disappointing and isn’t essential reading, but there’s some good stuff in here. There’s better stuff in the later books, though.

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