Larry Niven’s 1973 hard SF fix-up Protector takes place in his Known Space setting. As was the custom in those days, it is a standalone.
2125: Phssthpok the Pak arrives in the Solar System, having travelled tens of thousands of light-years in hopes of rescuing the descendants of Pak colonists from themselves. This bold project yields unexpected results.
The Pak are a humanoid species native to an Earthlike world at the core of the Milky Way. Their elders, Protectors, are a caste of super-intelligent beings who are nonetheless enslaved by brute instinct. Pak are incapable of resisting the urge to expand: they want more descendants and more territory. Their planet has been embroiled in an endless war for lebensraum ever since the rise of the Pak.
Phssthpok is a refugee. His entire line was either sterilized or killed outright by an enemy fusion strike. Normally, Protectors without descendants would stop eating and die. Phssthpok has survived by sublimating his drives into a desire to save other Pak. He knows that there are wild Pak out on the fringes of the galaxy, remnants of a failed attempt to colonize. The regular Pak survived but none of them transitioned to Protector. It takes a special food, the Tree of Life, to spark the transition, and the Tree of Life would not grow in colony conditions. Phssthpok works out how to supply the special food, then sets out at sublight speeds for the failed colony. Which just happens to be our Solar System.
Phssthpok expects to find either an empty world or a world filled with unintelligent breeders. Instead he finds that the Solar System is home to an advanced race. He captures a sample for examination. To his enormous surprise, it turns out the odd-looking natives are the highly evolved descendants of the lost colonists.
Phssthpok exposes his human captive Brennan to Tree of Life. Despite the odds (surely millions of years of divergent evolution would have bred out the susceptibility) humans are still enough like Pak that the Tree of Life transforms Brennan into a Protector. No matter how odd they look, humans are Pak. Phssthpok has succeed into finding the lost colonists. With his help, they will regain their lost heritage.
There is just one minor flaw in Phssthpok’s plan. The heritage lost to humanity consisted mainly of endless, genocidal wars. Humans may not be as bright as Protectors, but the eighteen billion people on Earth, and the billions elsewhere have managed something the Pak never succeeded in doing (probably never seriously considered): peaceful coexistence.
Phssthpok and his Tree of Life are an existential threat to humanity. One with which the enhanced Brennan must deal.
Standard classic SF genocide and mass murder warning.
Dean Ellis’ cover art was effectively eye-catching and relevant to the plot, in an era when a lot of SF lines were happy to toss a semi-naked woman on the cover and call it a day.
If you’re having a bad day, ponder the situation that the Earth’s guardians, the UN’s ARM, find themselves in in the early part of this novel. There’s an off-handed reference to the South Sea Statue. That was actually a hostile alien trapped in a stasis field, whose unpleasant nature was revealed to the UN in 2109, just sixteen years before Phssthpok arrived in the Solar System. Two existential threats in a generation probably left the UN pretty twitchy for quite a while.
Hard SF can encompass a few divergent strategies. Hal Clement’s hard SF tried very hard to colour within the lines of known science. Hard SF can also describe imaginative but often dumb SF written by particular set of SF authors, many of whom live on the US West Coast. This book would be an example of the second variety. The setting is pretty! It’s also pretty dumb.
Take for example humanity’s population distribution:
“Earth and the Belt are eighty percent of humanity (…)”
Eighty percent of the population (about eighteen billion people) lives either on Earth or in the Belt. That means that the other settled systems (Alpha Centauri, Sirius, Epsilon Indi, Tau Ceti, Procyon) must host the other twenty percent. That’s about four and a half billion people, all descended from the dozens of settlers delivered by slow boat in the previous century. Arriving, for the most part, in the last decade of the 21st century. Hundreds into billions in a generation or two seems challenging.
The biology in this novel is terrible on a number of fronts, not least of which is the fact that primates are very clearly mammals and mammals are part of lineages that go back hundreds of millions of years on Earth. Humans cannot be descended from Johnny-come-lately aliens from the core of the Milky Way.
One can see here themes that later appear in Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye: intelligence won’t free one from instinct; there exist worn-out worlds subject to millennia of world wars by genocidal races unable to moderate their reproduction (because being able to defer gratification never wins in these sort of universes); to the sufficiently intelligent there is only ever one right answer.
Not to mention passages like “In the Belt they know they can reach civilization and civilization’s by-products: stored air and water, hydrogen fuel, women and other people, (…).” Not that the Belt is as sexist as that makes it sound, although I note the woman who takes part in the middle section of the book isn’t invited along on the final adventure, thanks to being female and pregnant.
Plus there’s the genocide thing.
Ah, well. There are lots of pretty set pieces, from Brennan’s secret lair (featured in the eye-catching cover) to the running interstellar battle near the same neutron star that featured in Niven’s “Neutron Star.” The characters aren’t any worse than usual for Niven and the flaws that undermined his prose after the mid-1970s haven’t taken hold.
Protector is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca), here (Amazon.co.uk), and here (Chapters-Indigo). Is it weird that those all seem to be a late 1980s edition? One would think it either long out of print or that there would be a more recent edition