Reviews: Known Space

World of Ptavvs

Larry Niven's 1966 novel bears all the classic earmarks of a first novel: it's passionate, fast-paced, quite original — and of course, unpolished. I would also suspect, like many first novels, the protagonist is based a little too heavily on the writer, though I have no proof of this.

The concept is stirling; a telepathic alien who uses his powers to control others like puppets is found on Earth, buried in a time-stopping field. To this already fertile ground, Niven adds the complication that a human telepath touches the alien's mind and falls under the delusion that he, himself, is the alien. It's a brilliant set-up: two characters are suddenly loose in the solar system, with vastly superior knowledge and roughly the same goal — with the sole difference that one is human, with an essentially human intellect, and one is not.

And Niven's creativity goes even farther, skillfully integrating a wide variety of background details about the Known Space setting, enriching his universe and pulling established stories together into a coherent whole. All considered, Ptavvs is a good introduction to the setting. As an aside, I would recommend that the beginning Niven fan read the novels in roughly this order: World of Ptavvs A Gift from EarthRingworldProtectorThe Ringworld Engineers. This way, the reader is introduced to the setting with the first two novels, and to later elements like the Protectors before they become relevant to the Ringworld series. But I digress.

World of Ptavvs' real weakness is in the climax. By the three-quarters' mark, no less than four factions are running about with differing motives, differing information, and in differing circumstances. There are also several other, less critical factions moving in the shadows at the same time. Throughout the climax, the reader is put upon to remember a large handful of characters, some of whom have shifting alignments and ill-distinguished personalities, and what situations they're in, as the viewpoint alternates rapidly between them, marked only with section breaks and in some cases mere dialogue tags. The novel is heavily backloaded, with critical new ideas introduced very late in the endgame. I have to conclude that it's not for the faint of heart, although like many difficult novels, it can be rewarding.
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