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Literature / Protector

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Protector is a hard, hard sci-fi novel by Larry Niven.

It introduces one of the most important but rarely seen races in the Known Space series: the Pak, who are distant ancestors of humanity, as well as the creators of the Ringworld The first half of the novel deals with a badly botched First Contact, and the second with the adventures of the titular Protector, the Super Strong, hyper-intelligent adult form of the Pak.

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This novel provides examples of:

  • Acrofatic: A minor Belter character is said to be so fat he couldn't support himself on Earth. He moves as easily as anyone else in zero-G.
  • Artificial Gravity: The first Pak ship has a gravity polarizer, which cannot really create gravity but can somewhat "redirect" existing gravitational fields, acting as a hang glider. The human Protector reverse-engineers it and creates Artificial Gravity proper.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: The Pak. They spend their childhood and adult lives as barely-intelligent tree-dwellers, and then, upon reaching old age, begin craving the Tree-of-Life, which transforms them into an extremely intelligent, extremely strong Protector form. The Protector has no free will, because it must constantly protect its descendants at the cost of everyone else, or else it involuntarily starves itself. Only, it's not Bizarre Alien Biology, since they're Homo Habilis or their direct ancestors. Also the Tree-of-Life, which is like a sweet potato, only it has a symbiotic virus living in it. The virus alters the Pak DNA to cause the Protector stage, and it works for humans, more or less.
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  • Do Unto Others Before They Do Unto Us: A staple of Pak Protector psychology (see Obstructive Code of Conduct below), which is why their planet is a constant battleground (see Forever War). It's not out of cynicism, either: Pak Protectors have very limited free will, despite — or better, because of — their great intelligence.
  • Downer Ending: After working tirelessly in solitude for the betterment of Mankind for nearly two hundred years, Brennan realizes that the only way to save humanity from the Pak colony fleet is to infect the colony world Home with a strain of the Pak virus that will kill everyone too old or too young to become a protector, and cause the change in everyone else, so that he will have an army of childless Protectors to fight the Pak. Horrified at this plan - which Brennan has kept secret from him, Truesdale kills Brennan, who can't fight back effectively against a breeder-stage human who is one of his descendants. In fact, Brennan's last act before dying of his injuries is to administer the first aid that saves Truesdale's life. Shortly afterwards, Truesdale, who was already infected with the virus, transitions to Protector, and immediately understands that Brennan's plan was the only feasible one - meaning that Brennan died for nothing. The Home colony becomes extinct, and the new army of childless protectors heads off to war, but the last page reveals that the reader will have this story in his hands only if Truesdale's army has been defeated, and Truesdale himself is dead.
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  • Fantastic Racism: There's a tinge of it in the relationship between Belters, humans who live and mine in space, and Flatlanders, who live on Earth. Belters are tall, unmuscular, and tan almost black in the unfiltered light of the sun, and they're quick to disparage Flatlanders and Earth in general. Emigrating to the belt has its own stigma from both sides, too.
  • Forever War: What the Pak Homeworld is like, although given Pak social organization it can also be seen as Feuding Families writ large. Each Protector fights to protect its own bloodline and kill different bloodlines that may pose a problem in the future, all while making and dissolving unstable alliances. Factor in that Protectors are smart enough to invent a new Weapon of Mass Destruction each month, and it's clear to see see why few places on the planet are not constantly devastated by war.
  • Great Big Library of Everything: There's one on the Pak Homeworld. Unlike many other instances of this trope, it's very badly organized, since the Pak don't value knowledge for knowledge's sake.
  • Guilt-Free Extermination War: The human Protector kills all the Martians with a Colony Drop, to protect his "descendants," humanity, without any remorse. In fact, he's somewhat proud of it.
  • Human Aliens: So human, they evolved into us.
  • Humans Are Smelly: The Pak Protectors maintain their racial purity by smell. Homo Sapiens just smell wrong to them.
  • Humans Are Superior: Humans could potentially beat the Pak, according to some characters, because we can cooperate to develop technology, whereas they can only build things that will protect their descendants. The Pak also fight amongst themselves too much to ever build a lasting civilization.
  • Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: with the science of the time, nearly 4, or One Big Lie. Niven did buy into some romantic notions about the surface of Mars, but the space travel in the novel is a well thought-out aversion of Space Does Not Work That Way.
    • The evolutionary biology holds up well. There are a few exceptions, though: A hominid, intelligent species evolving symbiotically with a virus that inhabits sweet potatoes? Ridiculous, even back then. Also, the fact that all Earth primates evolved or devolved from the Pak. That means that even the most primitive lemurs and prosimians are descended from the species we call Homo Habilis.
  • My Brain Is Big: Becoming a Protector involves, among other things, the brain growing much larger and evolving a more complex structurenote . Human who become Protectors are this to Pak Protectors, since their brains are larger to start with.
  • Obstructive Code of Conduct: The Pak Protectors are so adept at logic that they can instantly see the best way to protect their descendants, and they're unable to do otherwise. The human protector claims it doesn't apply to him, but he's not convincing anyone.
  • Oh, Crap!: The plot of Protector runs on these.
    • The Pak colonist protectors have a Mass "Oh, Crap!" when tree-of-life doesn't grow right in the colony.
    • Phssthpok has an Oh, Crap! when his native Valley of Pitchok is nuked and his life expectancy is now tied to that of his youngest granddaughter.
    • The Pak protectors have a Mass "Oh, Crap!" when they realize local space is becoming inhospitable.
    • Phssthpok has another one when he catches engine problems—and just barely has enough time to stop the ship exploding.
    • Nick Sohl and Einar Nillson have one when they realize a local smuggler has taken it into his head to contact the Outsider himself.
    • Jack Brennan and Einar Nillson have Oh, Crap! moments when they realize they have this overwhelming urge to eat this unknown alien root.
    • Alice Jordan and Nate La Pan have Oh, Crap! moments with Nillson's ever-worsening condition and ultimate death.
    • Brennan has one when he realizes what Phssthpok will do if he realizes humanity lacks the Pak's Chronic Backstabbing Disorder.
    • Brennan has one years later when he realizes the Pak have evacuated their homeworld and are coming here.
    • Truesdale has one when he realizes just what Brennan's plan for the people of Home is.
    • The people of Home have a Mass "Oh, Crap!" when they realize that whatever this new virus is, it's spreading itself intelligently.
  • Ram Scoop: The novel's method of interstellar travel.
  • Schizo Tech: Due to the Pak's uneven interest in technology, their ship is far ahead of human development in some respects — most notably, the gravity polarizer resists reverse-engineering attempts for two centuries — but behind it in others, such a very inefficient fusion reactor. It doesn't help that the ship is pretty much a prototype. The second Pak fleet has much improved tech.
  • Super Intelligence: Pak Protectors are smarter than humans can ever hope to be unless they become Protectors themselves. Human protectors are likely to be even smarter, since their original form is smarter to begin with.
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