A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 75.
One thing I’ve learned from this project: the difference between world-building and padding is mostly qualitative. The narrative of World Of Ptavvs, Larry Niven’s first published novel, boils down to a long chase scene whose conclusion isn’t really in doubt for a moment. As I neared the end, I kept wondering how Niven would tie together all the disparate elements he introduced along the way—reproduction-impaired inhabitants of an asteroid belt; mammoth, intelligent single-celled organisms; talking dolphins; etc.—so that their role in the overall plot became apparent. To my surprise, he never did. They were just there, fleshing out the world he’d created and plumping up the narrative, originally a short story, to novel-length. When it felt like they might be relevant, World Of Ptavvs seemed like the work of an engineer who knew every inch of its creation; when they turned out to be set-dressing, it read like the product of a novelist still figuring out his craft.
I’ve covered Niven twice before in the form of two short-story collections, so I kind of knew what to expect from World Of Ptavvs: big ideas, small characters. And that’s more or less what I got here. Previously, I’d admired Niven’s imagination from a distance, and while World Of Ptavvs didn’t really change that, it did feel like a world inhabited by real, though shallowly defined, characters, and not just a bunch of paper dolls imprinted with notions. It helps that even with all the detailed ornamentation, the novel has a plot that barrels from one point to the next as it grows closer to a familiar destination.
Specifically, the plot concerns the misadventures of a greedy Thrint. I should back up: All Thrints are greedy. Niven has been criticized—and in my limited experience, rightly—for creating interesting alien races whose members share a single personality tied to one defining trait. So calling Kzanol, the Thrint at the center of World Of Ptavvs, greedy, is a bit redundant. He’s a Thrint, ergo… Fortunately, for the sake of clarity, he’s the only Thrint we need to concern ourselves with here. After a mission to expand the Thrint empire, and his own personal fortune, goes awry, Kzanol crash-lands on an uninhabited planet that will someday be known as Earth.
Flash-forward a couple of billion years—one of the wonderful things about science fiction is the way the rules of the genre make that pretty easy to do—and we find an inanimate Kzanol hanging out at the bottom of the ocean. Well, we don’t. The humans’ uneasy allies, dolphins, do. Set in the near-future, the Earth of World Of Ptavvs is one in which humans and dolphins can communicate with one another. (See what I said above about the wonderful things science fiction allows.) The Cold War between the United States and the Soviets has subsided to a dull roar, supplanted in part by a new Cold War between Earth and the Belters, inhabitants of the asteroid belt. That conflict is mostly in the background, and largely superfluous to the main thrust of the book, yet Niven introduces and spends a fair amount of time with Belter characters whose role in the plot ends up being fairly minor. It’s something a more careful or skilled novelist would almost certainly avoid. Imagine a version of Huckleberry Finn in which we spend a chunk of a chapter observing the daily habits of the Phelps family. But I think the Niven of World Of Ptavvs likes to explore every corner of his universe, whether it serves the narrative or not.
Back to that narrative: Turns out Kzanol is being held in a stasis field. Some human scientists deduce this, and with the help of the psychic Larry Greenberg, they reach out to him. Bad idea. Greenberg becomes confused and begins to think of himself as Kzanol. He immediately sets off to retrieve a “telepathy amplifier” stashed on Pluto that will enslave and/or destroy humanity. (I’ll admit to being a little confused on this point.) Meanwhile, the real Kzanol gets loose and sets off to do the same. The chase is on.
It’s not that much of a chase, however, ultimately ending up being as much about the scenery as the pursuit. For me, it was an only moderately interesting ride, especially once it became apparent that all the details Niven was laying out didn’t really matter that much. The good guys simply had to chase the bad guys and win the day. Novel setting, old story.
I suspect, given Niven’s long writing career, that he’s gotten better at integrating the parts of his imagination dedicated to dreaming up stories and the portion used to create the worlds in which those stories take place. The stirrings of that skill become evident here, so maybe I’d do well to check out some of his later work when this project is over. Or maybe Niven isn’t for me, as inspiring as he’s clearly been to other writers who’ve drawn from his abundant imagination. I’m not the sort of reader who’s content to jet around the universe Niven creates here simply for the sake of jetting, even if it’s the sort of universe in which one character tells another “He wants to talk to you about the possibility of dolphins taking part in the seeding of the stars,” as part of everyday conversation. It’s wondrous until it becomes mundane.
The last days of the Box Of Paperbacks Book Club roll on:
Bertram Chandler, Empress Of Outer Space/The Alternate Martians (Ace Double)
Philip José Farmer, A Private Cosmos
Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities / O.F. Snelling, 007 James Bond: A Report
Robert Heinlein, The Puppet Masters