My parents were science fiction fans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the 1980s, between the ages of about 10 and 13, I read quite a lot of their paperback collection: Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Harry Harrison (some of his were for children and some were mordantly political) and Larry Niven, best known for his novel Ringworld. I didn’t know at the time that Niven was and is a resoundingly unhip figure even by the standards of science fiction novelists. A physics geek and, these days, right-wing crank, he was famous in his day for writing ‘hard’ SF in opposition to the more writerly and countercultural stuff being turned out by the likes of J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock. Wooden characters and unblushingly expository writing were a big part of Niven’s thing; also futuristic ‘widgets’ (as he called them), Californian whimsy, an elaborate future history, and a wide range of aliens – a big selling point for me, since what I was looking for in all these books was an echo of the excitement I’d felt when watching the cantina scene in Star Wars.
My father died this March and I spent several weeks at my parents’ house. One morning I woke up with a hangover to find that I’d gone to bed clutching a fraying copy of Niven’s Protector. (It’s out of print; the UK paperback had a wonderfully cheesy cover which greatly impressed me when I first came across it.) The Big Idea in Protector is that humans are descended from the intermediate life-stage of some aliens called the Pak: what the Pak call ‘breeders’, we call Homo habilis. Pak breeders are non-sentient ape-men, but at around the age of 40 they eat a plant called ‘tree of life’, which makes their teeth fall out, their genitals wither, their joints swell and their skin become wrinkled and leathery. It also makes them single-minded, hyperintelligent and unfeasibly tough. They have become ‘Protectors’, dedicated only to looking out for their descendants and/or the species generally. (On Earth, it turns out, tree of life won’t grow for some sciencey-sounding reason; trouble starts when a Protector shows up here to find out how the colony is getting on. He’s called Phssthpok, which is what I mean by Californian whimsy.)
I skim-read Protector over the next couple of evenings but it took me a bit longer to figure out why I might have picked it up a week after my father’s death. Apart from being amazed by my 12-year-old self’s ability to read – or pretend to read – the boringly physics-based scenes of space combat, I was re-impressed by the final twist, and impressed for the first time by the depth of Niven’s obsession with inheritance. (The shoe salesman who stars in Protector‘s second section is freed to do what the plot requires by an unexpected cash bequest; as a young man Niven came into a hefty sum courtesy of his great-grandfather, the robber baron Edward Doheny.) I also found myself thinking about the book while chasing my 18-month-old son round the garden, trying to stop him from falling in the fish pond or bumping his head when he crashed his plastic car.
When I got home, I looked Protector up on Amazon and found a surprisingly insightful customer review: ‘It’s a decent SF potboiler, but I personally found it the best book about parenting I’ve ever read. Undergo a magical transformation that gives you amazing powers you never knew you had… but you can only use them in the service of the offspring… Too bad the “practically immortal” part is just fiction.’