The Pak system lies near the center of our galaxy (in Larry Niven's Known Space universe). Pak is inhabited by a race of creatures quite similar to us (more on that later), except that they have an odd two-stage life cycle:
- For the first forty or so years of their lives, they aren't very bright, perhaps able to make stone tools and babies, but little else. These youngsters are known as "breeders".
- Somewhere around the age of forty, a breeder will begin to notice that a certain ubiquitous plant smells incredibly tasty, and is overcome with a craving to eat as much of its root as possible. A virus contained in the plant transforms its body: the genitals disappear, the joints swell so that fingers look like a string of walnuts and knees look like melons, teeth fall out, and the mouth turns into a beak. The swollen joints give the muscles extra leverage, so that the transforming breeder becomes super strong. The individual becomes immortal, as long as there is a supply of the root (called "tree-of-life") around. The virus transforms the brain, so that the individual is now hyper-intelligent and singleminded in purpose: protect my descendants. For this reason, they are called "protectors".
Pak is a world of violence: Protectors constantly at war with one another, trying to gain territory/resources for their descendants to prosper in. Space technology has appeared more than once, but Pak colonies usually wipe themselves out (or are wiped out by protectors from the homeworld) before they can become viable.
Ahh, family values.
Many, many protectors have their entire brood wiped out by some other protector. Most protectors in this situation give up, stop eating, and starve to death. Especially strong-willed protectors are able to expand their idea of "descendants" to the entire Pak race, and adopt some altruistic mission as a way to keep on living. Revenge seems to never enter into their minds.
Larry Niven introduced us to the Pak in his short story "The Adults", which appeared in the June, 1967 issue of Galaxy Magazine. Phssthpok is a protector in an unusual situation -- most of his breeder descendants have been killed by a nuclear explosion, and the rest rendered sterile. As his kin die off, he and several other protectors mount an expedition to a colony whose protectors all died out after the Sun's radiation killed the virus that made tree-of-life the wonder it was. This colony was, of course, Earth.
As Phssthpok's ship enters Sol system he encounters a Belter ship carrying a magnetic monopole miner. one Jack Brennan.
In 1973, Niven expanded this story into a novel, adding a second part entited "Vandervecken". Elroy Truesdale has a four-month gap in his memory, one he would like to fill in. As he continues probing, he receives a note from a certain "Vandervecken" promising him guaranteed payments for life if he stops. This, of course, only encourages Roy to keep digging.
Both parts of Protector take place early in the history of Known Space: Still into the Death by Disassembly stage of The Patchwork Girl but just before the Kzinti appear in "The Warriors", and well before Beowulf Shaeffer and Louis Wu. It is in "Vandervecken", long before "At the Core", that we learn the galactic center has exploded in a massive supernova chain-reaction. The Pak do put in another appearance in The Ringworld Engineers.
"Vandervecken" is so different from "The Adults" that at first I thought it had been published in a magazine as well. This isn't true: "Vandervecken"'s first appearance is in Protector itself. Luke Garner, Los Angeles Police Chief, and eventual head of the A.R.M., figures prominently in both parts.
Further details are left for the reader to discover in his or her reading of this work, preferably several times.
* * * * 1/2
Protector is Larry Niven at his absolute best: A global culture meticulously put together for us, a cosmic sweep of events, a gripping story, and gadgets, gadgets, gadgets. It was one of the first Niven stories I read, and probably the reason I bought everything he wrote up to a certain point. It was nominated for the 1974 Hugo and Locus Poll Awards in the Best Novel category, and won the 1975 Ditmar Award for Best International Long Fiction.
Help with details from:
Internet Speculative Fiction Database
Known Space Chronological Ordering
Encyclopedia of Known Space