As disappointed as I've been in Niven's most recent work, specifically his perfunctory exercises in extending Ringworld long past its shelf life, I thought I'd go back a few years and indulge in a time when Larry Niven really was about as kickass as SF got. World of Ptavvs, Niven's debut novel set in his Known Space universe, is a little dated, but the good news is that it's still the kind of book Ringworld's Children just isn't in any universe: fun to read. If you've never read any of Niven's older stuff before, it won't exactly bring to mind the usual list of clichéd adjectives — you know, "cutting edge," "pushing the envelope" — but it will entertain you.
The book is pretty much one big chase scene. Kzanol is a member of the telepathic thrintun race, who scour the universe looking for planets to enslave. Forced to crash-land when his ship goes out of control, he first places several crucial belongings — chief among which is an "amplifier" helmet that will expand his powers to enable him to enslave an entire globe — in a stasis suit to preserve it. He then places himself in another, fully expecting to be found and rescued by other thrintun in short order.
Well, it doesn't work out that way. The planet Kzanol crashes on is, of course, Earth, where he ends up in stasis for two billion years. He is found and mistaken for an alien artifact that comes to be called the Sea Statue. But one scientist thinks the so-called statue may actually be an alien in stasis, and he has developed a device that can possibly unfreeze it. To assist him, he has requested the aid of Dr. Larry Greenberg, who has perfected the art of telepathically talking to dolphins and thus is their best bet for possibly communicating with an alien mind.
Zap, Kzanol is unfrozen, and all hell breaks loose. The alien is disoriented and a little pissed off, not to mentioned dismayed that all other thrintun but him are extinct. He immediately breaks free to locate the second stasis suit, which he finds to his chagrin might well have ended up on Neptune. What's more, Kzanol has imprinted some of his personality on the mind of Greenberg for the split second they were in telepathic contact, and so Greenberg thinks he's Kzanol, and wants to get to the other suit and its hidden amplifier helmet as well! Off the two of them go in hijacked spacecraft, with both an officer of the law enforcement agency the ARM, and a fleet of nervous asteroid belt inhabitants, in hot pursuit.
The book starts off a little chaotically (the whole Kzanol/Greenberg personality imprinting thing isn't clear at first), but soon settles into being a fun actioner. I usually roll my eyes when SF novels casually trade in paranormal concepts like telepathy, but it's easy to suspend disbelief for it in a bit of escapist fluff like this. Niven adds to the entertainment value by fleshing his story out with clever subplots: the political paranoia of the Belters, who live in constant viligance for any sign of Earthly interference with their independence; the discovery of the bandersnatchi, an intelligent alien race long thought dumb animals (and used for food by the thrintun — their intelligence horrifies Kzanol).
This unpretentious little tale holds up just fine after all these years. I wish Niven would find it in himself to recapture the vigor and straightforward storytelling of this early work.
Currently in print as part of the omnibus edition Three Books of Known Space, which reprints a number of Niven's Known Space stories in chronological order.