World of Ptavvs

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World of Ptavvs
Cover of first edition (paperback).
AuthorLarry Niven
Cover artistAdams[1]
CountryUnited States
SeriesKnown Space Universe
GenreScience fiction
Published1966 (Ballantine Books)
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages188 pp

World of Ptavvs is a science fiction novel by American writers Larry Niven, first published in 1966 and set in his Known Space universe. It was Niven's first published novel and is based on a 1965 short story of the same name.

Plot summary[edit]

A reflective statue is found at the bottom of one of Earth's oceans, having lain there for 1.5 billion years. Since humans have recently developed a time-slowing field and found that one such field cannot function within another, it is suspected that the "Sea Statue" is actually a space traveler within one of these time fields. Larry Greenberg, a telepath, agrees to participate in an experiment: a time-slowing field is generated around both Greenberg and the statue, shutting off the stasis field and revealing Kzanol. Kzanol is a living Thrint, a member of a telepathic race that once ruled the galaxy through the Power (mind control).

Eons ago, Kzanol's spaceship had suffered a catastrophic failure; its reactive drive system failed and the navigation computer automatically jettisoned it. Faced with insufficient power to use hyperspace, Kzanol aimed his ship at the nearest uninhabited Thrint planet used to grow yeast for food (Earth), and turned his spacesuit's emergency stasis field on to survive the long journey and impact, he also arranged for his ship to change course for the system's eighth planet (Neptune) after he was in stasis, with his amplifier helmet and other valuables stashed inside his spare suit (in order to hide these valuables from any rescuers).

Although he assumed that the resident Thrint overseer would be able to rescue him after seeing the plume of gas created by his impact, his timing could not have been worse; while he was in stasis, the races enslaved by the Thrint revolted. Facing extinction, the Thrint decided to take their enemies with them by constructing a telepathic amplifier powerful enough to command all sentient species in the galaxy to commit suicide. (Only the artificially created Bandersnatchi survived, having been secretly designed to be resistant to the Power.) After hundreds of millions of years, the yeast food mutated and evolved into complex life on Earth.

The telepathic encounter with the Thrint leaves the confused Greenberg with two sets of memories, his own and Kzanol's, he instinctively assumes he is Kzanol, the much more powerful telepath. Both Greenberg and the real Kzanol steal spaceships and race to reclaim the thought-amplifying machine on Neptune, which is powerful enough to enable a single Thrint to control every thinking being in the Solar System; the chase leads to Pluto, which had been a moon of Neptune before it was knocked into its own orbit by the impact of Kzanol's ship. Eventually, Greenberg's personality reasserts itself and, armed with the knowledge of how to resist the Power (from Kzanol's own memories), Greenberg traps Kzanol again in a stasis field.

A major element of the story is the Cold War existing between Earth and the "Belters," which threatens to burst into a highly destructive war over control of the telepathic amplifier; the mutually accepted compromise is to throw the spacesuit containing the dangerous device, still in a stasis field, onto Jupiter, where no one can recover it.


Algis Budrys described World of Ptavvs as "snappy, ingenious, and upbeat", praising Niven for "treat[ing] telepathy as the phenomenon it should logically be".[2] Alan Brink noted that "Niven has made a very effective use of a teaser. A person who had not read the book has no way of knowing who or what 'Ptavvs' are; then you read it and find that we are ourselves Ptavvs and that Earth is the World of Ptavvs - as seen through alien eyes; the success of this book testifies to the effectiveness of Niven's curiosity-arousing device".[3]

Charles Stross was inspired by the Thrintun/Tnuctipun relationship from World of Ptavvs when developing the relationship between the githyanki and illithids for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, he also believed the illithids to have been originally inspired by the Thrintun.[4]

According to Niven's recollection, Alexei Panshin wrote a "savage" review of Ptavvs for a fanzine and later cited it as a textbook example of how not to write a novel.[5]

With regard to the book's ending, Silvia Parks-Brown noted: "Human nature and the way states and their military arms think and act are not said by Niven to have significantly changed in the time separating us from the Known Space series; that being so, it can be assumed with a high probability that in the decades after the ending of "Ptavvs", Earth and the Belt would be watching each other for any sign of the other developing the ability to enter the atmosphere of a gas giant, locate and recover objects from there, i.e. gain possession of the ditched Amplifier. Any sign that the other might have gained such a capacity would lead to tensions, threats of war or an actual "preemptive" war. Also, once having become aware that a Telepathic Amplifier is possible, both sides would start secret projects aimed at developing it for themselves - this arms race, too, carrying the risk of an all-out war".[6]


  • The Thrintun had been mentioned in the earlier Known Space story "The Handicapped". World of Ptavvs reveals a number of new aspects to them, including that they were not a particularly intelligent species and only built their empire through the control of more intelligent species.
  • A Ptavv is a Thrint who lacks telepathic powers. Thrintun consider it a matter of great shame to have a Ptavv in their family and usually tattoo them pink and sell them as slaves.
  • Bandersnatchi are enormous intelligent creatures, consisting of one gigantic cell, and resembling a mountain-sized white slug. They were supposedly created as food animals for and were found delectable by the Thrint, but were actually spies for their designers, the Tnuctipun, a highly intelligent slave species that led the revolt against the Thrintun. Only the Bandersnatchi survived the war, as they were specially designed to be immune to Thrintun mind control. Humans encountered the Bandersnatchi when they colonized the planet Jinx, and were able to deduce that they were intelligent.
  • Larry Greenberg, the protagonist of World of Ptavvs, had volunteered to emigrate with his wife to Jinx to help the colonists communicate with the Bandersnatchi. By the end of the story he is even more qualified now knowing the Tnuctipun writing system which the Bandersnatch appear to use.
  • Cultural Relativism - Kzanol seems a highly ruthless and cruel character, taking for granted his right to enslave any human he meets and planning to enslave the entire Earth. Gradually it turns out, however, that he is relatively "liberal" by Thrint standards, his family having traditionally treated their slaves a bit better than other Thrint; this is especially manifest in his decision, when having been faced with the destruction of his ship, to save the life of the slave being who was with him in the ship - which other Thrint would not have done. In the end of the book, it is the human Greenberg who takes the ruthless decision not to release this being out of the stasis field which it shares with the telepathic amplifier, and to throw it into Jupiter for aeons to come.

Similar themes by other writers[edit]

The theme of a human telepath "absorbing" the mind of an alien and thereby gaining various abilities and pieces of information was also at the center of Clifford Simak's Time Is the Simplest Thing.

The theme of a telepathic being able to enslave and control humans, and who comes back to malevolent active life in present-day Earth after an enormous time spent in hibernation or stasis, was used by John Brunner in The Atlantic Abomination.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Budrys, Algis (April 1967). "Galaxy Bookshelf". Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 166–173.
  3. ^ Alan D. Brink, "The Use and Abuse of Literary Devices", Ch. 3., pp 45-46.
  4. ^ Interview with Charles Stross Archived 2011-07-16 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Larry Niven (15 September 1991). "5". N-Space. Tom Doherty Associates. ISBN 978-0-8125-1001-0.
  6. ^ Dr. Silvia Parks-Brown, "Fictional Arms Races" in Dr. Jennifer Wheatley (ed.) "Science Fiction and Fantasy as the Mirror of Contemporary Politics, Diplomacy and War - an Interdisciplinary Round Table on the Anniversary of H.G. Wells' "War of The Worlds".