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Art History in Larry Niven's "Protector"

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An introduction

Published in the 1970s, Larry Niven’s novel Protector is about humans learning and interacting with members of a visiting race known as the Pak. Using a long timeline, the story dives into themes of aging, evolution, gravity, and species propagation.

Niven also uses artists and paintings as symbols to drive home these themes. In fact, one can divide this book into two parts with the two main artists Niven wove into the story. The first part belongs to Salvador Dali and second goes to M.C. Escher.

Salvador Dali

The first part of the book switches between the POVs of the Pak visitor Phssthpok, a member of his people's Protector hierarchy and the human Brennan. Brennan himself belongs to a space traveling culture known as the Belters. Early on, Niven establishes Brennan's character as a man who combines art and science by mentioning that he has a reproduction of Salvador Dali’s The Madonna of Port Lligat on his spacesuit.

"The Madonna of Port Lligat"

Before I go into the analysis of Niven's use of Dali's work, I would like to point out that the Surrealist created two variations on the same subject. Remembering how the text described the painting, I believe Niven references the 1950 version. In both versions, Dali depicts his wife Gala as the Madonna. According to the links I embedded in the previous sentence, this painting represented Dali's fusion of Catholicism and scientific advancements made during his lifetime. While Niven used Biblical allegories in Protector, he offered a different interpretation of Port Lligat to give his story more layers.

While the arches, mountains, Madonna, and the child inside her float, Dali also depicts the never ending cycle of life and evolution around her. To clarify, a smaller version of Gala is seen transforming from a chrysalis and into a fully formed human dressed in a bridal outfit with her arms stretched out. In Protector, both human and Pak are in a never ending cycle of evolution and transformation that they will never escape. As the story unfolds, Niven writes of floating objects and subjects in space similar to the floating objects found in the painting. These descriptions were possibly intended to act as foreshadowing to Brennan’s transformation into a Pak Protector after encountering Phssthpok.

While Phssthpok observes and describes the Madonna of Port Lligat found on Brennan's spacesuit, Niven characterizes the Pak as a not very artistic race of beings. To emphasize that point, Niven explains that the alien is ambivalent to the Dali work reproduced on Brennan's suit. I guess he didn’t notice that his ship had a similar shape to the egg in the painting. Also, the description of Pak ships felt similar to the arch found in the Madonna of Port Lligat. Niven even compares certain parts of the surface of Mars to the clean empty landscapes typically found in Dali's body of work.

By the way, according to this link, Port Lligat acted as Dali's personal wonderland.

Here’s a video of Dali and Gala coming out of an egg.

The Evolution of Brennan and the beginning of the book's second act

As the second act begins, the story introduces Elroy Truesdale, a human trying to understand the motivations of the Pak evolved Brennan. While doing so, he spends time traveling around Earth and visits the usual art monuments and ruins created by humanity as found in Egypt, Italy, England, and Brazil. Remnants of former global empires and superpowers.

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By the time Truesdale meets Brennan in person, Brennan has lived a long life and has gained a reputation on Earth. The descriptions of his acts on Earth made me characterize him as an ambitious, albeit somewhat reluctant Banksy style street artist. Why? He leaves a clone of Stonehenge near the actual Stonehenge that leaves people in confusion and in turn, created a debate about authenticity. In fact, when asked if he considered recreating the Dali painting at Port Lligat, Brennan decided that was a bridge too far.

M.C. Escher

As I read Niven's descriptions of Brennan’s planet, M.C. Escher came to my mind, and then the author name dropped Escher’s 1953 piece Relativity. This print, similar to Dali’s Madonna, is known for its depictions of people and objects refusing to abide by the laws of gravity. Brennan, before he became a Protector class member of the Pak, was obviously a lover of art and art history. As a Belter who lived in a society where laws of gravity were at best, a suggestion, obviously identified with Escher and Dali’s depiction of floating objects and subjects. They reflected both his life as a human Belter and a Pak alien. As I mentioned earlier, Dali treated Port Lligat as his personal wonderland, and Brennan went out to space and created a new paradise by recreating what Escher and Dali could only imagine.

While the book references Relativity, Brennan’s environment also calls to mind other Escher paintings such as Waterfall. Brennan also owned an object that recalled Escher's use of spheres in his art.

But did you like it?

I enjoyed Niven's ability to properly use art as allegories, so yes. The vocabulary laced with bigotry (update 7/6/21: Use of outdated terms associated with Black people. Apologies for my poor explanation.) I could have done without, but we should learn from that mistake and move forward.

Why Dali and Escher?

In both Madonna and Relativity, Dali and Escher depict people moving about in cycles and defying gravity. In Protector, Niven depicts people, human and Pak alike, as continuing the neverending cycles of reproduction and aging while floating about in space. I did some light research into Niven’s background and suddenly, the choice of Dali and Escher made sense. Since Niven himself had an education in Mathematics, of course he would take interest in Escher. According to sources, Escher fascinated Mathematicians with his work. Dali also used science as an inspiration for his artistic endeavors.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2018 Catherine


Monty Crawford on July 06, 2021:

Great essay. Agreed on all points. But I'm not sure where the "bigotry" in the book is. I've read it several times and don't remember any.

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on April 01, 2018:

"In both Madonna and Relativity, Dali and Escher depict people moving about in cycles and defying gravity."

These are two great thinkers and artists. I see these paintings as demonstrating a change in our point of view. We should try out various points of view among peoples.

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