The Mote in God’s Eye, by Niven and Pournelle
Posted November 23, 2011on:
The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
published in 1974
Where I got it: Might have swiped it from my Dad
why I read it: was in the mood for some good old hard SF.
Even in the 1970’s, hard science fiction and first contact stories were nothing new. But the masterpiece by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God’s Eye, was something brand new. Sure, it had spaceships and aliens and detailed explanations of FTL travel, but it had something more, something new, something unexpected. The aliens in this ultimate first contact story were nothing like anything ever seen before.
If you’ve ever read any of the Pournelle CoDominion books, you’ll be in familiar territory, as The Mote in God’s Eye takes place on the edge of CoDominion space. Although teeming with futuristic technologies, the empire is saddled with a bloated aristocracy and an old fashioned view towards women. Old fashioned and futuristic all at the same time, does that make this book horrifically dated, or did Pournelle purposely design it into the original CoDominion novels?
The six word sentence plot summary of The Mote in God’s Eye is: Aliens are weirder than we thought.
Captain Roderick Blaine knew he was going to be a Navy captain. It’s what younger aristocratic sons always do. But with the death of his older brother, as soon as this tour is over Rod will be returning home to become the Marquis. In the meantime, he’s just been given his first ship, the MacArthur. Enroute to New Caledonia, they intercept an alien probe. A tiny ship, powered by solar sail, containing one strange looking dead pilot. On the edge of known space, beyond the massive dust cloud known as The Coalsack, a young captain is about to change how humanity views the galaxy.
Along with a second battleship (whose mission is to destroy the MacArthur should she become compromised), Blaine takes the MacArthur to the star known as The Mote on a mission of first contact. The Aliens, who become known as Moties, are bizarrely asymmetrical, highly curious, and have a strict caste driven society. Friendly and interested in trading goods and knowledge, the mission is a success.
And then, well, let me refer to my six word summary again: aliens are weirder than we thought. Not only do the Moties have three arms and no facial expressions, their culture is so completely different from ours that the early interactions between the humans and the Moties are nothing short of awkwardly hilarious. Although a full contingent of scientists is aboard, Blaine’s mission to Mote Prime is a military one. Humanities violent past and military capabilities are hidden from the Moties for as long as possible, and could we be so naive to believe they aren’t hiding something from us? Their secret isn’t a militaristic one, it is something far more dangerous.
For those of you craving hard scifi, and aliens that aren’t just humans with a blue paint job, this is the book for you. Jam packed with plot, and characters, and scientific detail (but not done as infodumps), this should be required reading for those future colonists and scientists who will one day make first contact, along with any of us whose childhood dreams involved final frontiers and new civilizations.
And when I say jam packed, I am not kidding. At just about 500 pages and with societal observations of war, classism, evolution and the confusions of religions, there’s more like 1200 pages worth of story crammed into this book. Not a word is wasted, and none of the Midshipmen are nameless red-shirts. This isn’t a book you blow through in a few days.
Has anyone read Pournelle’s CoDominion books? I’d like to know, as I can’t tell if some of the ideas in Mote are simply dated, or if the sexism serves some purpose. Lady Sandra Fowler is the only human female character, and she struck me as rather helpless and useless, especially near the end. I’m not complaining that there was just one female character, I’m complaining that she’s practically treated as breeding stock for the aristocracy. I do hate to dwell, and again, it might be completely on purpose, because although aliens are much stranger than we ever expected (and most of the aliens we meet are female), sometimes learning about them is akin to looking in a mirror.
Of course, there is a lot I’ve left out, a lot of very, very important things, although that cover art certainly gives a lot away. Why, you ask? because I want you to find out for yourself.
Have you read this book? What did you think of it?