the Little Red Reviewer

The Mote in God’s Eye, by Niven and Pournelle

Posted on: November 23, 2011

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.

At first.

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?

19 Responses to "The Mote in God’s Eye, by Niven and Pournelle"

Just so you know I posted a link to this on the Classic Science Fiction Book Club site as I know there are some Pournelle/Niven fans over there and I wanted them to have a chance to pop over and discuss the book with you. Hopefully they will. And if so, wanted you to know where they came from.


cool, thank you! and yes, I’m digging into the classics a little earlier than January. Got some titles on loan, and others, like this one, have been screaming “Read meeee!!!” for a few months now.


Great review, Redhead. And as a fellow redhead, I approve of the moniker, too! (Yes, I’m one of those visitors from the Classic SF group.)

I loved this book years ago, but it’s been some time since I read it. I do think the sexism was unthinking, just a reflection of how the authors thought, and so was the clear admiration for aristocracy.

The CoDominion books are very militaristic, too, and women tend to be a real afterthought (at best, casual love interests; at worst, prizes of war). At least, that’s how I remember them.

Even when The Mote in God’s Eye was published, this was an old-fashioned view. Heck, James H. Schmitz was writing science fiction with very capable female characters throughout the 1960s. But I’ve learned to shrug off such things – without approving of them – as long as the story is good.

Niven and Pournelle wrote some great stuff. They lost me in later years, especially after 1991, but the early stuff is often great fun. But yeah, you do have to overlook some things. Their general philosophy definitely isn’t mine.


I remember reading this about 10 years ago, and the old fashioned-ness didn’t even register with me then, it was full of space ships and aliens, and was therefore awesome. And the space ships and the aliens are still groundbreaking, and like you, I just shrug off the rest. Even tho I was surprised by it!

I’m trying to get into the Yahoo classic SF group, at first it lets me sign into Yahoo w/my Google account, but then it keeps saying I need to create a new profile, even though I’m signed in? What am I doing wrong?


I’m not sure, but you can use different profiles for various Yahoo groups. So creating a profile might be an additional step, on top of signing in.

It’s been a long time since I did any of that, so I just don’t remember.


this weekends quest: quit getting annoying with the Yahoo/Google kerfuffles and just make a proper Yahoo profile already.


> I do think the sexism was unthinking, just a reflection of how the authors thought…

I think, it’s a mix of both their attitudes and trying to make a point. Lady Fowler is, if I recall correctly, portrayed as extremely capable but frustrated; she’s not really allowed to do much outside of her role as an aristocrat. (Blayne was always a little too protective of her.)

> …and so was the clear admiration for aristocracy.

I’ll have to re-read the book with this in mind, but the view that Blayne takes is that keeping humanity together is far, far more important than keeping it happy, to ensure its survival. A militant aristocracy is a means to this end; a democracy, while it would certainly ensure individual freedoms, could never guarantee this. (IMO, an aristocracy is at the whims of it’s current leader, and so is really no better; but that’s not Blayne’s view.)

As to the authors’ attitude towards aristocracy, that’s nonexistent. They’re simply extremely successful at portraying their characters’ viewpoints.


Ah, here it is. From “Building the Mote in God’s Eye“, from Niven’s 1990 compilation N-Space:

In The Mote in God’s Eye we chose Imperial Aristocracy as the main form of human government.We’ve been praised for this: Dick Brass in a New York Post review concludes that we couldn’t have chose anything else, and other critics have applauded us for showing what such a society might be like.

Fortunately, there are no Sacred Cows in science fiction. Maybe we should have stuck to incest? Because other critics have been horrified! Do we, they ask, really believe in imperial government? and monarchy?

That depends on what they mean by “believe in”. Do we think it’s desirable? We don’t have to say. Do we think it’s possible? Damn straight.


good find! Makes me feel better about the whole thing, that’s for sure. Because hell yes, an Imperial Aristocracy is completely possible. Probably more possible than the UN style Federation future of Star Trek. I don’t have to like it or desire it, but knowing what little I know about human nature, I think it’s a very possible future.


I loved this book – read it ages ago, still plays through my head on occassion. They also wrote Footfall which was excellent fun.


I’ve heard of Footfall, but never read. Consider it added to the “want to read list”. 😀


I love that you “admitted” that you swiped it from your dad.


shh! don’t tell him! I think my copy of Dune may have originally come from his bookshelf as well.


Your secret is safe with me as long as you don’t rat me out to my family.


I read this for the first time in high school, then again about ten years ago. I still get little shivers when thinking about the Watchmakers.


I’ll just admit it: I never read this, but I’m seriously tempted. Definitely in my to read list asap! : )


I read this many years ago and I always thought it was rather revealing that this is held up as an example of what hard science fiction should be like (see the Heinlein blurb on the cover image you posted!).

Don’t get me wrong: I like the Moties, I like the ideas, and I always like far future galactic empires. But I found the characterisation paper-thin, and the lionisation of the book despite that strikes me as a great example of how the sf genre elevates “ideas” above all the other elements that make a story good.

Re: the authors’ attitudes — do you remember that Bury, the rebellious merchant, is depicted as a greedy, unsympathetic sort? Well, there’s a retcon in the sequel, The Moat around Murcheson’s Eye: Bury wasn’t acting on his own behalf, he was acting on behalf of a state, and somehow that made everything he did okay!


I… try to forget that the sequel exists.

Odd that you think the characters weren’t well-defined; the book has several weaknesses, but I think that characterization isn’t one of them. As I remember, Bury was a very well-rounded character, if not one I’d want to meet. (The characters do suffer a bit from being a bit too trope-like and predictable, though. But that’s a quibble.)

Incidentally, Heinlein did more than provide a blurb, he did a full line-edit on the book. (Niven mentions this in an essay, I’ll try to dig up the details.)


I gave the sequel a try, got about 50 pages in, put it down, and never picked it back up. 😦

That’s exactly it tho, Hard SF puts the focus on scientific ideas, not people. it’s fiction about science.

. . . and a reason why I tend to go more for soft SF/social SF. I really go nuts for characterization.


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