Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

An old-school space opera novel of first contact.

The Mote in God's Eye

Simon and Schuster, 1974, 537 pages

Writing separately, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are responsible for a number of science fiction classics, such as the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Ringworld, Debt of Honor, and The Integral Trees. Together they have written the critically acclaimed bestsellers Inferno, Footfall, and The Legacy of Heorot, among others.

The Mote In God's Eye is their acknowledged masterpiece, an epic novel of mankind's first encounter with alien life that transcends the genre.

Larry Niven used to be one of my favorite authors. This is one of his earlier books, and the first of many collaborations with Jerry Pournelle. They're both writers of the Cranky Old White Dude sub-genre, which actually shows more strongly here than in most of their later works.

Niven has always been great with aliens and technology; Ringworld is a true classic, and I still like his other Known Space stories. (His two most famous races, though, the Kzinti and the Puppeteers, both have non-sentient females. Read into that what you will.) The Mote in God's Eye is a novel of first contact, so I was expecting some great classic SF and interesting aliens, and got it. Which is good, because when Niven and Pournelle wrote about people instead of spaceships and aliens, they kind of sucked.

The spaceships and aliens were great though. The Empire of Man is the successor to an older and more advanced human empire, now climbing back out of an interstellar dark ages of sorts. In hundreds of years of colonizing the stars, humans have never encountered an intelligent alien race, until they capture a slower-than-light space probe with a dead alien aboard. Naturally, they send a ship to investigate, and discover a densely populated star system inhabited by "Moties" (so-called by the humans because they live in a star system that appears as a "mote" before a red supergiant called Murcheson's Eye).

The slow unveiling of Motie physiology, psychology, and society is interesting. They are believable but completely alien; everything about them, from their reproductive habits to their civilization, follows logically and creates a complex race that can't be summarized as simply as, say, the rabidly-xenocidal Kzinti, or most alien races in other science fiction novels. The Moties have a very complicated caste system, but individual Moties have very different personalities. I enjoyed the Motie parts of the book more than any other. Their big secret is revealed to the reader about halfway through, but suspense is maintained by the fact that the humans don't know about it until the very end, and then the question of what to do about it is quite a moral conundrum. Basically, the Moties pose an existential threat to the human race, not out of malice but due to uncontrollable biological drives which they themselves would like to be free of.

So the alien contact part of the novel was good, as were the fairly standard shipboard battles and ground combats and political intrigue.

Whenever Niven and Pournelle spent any time at all fleshing out the humans, though, both pacing and my sufferance waned.

The Empire of Man is a "good" empire (except that they are conquering all the human worlds that have been independent since the last collapse of interstellar civilization, and not above nuking rebellious planets until they glow), and the good and noble characters are all aristocrats. Pet peeve of mine: I can understand the romantic appeal of monarchies and hereditary oligarchies, but they really aren't a great form of government as far as I'm concerned, and I find the sort of loyal devotion to titles for the sake of titles, on the premise that nobles will just naturally strive to be worthy of the unearned respect they've been given, to be pretty creepy. There was a lot of this sort of authoritarianism in The Mote in God's Eye, but it wasn't that that really made me keep groaning. It was the characters.

Captain Roderick Blaine. Seriously. That's the protagonist's name. He sounds like Buzz Lightyear should be his sidekick.

Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov. He's Russian, so you know he's a stone-cold bad-ass. He's the character who has no compunctions about nuking planets.

Lady Sandra Bright Fowler. AKA "Sally." AKA Princess Leiathe Senator's niece who brashly bullies her brazen way into a first contact mission, being a noblewoman and all that. AKA the only female character in the book (not counting the Moties). Oh yes, a thousand years in the future, there are no female ship's officers or crew, or scientists, or engineers. Sally is an anthropologist, so at least girls are allowed to do some science, as long as it's that squishy social science crap.

This tension between manly military thinking and womanly humanities shit encompasses every scientist (male and female) who isn't building ships and weapons. When it's revealed that the Moties are, in fact, a threat, it's Sally and all the other scientists who, having no answers or solutions or counterarguments, only moral quibbles, stubbornly insist that there has to be a peaceful solution without being able to actually come up with one. They basically look, as they are meant to look, like children who can't accept reality, while the grown-up authority figures - military officers and noblemen - grimly ponder their actual choices.

Horace Hussein Bury. A trader. Also a traitor. He's sleazy and treacherous and untrustworthy and rich and greedy and did I mention he's the bad guy? The only human bad guy? Also, totally coincidentally, he's an Arab Muslim and the only non-white (human) character.

Yeah, oddly enough, a thousand years in the future, the Empire of Man is full of Old Earth (almost entirely European) stereotype cultures. I hate it when SF authors do this. "New Scotland," seriously? A thousand years from now, our interstellar descendants are still going to be making a big deal out of being Irish or Scottish or Russian? And we're not just talking way back in the way back, New Scotland is literally, like, Planet Scotland. The ship's engineer talks in a Scottish brogue and refers to bad guys as "Sassanachs"! And Horace Bury says things like "Beard of the Prophet!"

Niven and Pournelle had great imagination in coming up with believable future technology and a complex alien race, and none at all in coming up with human characters with more depth than cardboard.

(Sally even engages in "girl talk" with a female Motie, out of desperation because there are no other women aboard the ship that she can talk about shopping and cooking with. Seriously. Also, this is the conversation where she primly informs the Moties that decent human women don't use birth control and don't have sex before they're married. This is not presented as Sally being unusually uptight or conservative; she's just infodumping to the Moties.)

I kept reminding myself that this book was written in 1974; my sarcastic observations above might give the impression that I didn't like it, but I did in fact enjoy the story. As pure sci-fi, The Mote in God's Eye certainly deserves its place as a classic, and I can understand why it won a Hugo at the time. But... just keep reminding yourself it was written in 1974. And not by Robert Heinlein. (Otherwise, Sally would have been boffing everyone in sight, possibly including the Moties...)

Verdict: An entertaining but dated classic, The Mote in God's Eye is a grand novel of first contact with an advanced alien race, stuffed full of grand old SF tropes, also stuffed full of hoary old two-dimensional character archetypes. I would say Footfall or Niven's Ringworld are much better novels, but if you liked those, you'll probably like this one too, though maybe not as much.

Also by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: My review of Fallen Angels.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, jerry pournelle, larry niven, reviews, science fiction

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