Mote in God's Eye, The by Niven, Larry & Jerry Pournelle, 1974

Mote in God

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In the history of SF there have been innumerable team-ups by authors. Pohl and Kornbluth. Dickson and Anderson. Zelazny and Dick. Moore and Kuttner. But in my opinion there has never been a greater team than Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. These two pretty much renewed the entire genre by going through many of the major themes and producing a blockbuster (and very Heinleinian) novel for each. 1976 brought us Inferno, an odd religion book which was a modern interpretation of Dante's Inferno. In 1977 they produced a masterpiece catastrophe novel called Lucifer's Hammer, about a comet striking the Earth. In 1982, an archology/BDO (big dumb object) story called Oath of Fealty. In 1985, an alien invasion novel called Footfall. 1987 brought us an amazing interstellar colonization book called The Legacy of Heorot. But it all started in 1974 with a superb first contact story called The Mote in God's Eye. This is one of those rare times where a new team of authors gets things dead-on, right from the get-go. Five out of five stars.

Simply put, The Mote in God's Eye is a big book, and by that I mean that the author's treatment of their topic, first contact, is very thorough. It has a huge cast of characters, many who are deeply drawn and very realistic, with a very fully developed setting and back-drop. This book is set in a continuum established by Pournelle called the Co-Dominium universe. The Co-Dominium was a joint Soviet/American entity that set up interstellar colonies and founded an early empire, but later crumbled. Flash forward a millennia or so, after another empire has come and gone, to the current Imperium. The Imperium is a powerful space-faring empire that is in the process of re-discovering and absorbing colony worlds that have been out of contact with each other. They are also fighting numerous conflicts with newly discovered planets and alliances which have no desire to rejoin and pay homage to a distant ruler. The Imperium is based loosely on Sparta, in that military life is the primary path to political power. There is also an aristocratic class too, and the government is arranged as a very paternalistic and feudalistic autocracy. They are very conservative in their outlook, but generally try to do the right thing and view their subjects as lesser creatures, but worthy of saving and working for.

The story, as I said, is about first contact between aliens and humans. Technically the aliens reach us first. A photon powered craft from a small yellow star that is visible in front of a massive red giant (the Mote and God's Eye, respectively) blazes into a system that is recovering from a civil war, and is now entirely a part of the Imperium. The powers that be decide to send an experienced XO with a new command, the MacArthur to trace the path of the light sail craft and make contact with the civilization that sent it. A second craft, the Lenin, is also sent, with strict orders to make not contact with the aliens, and to wait in the periphery and blast the MacArthur should it fall into the hands of the alien race. The two craft set out and make a FTL jump to the system of the race that comes to be known as the Mote, and meet the Moties.

The Moties are, as far as I am concerned, one of the greatest alien races that have ever been devised. They are biologically differentiated within their own race and have different shaped beings that serve different purposes. They are not bilaterally symmetrical, but the basic shape of Motie has one heavily muscled and strong side, while the other side has long digits for fine manipulation. Moties have different classes for leaders, negotiators, engineers, engineer's assistants, called "watchmakers," doctors, laborers, bearers and porters, and many others, including warriors. They are all brilliant and/or highly skilled at what they do, and the race seems to have a higher technology that the humans. However, they have not discovered the secret of energy dissipation fields, called Langston Fields, or Hyperdrive technology, and as a result have become stuck in their one system. Other than these two technologies the rest of the story and technology are rooted pretty deeply in scientific realism. The Moties also are an incredibly old race, and long ago mined out their entire system, save for a useless gas giant. The Moties at first seem to be a very peaceful and open race, and are very interested in trade. They are incredible designers with a deep technical know-how, and have some things to offer. The only thing that they ask in return is the secret of the fields, which are required for interstellar travel because each hyperspace trip starts and ends inside of a star, and the secret of the engines themselves. But the Moties have some deeply held secrets too. They reproduce at a furious rate, and go through all out wars at predictable intervals. Those wars always blast the entire civilization back to the iron age. The Moties have had to build their society and culture back up again time after time.

Like many of SF's big books, you are never going to get a good idea of what the book is really like from a review, so I'm not even going to try to fool you here and try to make you believe that what I'm giving you is "thorough." This book really has to be read to be believed. Niven and Pournelle give you deep understandings of the differences between Motie and Human civilizations, and give you more than enough to understand where there will be conflict, and where there will be understanding and camaraderie. The authors take you from the point of first contact, through a diplomatic visit, and then back to human space where a commission convenes that has plenary power to do whatever they see is necessary to preserve human civilization. And at the end of the book, there really is not much that they left unsaid about what could happen in that context. This is a strong military piece that has lots of politics, linguistics, biology, along with some land use planning and population control. There is also a lot of Motie mythology in the story, particularly the very interesting Crazy Eddie myth. Crazy Eddie was the Motie that designed and launched the lightsail that went to human space. He dreamed of a way to stop "The Cycles," which was the cyclical building up and destruction of Motie society. Moties all realized that the only way that they were going to ever stop the cycles was to find a way to get out of their home system, but many Moties also realized that all that would do is put off the next fall until the galaxy is filled, then the time in between fall and the next cyclical rise would be immense. "Crazy Eddie" had become a euphemism for any Motie who shared in that dream, and when the humans showed up a schism developed in Motie society that literally drove them to their next cataclysmic war.

The story is also a bit of a reversal of the usual two types of first contact stories, the first being where we are contacted by an enormously powerful race, and the second being where we meet our equals out in space. In this story the humans seem to have all the power. Before the end of the story most readers will have realized that is not exactly the case, but the humans here do hold the power of life and death over the entire Motie system. I'd hazard to say that most of the book is about the human's reaction to whatever it is the Moties do, and their investigation of what the Moties say. The Moties are never really trusted, and justly so. Not only were they hiding critical facts, but animalistic watchmakers took over the MacArthur which led the Lenin to destroy it in Motie space. Anyway, I am not running out of things to say about this book, but I think it is better that if you have read this far, you pick it up yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Copyright 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 5 star(s)

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