In an attempt to be more thorough in my understanding of science fiction, I decided I would look back at some more well-known books that I have yet to read. My Dad recommended Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye, and I decided to crack it open and give it a whirl. Unsurprisingly, it is a great representation of old-school science fiction that tends to explore big ideas, rather than being published solely for entertainment. Clearly written with the intent to perform a thought experiment detailing first contact with an alien race, the story services the “what if” scenario presented by the authors. While Niven and Pournelle avoid directly addressing the morality of their answers, their solutions feel natural to the world they created.
As the book opens, humanity is in the midst of its third interstellar empire, and scientists notice an object approaching a star within one of the empire’s outermost systems. Realizing this could be an opportunity to engage with an alien object, naval captain Lord Roderick Blaine is sent to investigate with a team of scientists and anthropologists on the McArthur, the ship he commands. Upon intercepting the object, Blaine and his crew find the dead body of an unknown species occupying the starship. After returning with these findings, the system’s local government sends the naval crew to the Mote, the starship’s system of origin. Their mission is to make contact with whoever may have sent the manned probe, and determine the sender’s intent. Upon arrival to the Mote, the crew of the McArthur encounters a wholly alien species that could present a threat to the future of humanity.
The plot fully begins about one hundred pages into the book upon first living contact with the aliens. The crew of the MacArthur intercepts a ship while on their way to Motie Prime, the presumed home world of the aliens, and the scene that unfolds feels like a stroke of genius. Assuming the pilot of the intercepted ship is an envoy, the humans prepare for an historical moment of meeting its first intelligent species amongst the stars. In the first change in point of view for the book, the readers are let in on the joke that the alien is not an envoy, but an engineer unable to communicate. As the humans try desperately to talk with the alien, they repeatedly fail and grow more perplexed as the encounter continues. The innate grandeur assigned to first contact is completely undercut by the innocent confusion on both sides. Neither side can engage with one another in a scene that plays more like a comedy than a drama.
What follows is a more in-depth introduction between humanity and the peoples of the Mote. Through their interactions with the Motie mediators, the humans find out that the Moties are a species subdivided genetically into different biological roles (engineers, farmers, masters, etc.). This is particularly well-written, as the authors show the work involved when two different species with different vocal patterns slowly learn to talk to each other. In a refreshing chain of events, both sides meet in the middle with great optimism about what they can offer each other. Both sides are open with their intentions, but remain guarded about their vulnerabilities and secrets. However, when the humans discover that the Moties are a more advanced species, most of the humans do not react maliciously. The conflict starts to creep in when Lord Blaine discovers the empire holds the keys for the Moties to travel through the stars.
The patient pacing truly shines at this point, as the characters debate how to proceed throughout their interactions with the Moties. The novel moves quickly enough to keep you interested, but allows for the Moties to become more and more alien as they are fleshed out. The humans are constantly adjusting their intentions as they learn about Motie biology and culture, while the Moties attempt to unveil the secrets of space travel and the act of human sexual reproduction. As the writing shifts to the Motie perspective, the authors make unambiguous observations about humanity’s odd social constructs, such as our attitudes towards discussing sex or the formalities that humans apply to conversations. Normally, I would find this interesting because the engagements are cool to read and it feels like the authors have created a funhouse mirror. However, instead of exploring the bizarre truths behind already strange interstellar interactions, these reflections on humanity felt wooden and almost perfunctory.
Niven and Pournelle truly found the Goldilocks zone while detailing their world, as they limit their descriptions to the utilitarian and do not burden the reader with cosmetics. Their focus on the cultural, political, and scientific aspects of the empire flows seamlessly into the story. The imperial society feels quaint and reserved, with an emphasis on religious ethical code and prominent displays of military force to keep order. Time is used to ground the reader in this universe, setting up the conflict on a civilizational scale. The characters are generally shallow, but fit perfectly into the story. They have important roles to play and are written to service the plot. The main protagonist, Blaine, is a quick-thinking decision maker who uses his crew’s knowledge to efficiently weigh the pros and cons of any situation. The list of supporting characters includes: the plucky pilot, the ethical anthropologist, the high minded optimistic scientist, the scheming profiteer, the rock-faced admiral, and a host of other side characters who fill the gaps. All of them are fleshed out and handed their cue cards through a mixture of dialogue and action that pulls the reader into their lives. The roles hold up for most of the book, but start to wear thin near the final third as Blaine becomes the central focus in the story.
At this point, I started to lose interest. The main conflict drifts increasingly far away as the reader is given glimpses of alien history through Motie internal conversations. Most of the characters also felt stretched to their breaking point, pulled to make sure their role felt used to its fullest extent. The main conflict lingered heavily like Damocles’ sword, but progress towards finding a solution felt artificially stalled. My interest was recaptured with a well-timed action sequence that heightened the immediate tension in the story. While it served as a good way to lead the reader into the final act, the last section itself is a plodding reflection on how humanity deals with “the other”- in this case, a thinly-veiled symbol for Cold War-era communism. The characters’ decisions and attitudes feel heavily influenced by the dangerous duality of U.S. establishment thinking during the post-Cold War years, where “the other” is considered to be both a potential threat and a possible future partner. Even though these attitudes can be partially translated into contemporary thought, the decisions made by the characters feel of their own time. They are reactionary, inflexible and fairly myopic. The novel, while well written and true to the characters and world created, does not question the morality of those decisions, leaving the reader to take them at face value.
Ultimately, The Mote in God’s Eye feels confident in its cohesive portrayal of humanity protecting itself from a future threat. Niven and Pournelle avoid distracting the reader too often with unrelated ideas, and keep a strong focus on the central question. There are clearly some issues, but overall, The Mote In God’s Eye is a clever thought experiment. There is a noticeable attention to detail that is completely in service to story and does not feel contrived. It is especially apparent on the macroscopic scale and applies less so to the personal character arcs. The concluding moments of the story will stick with me for a long time, while the existential absurdity of first contact will be forever burned in my memory. It deserves to be read and serves as a great comparison piece since there is a decent amount to learn from it. I wish I liked the book more, but maybe it is far more tailored to its time than mine.
Rating: The Mote in God’s Eye – 7.0 out of 10.