The Mote in God’s Eye

21 May

I’m sad to say that Science Fiction Spring has become a bit harder going than I’d hoped. Notwithstanding the interruption of something as big as Age of Ultron and something as fascinatingly pointless as a terrible trailer for a movie of an 80’s cartoon, my biggest hurdle was getting into a book which, after years of reading Honor Harrington and Warhammer 40,000 spinoff novels, I rapidly realized was one of their ancestors.

The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published 1974 is one of those sci-fi novels I’ve heard name-dropped about a quadrillion times and so I resolved that, since I was going on a science fiction literature kick this spring, it would be on the list.

At the outset, however, I was rapidly starting to feel like I’d already read it because a lot of later works clearly owe a lot to it.

In the far future, the Empire of Man is engaged in a struggle to reunite the worlds colonized by humankind – not unlike the Great Crusade of the Imperium of Man in Warhammer 40K – led by its aristocratic military class – not unlike the Star Kingdom of Manticore in Honor Harrington – when the newly-reconquered New Caledonia system receives an unexpected visitor: a probe from a non-human civilization.

Surprised, fascinated and fearful in equal measure, the Empire marshalls an expedition to the the Mote, the homeworld of these strange beings. Meeting them, Captain the Lord Rod Blaine of the Imperial battlecruiser Douglas MacArthur and a mixed bag of military officers, statesmen and scientists begin the process of understanding these aliens, their nature, their intentions, and whether or not they pose a threat to the Empire.

What’s funny is that in addition to having the seed of subsequent franchises in it, Mote in God’s Eye also has a few winks toward past ones. A fallen and rebounding galactic empire smacks a little of Asimov’s Foundation, the engineer on MacArthur is a Scotsman (well, a New Caledonian, but never mind) a la Star Trek, and the great rebel enemy the Empire has recently defeated is the planet Sauron!

Part of the reason I found this story so hard to engage with at first is just that: it’s one of those stories that’s full of cliches because it helped invent or codify said cliches. My eyes occasionally slid off whole passages, taking in the gist only.

This isn’t helped by there being a slew of characters to keep track of, none of whom jump out as being the main character. In principle it’s Captain Blaine, but the story spreads the point of view between so many characters that he seems pushed to the background after a while.

Having said that, the dynamics of the story are actually pretty neat. This is very much an idea-focused story. The appearance or function of the warships isn’t dwelt on much, but Pournelle and Niven sought out physicist Dan Alderson to help them develop a scientifically acceptable interstellar drive system – known ever since as the Alderson Drive. During interplanetary cruises, the acceleration g-forces are accordingly brutal.

The aliens, the Moties, are fascinating, especially in the context of Star Trek, less than ten years over when this was written. One feature I’ve rarely if ever seen is that they’re physically asymmetrical! Their physiological strangness is artfully used to inform their psychology and their politics and history to create layers of mystery for the human characters to unravel.

It’s been brought to my attention that Mote in God’s Eye has a sequel, and the whole thing takes place within a larger fictional universe Pournelle created – the CoDominium, so called – and there are more developments promised between humanity and Moties. Given the tought slog I had with this book, I don’t think I’m in a hurry to read it. What is here, however, is quite intriguing. You can tell this was conceived and written in course of the Cold War. The Imperial Admiral riding herd on Captain Blaine is a more than a trifle paranoid about the Moties. The Empire’s government in general is all about assessing the potential threat of the Moties and nuking them into extinction isn’t off the table in case things go badly.

That said, the politics are portrayed pretty even-handedly, if a bit bleakly. Exterminating the Moties is written off more for PR reasons than moral ones. But trade with them is weighed against possible harm to their economy or the chance they might trade with seccessionist worlds. The Moties have a similar set of agendas and strategies to work through at their end. Realpolitik, in other words. It’s perhaps not particularly uplifting, but moderate and realistic, without pushing any political screed from the authors.

I can well understand why the Mote in God’s Eye is a classic, and I like exploring the pedigree of favourite stories of mine, so for all the difficulty I experienced getting into it, I found it enlightening and satisfying to read. Any sense of flatness to the story is partly it’s being from an old tradition of ideas over action or character, and because I’ve spent so much time admiring the foliage that sprang off this trunk.

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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Book


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