Saturday, June 13, 2009

Review of The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle was published in 1974. This novel set in the CoDominium universe contains some hard science fiction and is a story about first contact between humans and an alien race. There is a sequel entitled The Gripping Hand (or The Moat Around Murcheson's Eye in most countries) that was released about 20 years after the first novel, and there are several other stories that take place in the same world written by Jerry Pournelle. The Mote in God's Eye stands perfectly well on its own, though.

In the year 3017, a rebellion on the world of New Chicago has just ended, thanks to a risky move by Commander Rod Blaine. After this, Rod Blaine is promoted and given control of the ship MacArthur. He is ordered to never make such a foolish move again and charged with bringing the ship to New Scotland along with two passengers, a Senator's niece who was a prisoner and a trader suspected of playing a large role in the uprising. On the way to New Scotland, Blaine receives a message that a suspected alien ship has been found - the first sign of alien life the humans have ever seen. Since the MacArthur is near the spacecraft, Rod Blaine is ordered to intercept it.

When Blaine pursues the spacecraft, he discovers it is heading straight for a sun and neatly captures the ship without burning his own. However, in the process the alien beings were killed. Some view Blaine as a hero who made the best choice available in a difficult situation while others view him as the villain who murdered the first aliens to come into contact with humans. However, his superiors believe he did the right thing, and Blaine is sent to God's Eye to make contact with the aliens, along with several scientists and anthropologists excited to study these intelligent beings. He is accompanied by a ship run by an admiral, who is supposed to keep his distance from the aliens just in case they are unfriendly - and ordered to fire upon the MacArthur if they compromise the ship somehow.

The Mote in God's Eye was a book that I was very hesitant to read. While I love space opera, hard science fiction makes me nervous since I like to read about characters, not dry descriptions about technology. My eyes start to glaze over and I find myself reading the same paragraph over and over again for twenty minutes straight because I am anal and feel like I will miss something if I just skip it and move on. For the first 100 pages of this 560 page book, I had that problem a lot. It would start to interest me and then I'd come across something like this:
NEW CALEDONIA: Star system behind the Coal Sack with F8 primary star catalogued as Murcheson A. The distant binary, Murcheson B, is not part of the New Caledonia system. Murcheson A has six planets in five orbits, with four inner planets, a relatively wide gap containing the debris of an unformed planet, and two outer planets in a Trojan relationship. The four inner planets are named Conchobar, New Ireland, New Scotland, and Fomor, in their order from the sun which is known locally as Cal, or Old Cal, or the Sun. (pages 32-33)
This, is of course, just the beginning since this description in its entirety goes on for about a page and a half (I remembered it as going on for much longer; I suppose it was because I kept reading the same paragraph over and over again as mentioned above). Many times during the first hundred pages, I considered putting this book down or taking a break to read something else. However, I stuck with it - and I was glad I did since once it got to the interaction between the humans and aliens, I found it very readable without a dull moment.

It is still not a book I would read for stellar characterization. None of the characters are very fleshed out or three dimensional. There are various scientists and engineers, a rich merchant who wants to develop trade with the aliens, the dutiful commander of the MacArthur, the strict admiral who follows orders to the letter even if it means butchery, and one female anthropologist/love interest for the commander. I liked the characters well enough but was not particularly attached to any of them since none of them were very vividly drawn. The aliens, their culture, and the mystery surrounding their intentions was by far a better reason for reading this one.

First contact stories interest me since I enjoy reading what an alien culture might be like and the struggle to find a common ground between societies with differing worldviews. Once it got going, I found The Mote in God's Eye a fascinating portrayal of a civilization very different from humanity. It also had some great suspense since it kept me guessing about whether or not the race was malevolent and exactly what their intentions were.

The aliens, who were dubbed the Moties for their location in the area known as the Mote in God's Eye, were very intelligent and divided into several different areas of expertise. The first Motie the humans encountered was an engineer, who had a knack for developing items that were fitted perfectly to an individual and worked exceptionally well. Most of the Moties the humans interacted with were mediators, who not only studied the humans but learned to mimic the person assigned to them so well that it was difficult to tell them apart if not looking at the Motie or the human speaking. There was some confusion as the Moties had difficulty understanding that humans did not strictly fall into one category. The society was very imaginative and reading about the study of the Motie culture was the best part of the book.

The Mote in God's Eye started slowly with a bit too much description of planetary atmospheres for my taste, but once it introduced the alien race, it became very readable. The human characters were not particularly well-developed, but the Motie civilization and the secret of their intentions made for some entertaining reading.


Read Chapter One


orannia said...

...I find myself reading the same paragraph over and over again for twenty minutes straight because I am anal and feel like I will miss something if I just skip it and move on.

I so do that :)

Hmmm, I don't know if this is the book for me. I find 'hard' science fiction very difficult to read as I keep trying to understand the science, and am thus thrown out of the story. Am trying to think of the science fiction book I had that problem with...

*lightbulb turns on* was the first Catherine Asaro book *ducks*

Thea said...

Very fair and informative review, Kristen! I have Pournelle's Fire's of Freedom on my tbr (I have to read & review it by the end of the month), and I think the second novel in the book is set in the same world as Mote. I've been wary of getting started...but I'm more enthusiastic after reading your review, since you say the writing in general (after the slow, overly-informative start) is entertaining! So...thanks ;)

Kristen said...

Orannia - Glad I'm not the only one who will end up reading the same part over and over. ;) If you had trouble with Primary Inversion, this book is probably not for you. I had no problems at all reading the Catherine Asaro book, but this one was a struggle at times. Also, Catherine Asaro's book had more character development than this one.

Thea - Thank you! I'm looking forward to hearing about what you think of Fires of Freedom.

Shea said...

I loved this story! A real masterpiece! And a great review too. Just looking at your reviews, I was wondering if you'd read Luthiel's Song? A wonderful series.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Mote was considered a tour-de-force when it was first published.
Some of the 'characterization" may have been lost due to historical context - many of the characters in the book (human ones) are semi-cold war stereotypes - but I think you gave short shrift to Kutuzov with the butchery remark: he's not fanatical and cruel, he's ultimately practical. If destroying an entire planet is what it will take to save the human race, then he is the man who can do it (he does pay a price and he is not immune to emotion as one passage in the story relates).
I also think that one exercise of the book was to introduce a truly unique alien species and that the human characters were painted lightly in order to bring this out.

Kristen said...

Shea - No, I have not read Luthiel's Song, or even heard of it. What is it about?

Crotchety Old Fan - I agree about Kutuzov not being fanatical and cruel but ultimately practical. He'll do what's necessary even if it is something many might balk at. All I really meant was that he was the type who was a hard man who would make hard choices, but I suppose it did make him sound worse than he truly was. I only chose the word "butchery" because the other characters thought of/referred to him as a butcher for his past actions. He was the most interesting human character in the book, though, because there was that occasional moment where you could see he wasn't really as tough as everyone believed.

Sharon E. Dreyer said...

If I said that I'll read the sequel, Gripping Hand, I just might not be telling the truth. The Mote in the God's Eye is so good by itself that I don't want to be disappointed by a sequel that might not hold up to the original. By the way, check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This story is a romantic action adventure in space that is more about the characters than the technology.

John said...

I'd agree that the strength of the characters is not necessarily the best way to judge a book like this--or, really, most SF, since it tends to be more involved in larger issues than other genres. But I think the difference between today and when Mote was originally released (much less when, say, Asimov started) is that we don't see the two as mutually exclusive any more. You don't need to pull back on the characters in order to make a point about the society; many of the strongest speculative and conceptual SF books are so strong because the characters play out the concepts that are being advanced. So I'm not sure that strengthening the aliens or making caricatures out of the humans really excuses weakening them. Ideally, you can do both strong characters and ideas, and I think modern readers expect that to happen in a different way than readers in the 70s did.

As I said, I do think Mote is a book that should be judged on its (excellent) strengths, but that doesn't mean its weaknesses should be dismissed, particularly when expectations have shifted to make those weaknesses more prominent than they may have been in the past.

orannia said...

Thanks Kristen. I am going to try Primary Inversion at some point, when I'm not so obsessed about re-reading lines :)