Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Mote in God's Eye: Review

The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle has been on my personal Mount TBR for almost twenty years. Back in the days when I was all about SF, my BFF sent me the sequel (The Gripping Hand) for my birthday and I hurried out and supplied myself with the first book. And then never got around to reading them. Till now. I've mentioned this a few times here on the Block....I really believe that for some books there is a window of opportunity for optimum reading moment. I must have passed it for Mote. Robert Heinlein called Mote "possibly the finest science fiction [he had] ever read." At the moment, I just can't see it.

Niven & Pournelle started with a tremendous idea: Mankind's first contact with an alien species. They then promptly take that idea and bloat it into a long, drawn-out story (nearly 500 pages!) of build-up to a "secret" that the aliens are hiding from the humans....that anyone who has paid any attention at all to the construction of Motie society should have been able to figure out shortly after second contact. Let me explain that...

So...Captain Roderick Blaine of the spaceship MacArthur (of the Empire of Man's Imperial Navy) has just rescued a Senator's daughter cum anthropologist and picked up a greedy trader from the recently retaken planet New Chicago. Sally Fowler is an honored guest; the trader is a "guest" retained at the Emperor's pleasure. On their way back to civilization, they run into an alien probe ship from the Coalsack Nebula. The view of the area from nearby Imperial colonies makes the nebula look like a hooded man with red giant star for an eye and and a yellow dwarf star embedded in it (like a "mote" in the eye of God). The encounter ends with an adult Motie and two "miniatures" taken aboard the MacArthur and the alien probe ship apparently sent by the Motie on auto-pilot for a return trip home.

The humans face a dilemma--will the Moties interpret the incident as an attack? Will mankind be able to send a diplomatic group out the Mote to make peaceful contact with the aliens? The rest of the book revolves around that mission. When the MacArthur (and accompanying warship Lenin) finally do make real contact (the second contact mentioned above), they discover that Motie society is divided into very strict castes: Mediators, Masters, Engineers, etc. Each caste has been adapted to its particularly task--Engineers don't have wasted brain space for speech. They spend their lives taking equipment apart and putting it back together (in better form) OR changing it entirely into something new. Mediators are supremely adapted for speaking and resolving conflicts among castes and helping all castes to work together for the race's good. And so on.

As mentioned, the authors had a great idea. They came up with a pretty interesting alien race. But the human characters that they sent on the mission weren't that interesting at all. Very flat, very stereotypical: the macho, hero-type Captain; the damsel-in-distress, rescued by said hero--supposedly an intelligent anthropologist and yet falls for the hero with very little cause [he barely speaks to her throughout the whole book]; the Scottish engineer [yes, really]; the blind-to-all-danger chief scientist; and so on. Niven & Pournelle then took these stock characters and sent them through a very bloated build-up to the real action--meeting the Motie society in the second encounter. Honestly--it took for-freaking-ever to get to that point. Slow-moving story plus stock characters plus enough scientific jargon to make the average reader's eyes cross. And I say this as a SF-lover and as someone who has read Robert Forward's very hard science fiction (Dragon's Egg and Starquake) and loved them. I had to gloss over huge chunks in order to move on.  The final problem was the aliens' "secret." As noted, it wasn't. Surely to goodness one of those bright humans should have picked up on it before the final scenes. Making that "secret" the entire crux of the matter made for a pretty flat finale. 

Kudos to Niven and Pournelle for building an interesting alien race. I wish the story would have taken us to them more quickly and given us more time to learn about them. Less time on the MacArthur would have managed that quite nicely. I agree that the work is ground-breaking in its take on first contact and give Niven and Pournelle all three stars for that. Better human characters and plot pacing would have garnered more. ★★

[And...apologies to Paula, I don't think I'll be going on to The Gripping Hand.]


fredamans said...

I'm intrigued by this new alien race, but have to say, I'm not so pulled into the story itself. Sci-fi is just hard for me to get into. Great review though!

Caitlin @ Naughts Cross Stitches said...

It was my first introduction to pure Sci Fi and I know I loved it but I get what you mean about the characters. Since my favourite genre to read is fantasy / romance it worked for me to introduce me to Sci Fi. I found the second book had a better story