John's Reviews > The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven
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's review
Jun 15, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: fantasy
Read in June, 2008

Written in 1972, The Mote in God’s Eye is the premier work by award winning authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, who also collaborated on the science fiction classics Footfall and Lucifer’s Hammer. Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein called it "possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read." It easily makes my Top 10 Sci/Fi Book List.

The story is set in the year 3017 A.D. The Second Interstellar Empire of man is in the process of forcefully reuniting many colonies long lost since the collapse of the 1st Empire, when an alien slower-than-light space craft enters the New Caledonia system coming from the direction of the Coalsack Nebula. From the nearby colonies, this black nebula looks like a hooded man with a large red giant star positioned as a single eye with a small yellow star embedded. The image is so powerful that a cultic religion claimed that the Coalsack visage was in reality the image of God. Our story is about mankind’s first contact with an intelligent alien species, and a subsequent expedition to the barely visible yellow star system or “mote” in the middle of “God’s Eye.”

This book is probably the finest contemplation of a human-alien first contact that I have ever read. And it
does one of the best jobs of creating a truly alien life form, a richly textured alien culture and an array of carefully drawn characters placed in complex situations with no easy solutions. The difficult task of the fantasy writer is always whether to make aliens that are really alien and thus difficult to understand, or to make them more human-like, so the reader can easily relate to them. In this case, the Moties are not only biologically and culturally peculiar, they also have well thought out alien motivations that drive them in ways that mark them as distinctly un-human.

The many human characters are generally stereotypical and predictable as individuals, though together they form a diverse group, each character with a different perspective which the novel explores thoroughly. This careful diversity serves to advance the action and explore the many complexities of the plot. The result is a gripping mystery as well as an adventure story, which left me with a strong sense of empathy for the individuals of both civilizations and how they were affected by these most unusual circumstances.

The Mote in God’s Eye presents the classic problem of first contact: Are the aliens a terrible danger or a unique opportunity? Should they be welcomed into the Empire, or should they be obliterated? The military is charged with the responsibility of determining whether the Moties are a threat to humanity, and with preventing their discovery of human technologies which might increase such a threat. On the other hand, the expedition’s scientists become champions of open communication, scientific and commercial exchange.

In most tales of first contact with an alien species, they come to us, and they aren’t here to make friends. Niven and Pournelle encourage us to reverse the tables, and ask: “What if we traveled to an alien home-world, and our intentions were not entirely benevolent?” This tale makes clear that an alien species' concerns about contacting us for the first time would probably be the same as our concerns about contacting them. One of the things that make this such a great book is that the parallels just keep coming. After a while we have a hard time knowing who has the mote and who has the beam in his eye.

Upon arriving in the Mote system the human expedition discovers a technologically advanced race of beings genetically engineered for high efficiency and speciated into various casts such as engineers, mediators, and rulers each with it’s own extraordinary innate genius. The culture resulting from these biological distinctives is an utterly alien type of industrial feudalism. This vast dissimilarity is accentuated by glimpsing first contact from the Motie point of view. They are as absolutely amazed and bewildered as are the humans. This provides another wonderful parallel hearkening back to the theme of seeing others differently than we see ourselves.

As the humans surmised from the slower than light vessel encountered in New Caledonia, despite their amazing technological advancement, the Moties have not fully mastered the art of hyperspace jumps between stars, as humans have, and consequently have been bottled up in their own system for countless years. It is determined to prevent the Moties from learning that technology at all costs, at least until they prove not to be a threat.

The humans and Moties play the game of diplomacy, each trying to learn what they need to know while trying to keep the other side from learning dangerous secrets. There is also tension between the scientific and military sides of the expedition, and their conflicting goals. The scientists become convinced the Moties are benign, while the military sinks into paranoia. The truth is believably complex, and lies somewhere in between.

This book is far from allegory, though it was written in 1972, and raises several cold war issues, such as the
rational reasons both races have to distrust the other and energetically act for self-preservation regardless of the cost to others. Niven and Pournelle explore every issue from multiple perspectives, leaving no room for “good vs. evil” simplifications. And in the end we learn that despite their great secrets, the Moties are neither evil, nor are they completely virtuous: they are in this way at least - just like mankind.

The intricacies of inter-species politics is one of the reasons this work is so intriguing. It forces us to ask whether our histories are so very different, and to examine the potential for humanity to fall into a Motie-like dystopia. We are forced to ask whether a species is justified in causing the extinction of another sentient species in order to preserve itself. We also are brought to reflect upon whether the Motie’s unique history has compelled them toward cynicism, and disdain for hopeful ideas and attitudes, and if we are so very different in our views of the future. This book is loaded with intriguing “mote/beam” questions!

In Sum, I would describe The Mote in God’s Eye as a classic space opera, with plenty of action, lots of hard science, and an intricate storyline set in a believable, sympathetic and ultimately engrossing fictional universe. It is extremely thought provoking, and stands up well to re-reading. Decades after my first reading I still enjoy this book immensely.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Matthew your review reminded me of what I loved about the book, read some 16 or so years ago! Many thanks!

David Sarkies Great review. I also saw elements of real world colonial aspirations. A number of people have seen elements of 19th century British imperialism in this book, though I though more along the lines of real world first contact situations with other cultures.

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