Like so many books I’ve read, The Mote in G-d’s Eye was recommended to me by father, many years ago. And, like many books I’ve read, it’s actually taken me years to read it. I don’t really know why; I know I tried to read it once when I was younger, and it somehow didn’t grab me. Maybe I wasn’t ready for it, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. In any case, I’ve been on more of a sci-fi kick lately, and Starladustess had equally good things to say about this one, so I finally knuckled under and read it.
The Mote in G-d’s eye is a story about first contact, set in the year 3016. Mankind has seeded the stars, thanks to the faster-than-light Alderson Drive, and has also reverted to living under an Imperial Monarchy, thanks to the clichés of science fiction (to be fair, this book probably helped establish those clichés, so I can’t take it to task too much). In the aftermath of an uprising on some outer rim worlds, Commander Roderick Blaine discovers an alien probe approaching the system that his ship is in. While the pilot of the ship is deceased, it still proves the basic point: humanity is not alone in the universe.
Blaine and his ship are quickly drafted as part of the mission that sets out to find the alien home world and make first contact between the human empire and the Moties (nicknamed such because their home planet is located in a star system referred to as the Mote in G-d’s Eye). As one would expect, the first contact is fraught with a variety of questions and problems, which quickly result in everything from complicated political intrigue to outright violence.
First contact stories are always tricky, for one simple reason. Creating a believably alien race is tough enough (witness Star Trek for a number of failures, among others), but anticipating the assorted problems that might occur from that first contact is even harder. Niven and Pournelle do a bang-up job, however. The Moties seem very plausible, yet totally alien; indeed, in a clever twist, the Moties bodies are not symmetrical (they have a single large arm on one side, and two smaller arms on the other), which helps to remind the reader just how inhuman these creatures are.
Unlike some science fiction novels, however, this book contains more than an interesting idea. The story itself is well-executed and interesting to follow, as various factions on both sides try to make sense out of their new situation, and figure out how to exploit it to their own advantage. The pace is just slow enough to maintain a feeling of mystery, without being so slow as to be completely boring. And, in a wonderful twist, most of the mysteries are answered by the end of the book. There’s certainly further that the story COULD go, but there’s no reason that it needs to go any further. It’s fine the way it is.
Robert Heinlein apparently said that this was “possibly the finest science fiction novel [he had] ever read.” There might be points I’d argue with Heinlein on, but this isn’t one of them. This is a damn fine book.