Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, The Mote in God's Eye
(Simon and Schuster, 1974)

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 'Building the Mote in God's Eye'
(Originally published in Galaxy, Jan 1976;
reprinted in Pournelle's A Step Farther Out collection [1979]
and Niven's N-Space collection [1990])">

'Have you heard of Jamaica Blue Mountain? It grows on Earth itself, on a large island; the island was never bombed, and the mutations were weeded out in the centuries following the collapse of the CoDominium. It cannot be bought. Navy ships carry it to the Imperial Palace on Sparta.'

'How does it taste?'

'As I told you, it is reserved for the Royal--' Bury hesitated. 'Very well. You know me that well. I would not pay such a price again, but I do not regret it.'

'The Navy misjudges your worth because you lack knowledge of wines.' Bury's Motie did not seem to be smiling. Its bland expression was a Trader's: it matched Bury's own. 'Quite foolish of them, of course. If they knew how much there was to learn about coffee. . . .'

Thirty-five years ago one of the finest science fiction novels ever written was first released -- The Mote in God's Eye. More amazingly, neither the science and technology in the novel nor the politics of the novel feel dated, a rare situation indeed given how other novels, such as Frank Herbert's Dune, do feel dated!

The story is set in the distant future of Pournelle's CoDominium universe, and charts the first contact between humankind and an alien species (which are far rarer than was expected). Human civilization as depicted here is a riff off that of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers in that this is a military novel first and foremost, the result of the American and Russian forces merging together in a sort of bloodless coup against their civilian leaders. If this premise isn't appealing to you, this is a good time to leave this review.

However if you love a really great space opera with a fascinating look at an alien species that is truly non-human, you're in for a great treat. Indeed I consider it, as I noted above, one of the best sf novels of all time and it may will be the best space opera ever written. And I say that knowing that good space opera is hard to do -- getting the details right is a fine art that most writers fail at. Simon R. Green does it exceedingly well in his Deathstalker series as does Neal Asher in his Polity series, and Frank Herbert pulls if off (mostly) in the Dune novel even if the latter novels in the Dune series are horrid.

(No, I will not mention the prequels to the Dune series which are beyond merely being horrid. Shudder!)

(Side-digression for a minute. . . 'Motelight', which was originally intended to be the prologue to The Mote in God's Eye, but was dropped to shorten the final printed version, appears in print as part of the 'Building the Mote In God's Eye' essay. 'Motelight' is useful to read before The Mote in God's Eye, but is only a small part of the essay. And the entire essay, which is very much worth reading for a look at how they wrote this novel, should not be read until after reading the novel! So you can read the deleted prequel here instead.)

There are really two alien cultures in this novel. One is the Moties with their bio-engineered castes, which range from the really tiny Watchmakers who breed worse than any plague of rats that humanity has known to the Mediators who are sort of feline like in their effect upon humans. (Keep in mind that cats can bite hard.) Less obvious is the second alien culture -- the human Empire which is a thousand or so years beyond the present day. Just consider this passage from the novel:

No one had missed him. Kutuzov was a massive, burly man with a heavy sense of humor. He looked like something out of a textbook of Russian history and talked the same way. This was partially due to his upbringing on St. Ekaterina, but mostly through his own choice. Kutuzov spent hours studying ancient Russian customs and adopted many of them as part of the image he projected. His flagship bridge was decorated with icons, a samovar of tea bubbled in his cabin, and his Marines were trained in what Kutuzov hoped were fair imitations of Cossack dances.

Navy opinion on the man was universal: highly competent, rigidly faithful to any orders given him, and so lacking in human compassion that everyone felt uncomfortable around him. Because the Navy and Parliament officially approved of Kutuzov's action in ordering the destruction of a rebel planet-the Imperial Council had determined that the drastic measure had prevented the revolt of an entire sector-Kutuzov was invited to all social functions; but no one was disappointed when he refused his invitations.

'The main problem is yon loony Russian customs,' Sinclair had offered when MacArthur's officers were discussing their new admiral.

'No different from the Scots,' First Lieutenant Cargill had observed. 'At least he doesn't try to make us all understand Russian. He speaks Anglic well enough.'

'Is that meant to say we Scots dinna speak Anglic?' Sinclair demanded.

There is nothing here that doesn't work -- Niven and Pournelle worked together seamlessly as writers in a manner that you rarely see. Amazingly enough, this was the first collaboration between Niven and Pournelle, two award-winning masters of science fiction, and it combines Pournelle's deep knowledge of military affairs with Niven's superb artistry at creating interesting, believable aliens. Though The Mote in God's Eye meticulously examines every aspect of first contact, a subject that is one many sf writers are fond of examining, The Mote in God's Eye is really more about looking at a human society that is every bit as alien as the Moties.

Like the British in S. M. Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers who think they're preserving the traditions of their long-lost homeland, the Empire thinks that it too is preserving the traditions of a homeland long lost in an apocalypse. I've read The Mote in God's Eye at least a half dozen times over the past twenty years. (By contrast, I read the sequel, The Gripping Hand, but once and that was a disappointment as it has none of the feel of this novel.)

Read it for the sheer joy of space opera done right -- it's that good!

[Cat Eldridge]