Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye (1974), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Paperback, 592 pages.

Summary: A human civilization that spans many worlds and star systems discovers an artifact leading to a mysterious alien society. First contact ensues. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentence:
"Admiral's compliments, and you're to come to his office right away," Midshipman Staley announced.
     "There's air," Whitbread reported. He watched the tell-tales that showed in a mirror just above his eye level. "Did I mention that? I wouldn't want to try breathing it. Normal pressure, oxygen around 18 percent, CO2 about 2 percent, enough helium to register, and --"
     "Helium? That's odd. Just how much?"
     Whitbread switched over to a more sensitive scale and waited for the analyzer to work. "Around 1 percent. Just under."
     "Anything else?"
     "Poisons. SO2, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, ketones, alcohols, and some other stuff that doesn't read out with this suit. The light blinks yellow."
     "Wouldn't kill you fast, then. You could breathe it a while and still get help in time to save your lungs."
     "That's what I thought," Whitbread said uneasily. He began loosening the dogs holding down his faceplate.
     "What does that mean, Whitbread?"
     "Nothing, sir." Jonathan had been doubled over far too long. Every joint and muscle screamed for surcease. He had run out of things to describe in the alien cabin. And the thrice-damned Motie just stood there in its sandals and its faint smile, watching, watching . . .
     Whitbread took a deep breath and held it. He lifted the faceplate against slight pressure, looked the alien in the eye, and screamed all in one breath, "Will you for God's sake turn off that damned force field!" and snapped the faceplate down.


Writing Quality: 6

Depth of Concept: 6

Rounded Characters: 5

Well-Developed World: 7

Page Turner: 8

Kept Me Thinking: 7

Overall Recommendation: 7


Writing Quality: 6/10. There's nothing particularly stand-out about the writing in this novel. It's adequate for its purpose, but you don't read a Niven or Pournelle novel for the prose. It's not frustrating or awkward, and it doesn't usually call attention to itself, except for some cliches sprinkled here and there. It does a fine job with action scenes, and the dialogue is enjoyable if not particularly artful. Roughly comparable to the prose of C. J. Cherryh in Heavy Time and Hellburner, Terry Pratchett in Night Watch, Orson Scott Card in Ender's Game, or George R. R. Martin in A Game of Thrones.

Depth of Concept: 6/10. There's probably no single moment in the novel that is particularly brilliant or epiphany inducing, but Niven and Pournelle do a really excellent job of crafting a thoughtful first contact story, one that goes out of its way to be better than many other stories in a similar vein. I was tempted to score this a little higher, but ended up deciding that while the situations and dilemmas were really well-realized, the characters simply didn't interact in ways that suggested particularly nuanced or ambiguous readings, thus as a reader I rarely struggled to form my own interpretation of the concepts presented to me. C. J. Cherryh, in novels like Cyteen and Downbelow Station, scores higher here, as does Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars or Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land. I could go on. Still, a 6 is above average.

Rounded Characters: 5/10. This is the low point of the novel, I think. The characters tend to be a bit cartoony . . . there's even a man in the engine room with a Scottish accent, though that's probably a deliberate homage. There's a metaphorically myopic astrophysicist who forgets to eat because he's so busy with experiments, and his character offers mild humor every time he considers routine astological data to be of more interest than discovering new intelligent life forms. He only belatedly realizes ancillary consequences to the destruction of his data collecting devices:
"Buckman looked puzzled. Then, "Ah, I see what you mean. It would kill us too, wouldn't it? I hadn't thought of that."
Characters go from outrage to grins fairly blithely, and there is a certain levity to each character's thoughts that seems a little too casual given the ramifications of encountering new intelligent life. The captain spends a lot more of his time imagining petty punishments for his peers and subordinates than in any sort of sober contemplation of what "intelligent life" means. The novel starts with a bloody revolution, and while different characters offer pithy statements about war and tragedy, this is not a novel that treats those subjects with any real depth. There is no real growth or progression for any of the characters, with the possible exception of the aliens themselves (I'd considered scoring this category higher simply for the sake of the aliens). Still, the depth of the characters here is superior to those in Niven's Ringworld, which shocked me in its unoriginality in character development. I haven't read a lot of either author, but I'm assuming the improvement is due to Pournelle's contribution. Kim Stanley Robinson and C. J. Cherryh and even Orson Scott Card treat character psychology much more seriously.

Well-Developed World: 8/10. This is where the novel really shines. Pournelle and Niven construct a future human civilization that is on par with many of the better classic science fiction novels (Dune, Foundation, etc.), and then add on top of that a really intricate alien civilization. C. J. Cherryh works at first contact novels in a few of her series, both in the Chanur and Foreigner universes, as well as her award-winning Downbelow Station. But in terms of a really well-developed and engaging first-contact thought experiment, The Mote in God's Eye as a standalone novel is superior to hers and any others I have read simply due to its great detail and careful inclusion of the sociological, biological, political, and commercial ramifications of a first contact with a significantly different life form (that was a bit of a mouthful, sorry). It's not art, but it is really well-developed.

Page Turner: 8/10. Not as addictive as Ender's Game or The Hunger Games, this is still a page-turner once you get through the first hundred pages or so. There's a fair amount of lead-up to the "first contact," but once it occurs, the novel gets hard to put down. If the characters or concepts had been a little more nuanced (I was never really invested in them), I probably would have scored it higher, but an 8/10 is still pretty dang good.

Kept Me Thinking: 7/10. It didn't have me pondering as much as did Robinson's Red Mars, mostly because many of the questions raised in this novel are the sort answered later in the novel, almost like a mystery novel. It's enough to keep you thinking, but the thinking is not the sort of existential and philosophical material that really made Red Mars stand out. And it didn't get very insightful about human psychology the way C.J. Cherryh does, or even as much as Heinlein in his Stranger in a Strange Land. Still, the science in this novel was engaging (to me at least), and the alien species was particularly enjoyable to try to wrap my mind around. A 7 puts this novel far above average.

Overall Recommendation: 7/10. If only the characters and concepts were a little bit richer, this could have been one of the truly great science fiction novels of all time. As it is, it's one of the best in a narrower category: first contact. If that's a field you're interested in broaching, this is a really excellent place to start. It has a "hard" sci-fi tone to it, if that's your thing, and you can tell the authors spent A LOT of time hashing out the new alien civilization so that it would really fit together. It might seem a little dated in some social aspects, but you'd want to read it in the context of when it was written, and try to see how it has shaped first contact novels since. It is a foundational novel in that sense. Also, while blurbs are notoriously unreliable, Robert Heinlein once said that it was "possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read."

Books To Compare: Stories of first contact go back a long way, as people have always been fascinated by the foreign, whether through Marco Polo's stories or the many journals of explorers to the Americas, or Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Herman Melville's first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, painted Pacific islanders with the same sort of appeal of the exotic that extraterrestrial first contact stories have for us today, and there's a bit of that in Moby-Dick, too. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbot Abbot, and Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift both explore fantastically different societies in order to say something about our own realities. In many cases, these precursor novels involve more irony, more satire, and more interesting layers than does The Mote in God's Eye, but if you're mostly looking for an interesting, well-developed alien society, it stands up well enough to any of them. Even Margaret Meade's Coming of Age in Samoa (in which the researcher lived with her researched tribes), a foundational if somewhat outmoded text, you'd find interesting things to compare with a novel like this one. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Mote in God's Eye on Amazon.


  1. I'll need to go through your review list at some point, at least for the books that I read (I already see that I disagree with you on Graveyard Book), but your stance against Goodkin is enough to keep me here (even though I did like First Rule (the next two were so bad I didn't go on)).

    1. Yeah, I'm probably a bit harsh with Goodkind, but since he's made a bazillion dollars and thinks he's a new messiah, I don't mind stickin' it to him a little.

    2. Well, I haven't actually had a chance to read your review (just glanced at your ratings), but I don't think you can be harsh enough. Half of his stuff (at least in the first few books), he completely ripped from Jordan, and those weren't good to begin with, so it's like a bad copy of crap to begin with.

      It'll be interesting to see what you think of my reviews (when I do them).

    3. I think I've never been more frustrated reading an author than reading Goodkind. And I agree about Jordan, though he looks like the messiah by comparison.

  2. I love how your review tells me pretty much all I need to know about the book.

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