- Genre: Science fiction
- My rating: 8.5/10
The Mote in God’s Eye is a bit rough around the edges, especially when reading it in the 21st century. It features stock characters that seem picked right out of 1960s Star Trek. There is the young captain making bold decisions whose name could have been Kirk. He commands a space navy vessel that also holds a sexualized female guest, a greedy Arab merchant and even a Scottish engineer. The USA and the Soviet Union inconceivably merged and started exploring space, and there are still hardnosed Russian generals but now they are in spaaaace!
This is the year 3000 as if humanity had never moved beyond the 20th century in sentiments and many basic technologies. The novel may be a classic in the field, but the field has long moved on in many ways.
If we put all that to the side as artifacts of an earlier time, then the story that comes forward is quite exciting. This is a classic first-contact novel about meeting an alien civilization for the first time. There is the spine-tingling moment of seeing an alien vessel emerge from the dark void of space. There is the deep sense of mystery and tension and of course the alien autopsy. Niven and Pournelle put many technical details into their interplanetary navigation and alien biology to give the story a slightly realistic edge, even though this future aristocratic human empire sounds totally unrealistic as a future for our society.
The story picks up considerably after about 120 pages, when captain Kirk (I mean, Rod Blaine) and a Russian general go on a mission of first contact to the God’s Eye nebula and we have our first interactions with the aliens. The plot moves satisfyingly fast, almost to the point that significant scenes don’t happen but are mentioned in conversations as have already happened. For instance, at one point the aliens start talking in regular English, but we’ve only had casual mentions that they were picking up words. The first half is a bit clunky like that. The novel was heavily edited before publication and much might have been cut, because for the 70s, this was a very long SF book. 560+ pages is still almost twice as long as many SF novels from that period and it does feel a little long towards the end. But, compared to today’s 1000+ page bloated fantasy novels, The Mote runs along with great enthusiasm.
It’s the central mystery of the Motie aliens that propels the story forwards. That is what keeps me flipping pages, that and the interesting interactions between humans and them. There is no real main character to hang on to otherwise. The cast is hardly more than a set of names in a space navy environment, and what character development there is, is muffled under short and simplified descriptions. I wasn’t really bothered by this, because the story is very full of events and I kept wanting to know what would happen next in this voyage of discovery. The aliens are one of the most elaborately described in any SF novel ever.
I love the Motie aliens, because they are complex as a society but also in the emotions that they evoke in us. Just like with us humans, it is hard to narrow down what a society or a whole species embodies. The humans in the novel also don’t know what to think of them. It is interesting though that Niven and Pournelle chose to create a human society in space that turned very conservative with a militaristic empire, aristocratic upper class, strict gender roles and a strong presence of religion. I didn’t find this society very believable, but their interactions with the Moties are more strained and confrontational than would happen with a more enlightened humanity.
The Mote in God’s Eye might be flawed and rather dated, but it is still a very engrossing, full story. The characters often must make difficult decisions and have nothing to go on except their assumptions and values. Its greatest achievement is the Mote aliens, because of their ambiguity. Even though their civilization is thoroughly fleshed out, they remain alien to us. Sometimes they seem to think like humans, other times they are unnerving. The Mote is a milestone in the genre and remains a good read with an impressively good story.