The Mote in God’s Eye

I pulled The Mote in God’s Eye off AJM’s stack of books to be discarded. I’d read another Niven-Pournelle novel, Oath of Fealty in the mid 1980s and enjoyed it. AJM didn’t like their style and abandoned The Mote in God’s Eye early into it.

One of the things Niven-Pournelle do well in both books employ an ensemble cast to tell the story from multiple viewpoints. They even include a handy cast of characters at the beginning, like a play; I never needed to refer to it. After Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks, and Lost, maybe we readers in 2011 are more at ease with ensemble story-telling than those readers in 1974.

What I find interesting is how narrowly science fiction writers are able to project into the future. A science fiction book written in 1974 can’t help but seem dated in 2011. The action takes place 1000 years from now but the world has changed more in the intervening 35 years than apparently could be imagined by two guys in the 1970s. The ensemble cast is populated almost entirely by white European men. Russians are viewed with suspicion. Scots are engineers. Irish are outlaws. Americans do not figure explicitly but the language of the empire is “Anglic”. Christianity is the default religion. There is a smarmy Muslim trader (did they think were they being “sensitive” by not making this character a Jew?) Buddhism is spoken of in a philosophical way. People of color are glaringly absent; they don’t even rate a place as token stereotypes. (No black sergeant? No Chinese math whiz?) There is one woman, an independent gal who, of course, falls for our hero.

The Mote in God’s Eye begins a bit slowly. Part 1 (of four) establishes, character and scene, sets up the conflict (alien probe discovered) and describes the intricate hierarchies of Naval life so that we understand who is who. I followed all this with more interest than I might have because I’ve been so well-trained in Navy jargon after 20 Aubrey/Maturin books. Finally on page 104, we meet the aliens and from that point on I couldn’t put the book down. I zipped through the remaining 454 pages. Niven-Pournelle do an excellent job of making you identify with each character in the cast, even (especially?) the aliens. It’s not us against “the bug-eyed monsters”. You want everyone to win. In the end, I really enjoyed the story and felt sort of empty when it was over. I wanted to know more about the “Moties”.

The theme of the book explores the dangers of overpopulation. When I was growing up (when this book was written), people used to worry about this a lot more. In 1975 there were 4 billion people on this planet, double that of 1927. By 2012, earth is expected to have 7 billion people, 8 billion by 2027. The cycles of the Moties is basically a cautionary tale which has been shelved and forgotten.

A Note on Language

The language is terse and moves the story forward quickly without slowing too much with long descriptive phrases (except when a new planet is introduced and then you get an account that mimics an encyclopedia or a military report). However one turn of phrase broke the spell. There isn’t much cursing (especially for a Navy ship) but on several occasions someone says, “Rape them!” instead of “Fuck them” or “Screw them”. It made me wonder. Were the authors just being more precise? Were they trying to coin their own curse? Was it an attempt at euphemism; were they not permitted to write “fuck you”?

Related

Richard Harter: The Mote in God’s Eye:

“An interstellar technological quasi-feudalism is conceivable, but it is true that this sort of thing has been overdone. Hack after hack has rewritten Roman and European history into galactic Empires, dark ages, etc. It has been all too much a matter of projecting the romanticism of the past into the future without any real consideration of plausibility…One rather gathers that Pournelle is enamoured of that particular aspect of the past (monarchy, aristocracy, the military, the medieval church, etc.) and is recreating it, willy nilly, whether it makes any sense or not.”

This explains better what was bugging me: “projecting the romanticism of the past into the future”.

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