Eclectic mixer of books of my youth and ones I always meant to read, but didn't.
Like other reviewers, I was looking forward to re-living my youthful nostalgia about this book. Unfortunately, time, as they say, can be unkind. Sure there is the realisation that this book was a forerunner; that it went where others had barely thought to go before it; that it has so many coincidences with Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" franchise (from the irascible Scots Engineer to the naive Soviet Midshipman, warp speed and hyper-space); and that it was a darn fine piece of SF in its day - but its day has passed. The chauvinism (gender, nationalist and just humancentric) grates after a while. I know that was part of the message, but the humans are just too damn smug and condescending. Then there is a very unlikeable love interest (Sally), a bit too much monarchy and not enough science anymore. When I first read it I remember the science being intriguing. I guess I was in high school then and now people are beginning to debate if E=MC2!
For all that, I'm glad I re-visited the book because there are still some parts of it that are fascinating (like the Moteys themselves), the undiscovered history of their civilizations (like our own incomplete fossil record) and the catastrophic rise and fall of species (now keenly debated amongst biologists and palaeontologists). But hell, I was making up most of this interest because it was not part of the original sub-text, so there was only so far I could push it.
The worst thing however was the audio performance. I regret to say I found Mr Ganser's interpretations flat and unconvincing. He must have one of the worst scottish accents in the business and his transitions between characters were inconsistent and unsustained (with the exception of the Soviet Admiral, which he did passably well). The "Sally" voice was woeful.
All up, unless you are re-living a memory like I was, I'd give this a miss. Really it's a 1.5 at best (but nostalgia must count for something).
Found myself on the edge of my seat and can't wait on what will happen.
A very nice story for Sci-Fi Fans!
This is a beautifully clever book. It is a worthwile spend of your time, but to avoid disappointment do not be too impatient at the outset.
I find Larry Niven slow going at first. I even get irritated by the care with which he sets the foundations of his proes, but then it hots up and you are transported to his world. A well thought out, clever, insightful and exciting place that is just around the corner. The world could be, or would be as he describes if we were only able to develop the technology to travel from star to star.
This is an excellent book. I recommend it strongly but prescribe you give the start a chance, you will be richly rewarded.
His book Ringworld is similar. It starts out slow and thereafter the only disappointment is that it ends.
I've read a lot of Niven and Pournelle's collaborations over the years, and at the height of my Very White Space Opera phase (i.e., when I was a teenager with no taste and liked anything with spaceships and aliens in it) Niven was one of my favorite authors.
The Mote in God's Eye was their first collaboration, and never having read it before, I was expecting something like Footfall. It kind of is, but of course it was written over twenty years earlier. This shows mostly in the fact that like most 70s science fiction, computers are still big clunky shipboard installations, and interstellar communications are formatted like telegrams and decrypted on tape machines. Other than that, though, the SF holds up pretty well; Niven and Pournelle have always written relatively hard SF, and their close attention to astrophysical, engineering, and biological detail makes this a book that, aforementioned computer/communications issues notwithstanding, reads like a fairly contemporary work.
Sci-fi-wise, that is. Character-wise... oh boy, that's another matter.
So, let's start with the setting. It's the Empire of Man, some millennial after humans left Earth and began colonizing the stars. There have been collapses and previous empires before now, and the current Empire actually has technology inferior to what bygone space empires had. But in all these centuries, no sentient alien race has ever been discovered. Then an Imperial warship encounters a probe launched from a star system that is a "mote" in a stellar nebula; the probe contains a dead alien pilot, and results in a ship being sent to investigate the system it came from. The crew discovers a race which the humans call "Moties," who appear to be friendly and peaceful and highly civilized. They are actually superior to humans, mentally and technologically, their only disadvantage being that they haven't yet figured out how to build working faster-than-light starships, so they are still trapped in their home star system.
The rest of the book is mostly told from the human point of view, but sometimes switches to the Motie one. We learn that the Moties, well, aren't so peaceful (surprise!) and they have a few secrets they are trying to keep secret from the humans.
As a First Contact novel, this is a very good one. The aliens are alien, and don't fall into any easy roles. They're not malevolent, per se, and individual Moties can be friendly (and refreshingly, they are individuals - Moties, like humans, don't all think alike or subscribe to the same philosophies and racial strategies), but they are definitely a threat. When the humans finally figure out the truth, they face a real moral dilemma.
Where The Mote in God's Eye fails, though, is characterization of the non-aliens. The humans are all straight, and I mean straight, out of 70s Central Casting. You have heroic square-jawed aristocratic naval officer Roderick Blaine, ruthless planet-killing Admiral Kutuzov, the sleazy bad guy Horace Bury who of course is a Muslim Arab, and Lady Sally Fowler, a noblewoman, anthropologist, designated love interest, and the only woman in the book, who at one point informs the Moties that humans have birth control technology but "decent women don't use it." We're supposed to admire the generally lawful and benevolent Empire of Man, even though it's about as socially progressive as Victorian England, and like Victorian England is in the middle of colonizing other human worlds by force. The stereotypes would have been less grating if the characters weren't also so flat; they did little but play their roles.
So, this is good science fiction, but hardly great literature. If you want interesting aliens and an examination of civilizational ethics, with a decent amount of spaceship action thrown in, enjoy, but there isn't a lot of depth, nor characters you're really going to care about.
I don't often give 5 stars but didn't have to think twice about giving them to this book. One of the best SF books I ever read (and I have read many)
Couldn't put it down and was sorry when it was over already.
Excellent narrator too, although it took some getting used to in the beginning.
Highly recommended !
This massive novel is a tour de force of first contact stories. The reader does it justice, using accents and inflections sparingly and when appropriate. I first read this book when I was in my teens, and I've read it several times since, but it never quite came alive for me the way it did with this reading. This 24-hour read actually felt too short to me. Highly recommended!
This is one of my favorite science fiction novels and now one of my favorite audiobooks.
The themes and the writing as superb, as is to be expected from Niven and Pournelle, and despite what other reviewers might say, the narration is also excellent; a mix between dramatization and plain reading that adds a layer of interest and helps differentiate the many characters in the story.
I got this book by suggestion of the TWIT podcasts.
My basic conclusion is that the book has some interesting things to talk about, but in audio form it's somehow hard to follow things that are said.
Many of the non-essential characters are too similar, such as the crewmen who are always contributing to conversations. I still have absolutely no idea who's who. It doesn't ultimately matter, but it's frustrating to know in the back of your mind you have no idea who half of the cast are.
After finishing the book, I had to listen to the first segment all over again because of the above problem. Had I read the words on a page, I might have remembered that the opening quote is by a man later introduced in the story. I might have understood better the early hints and discussions concerning Rod's royal family. Somehow I didn't properly digest that fact until the third part of the book.
Going into this book, you should keep in mind that the story is not meant to dazzle you at thrilling pace with a home run ending fit for pop culture. The book is very much the story of first contact with an alien race. Note that that's very different than being a story about a life-and-death war with an alien race which the humans almost lose their homeworld. If you understand the kind of story being told, the story is excellent.
My only wish is that the writing style would be more explicit about certain things. After the book takes you through in-depth description of a major event, 2 minutes after the event supposedly ends a character suddenly reveals that the event actually extended hours longer with bits it never even suggested had happened. I sometimes found myself actually tilting my head in my car and saying "..wha?" aloud. I had to rewind a minute or so and listen again to make sure I wasn't going crazy, that I really didn't fall asleep during my commute.
Good book though. I give it my rating with the glass half full, not half empty.
I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
The Mote in God’s Eye, co-written by frequent collaborators Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is a classic First Contact science fiction story which Robert A. Heinlein called “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” The story takes place in 3017 AD in the future of Jerry Pournelle’s CODOMINION universe (though it’s not necessary to have read any of those books to enjoy The Mote in God’s Eye). Humans have developed the Alderson Drive which allows them to immediately jump to certain points in space. Thus they’ve been able to colonize many planets which are ruled by a single government similar to the British monarchy.
Up to this point humans have assumed they’re the only intelligent species in the universe, but an alien spaceship has just been detected near the Mote system. The spaceship MacArthur, captained by Lord Roderick Blaine, is dispatched to intercept the alien. Besides its regular crew, MacArthur has a couple of civilian passengers temporarily on board: Horace Bury, a trader and political prisoner, and Sally Fowler, a cultural anthropologist (how fortuitous) and senator’s niece.
It turns out that the alien in the probe ship is dead, but the humans figure out where the home planet must be, so Roderick Blaine, Sally Fowler, Horace Bury, a priest, the crew of MacArthur and a team of scientists are sent on a diplomatic mission to the planet they call Mote Prime. The ship Lenin is sent for back up. It’s captained by Admiral Kutuzov, a ruthless but effective man whose job is to not let the Moties learn anything that could help them build an Alderson Drive and escape the bounds of their own solar system.
Upon arrival at Mote Prime the diplomats find that the Moties are friendly and want to be allies. An alliance and trade agreement with the Moties would be beneficial to the human empire because, except for the lack of an Alderson Drive, the Moties are far more technologically advanced. But that means they’re also a threat. The diplomatic mission must discover all they can about the Motie society so it can make a recommendation to the empire about how to deal with this species they’re sharing the universe with. This, of course, is not as easy as it seems. Do the Moties really have pure intentions toward the humans, or are they deceiving them for some reason?
The Mote in God’s Eye, published in 1974, is a nice change of pace from most of the human vs. alien science fiction that had been previously published. Niven and Pournelle create a truly alien society and explore its evolution, history, sociology, and motivations. The story is compelling because Niven and Pournelle capitalize on the mystery, leaving the reader as much in the dark about the Moties’ true intentions as the human characters are. The truth is surprising (though, I thought, not completely believable).
Niven and Pournelle write unique stories but they’re not superior stylists; I read their books for the plot and ideas — not to admire their use of structure or language. This particular story is interesting, has a few great characters (Blaine, Kutuzov, the priest, and the Brownie aliens), and has an occasional nice touch of humor, but it sometimes suffers from shallow characterization, excessive dialogue, and an old-fashioned feel. The action is exciting, but limited. There is a lot of the normal “hard SF” explanation of drives, fields, stars, ships, etc, but there are also a lot of meetings in which the humans (or aliens) are trying to figure out what the aliens (or humans) know, assume, intend, and plan. Some of this was amusing (for example when the aliens are trying to figure out some aspects of human behavior) but many of the discussions just go on too long. Also, for a story set in 3017, ideas about birth control, sex, and women’s roles in society feel rather quaint.
The Mote in God’s Eye was published in 1974 and nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Nearly 20 years later Niven and Pournelle published a sequel called The Gripping Hand. It was not well received so, in 2010, Jerry Pournelle’s daughter J.R. Pournelle wrote and published another sequel called Outies.
I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio version of The Mote in God’s Eye. L.J. Ganser does a great job with the narration. This title has recently been released in CD format by Brilliance Audio.