The Mote in God's Eye, set far in the future, tells the tale of humanity's first contact with an alien species. Despite being first published in 1974,..Show More » the science holds up fairly well. There are a few funny oddities that show the story's age, such as the mention of "microwave ovens" and "pocket computers" as if we would be shocked by their ubiquity, but these are rare. However, in this tale, the science isn't the star of the show. Rather, it's the nature of humanity and how that nature compares to the Moties who represent a unqiue threat.
The characters, while not of any great depth, are passable for sci-fi. Some reviewers may complain about this but, as an avid sci-fi reader, I have seen much worse. I never really developed any strong attachment to the characters, but I did get to know them well enough to keep the story engaging.
This is a moderately paced story with some parts moving rather quickly and others trudging along. There are a handful of dull portions, mostly involving Empire politics or background exposition, but just when I started feeling bored, the story picked up. The plot, while sometimes predictable, still leaves enough mystery to keep you reading. The story is long, perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be. For example, I think Horace Bury's character added nothing to the story and could have been cut entirely.
I don't understand why some reviewers disliked the narrator. Personally, I think LJ Ganser does a superb job. Ganser can handle a room full of similar characters while giving each one a unique voice. His narration of Admiral Kutuzov deserves a freakin' medal. His reading never once interfered with my ability to absorb the story.
Overall, I'd say this is a great read. It isn't the best first contact story, and it isn't the best sci-fi novel ever written, but it's fun, engaging, and memorable.
The Gripping Hand (1993) is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s sequel to their popular 1974 novel The..Show More » Mote in God’s Eye, which you probably want to read first. This review will have a couple of spoilers for The Mote in God’s Eye.
Recall that by the year 3017 AD, humans had designed the Alderson Drive — an interstellar transporter which allowed them to jump out of our galaxy to colonize different star systems. Then they discovered the first alien species — the Moties — who were excellent engineers but did not know the science behind the Alderson Drive. The Moties must breed to survive and were quickly overpopulating their own star system. Because they represent a major threat to our species, the human space navy has been guarding the only known gateway out of the Motie system so they can’t escape.
Twenty-five years later, His Excellency Horace Bury, a billionaire merchant trader, and his charismatic pilot, Sir Captain Kevin Renner, are spying for the human navy as they go about their usual business. Their navy job is to keep an ear and eye out for rumors of revolt against the empire but, because of their previous experience with the Moties, they also listen for anything that might hint that the Moties are trying to escape their system. Recently they’ve started hearing people use the term “the gripping hand,” an idiom that only makes sense to the Moties because of their peculiar anatomy. Bury and Renner suspect that some group of humans might be working with the Moties. This leads the duo to the planet Sparta to investigate, and then on to inspect the naval blockade of the Motie system. As they worry about an imminent Motie break-out, they discover that the Moties lied to them 25 years ago. After talking with cultural anthropologist Sally Fowler, who was also in the original delegation to the Motie system, they also discover a possible permanent solution to the Motie problem. The human race doesn’t know it yet, but they’re depending on Bury and Renner to solve all these problems and keep them safe.
In my review of The Mote in God’s Eye, I reported that I enjoyed that book’s mystery, its exploration of an alien civilization, and its occasional humor. My complaints were that the prose lacks style, the characterization is shallow, there is way too much dialogue, and it feels old-fashioned for a story set in 3017 AD. Unfortunately, The Gripping Hand suffers from all of the issues I listed as “complaints” and retains none of the good features of The Mote in God’s Eye. The book is excessively talky as the characters (who are still shallow) move from meeting to meeting, trying to decide what to do about the Moties. Their talking wore me out and eventually I started to zone out during the meetings. I totally agreed with one of the characters who said “I wish you had a fast forward button, Kevin” and groaned when Kevin later said “I may have to lecture.” And unfortunately, Kevin is actually the most interesting character in the book.
The Gripping Hand was published in 1993 and the story is set in 3042, yet Niven and Pournelle’s female characters feel like they were written in 1970. I can tell that the authors have tried to make the ladies seem modern by making them educated and letting them sleep around, but they’re still treated as sex objects. Each (except for Sally, because she’s the older married woman) is sized up for her physical attributes and how “expensive” she is. In one restaurant where Kevin is eating, he says the men are “very busy” and the women are “expensive.” This seems like an old-fashioned way to think about women. Each woman also has to be a sexual partner for one of the men (they can’t just be single) and we’re told when the female reporter is and isn’t wearing underwear. There are numerous little places where Niven and Pournelle try but fail to convince me that their women are modern. Even the character names feel like 1970: Kevin, Jennifer, Sally, Sandy, Glenda Ruth, Cynthia, Joyce, Horace. I just couldn’t believe this was the advanced human society of 3042 AD. If so, it seems we’ve regressed.
I know that this is simply an issue of two 60 year old men (they are now around 80) trying to write modern female characters. They probably can’t help it, poor guys. I could have forgiven the sexism if The Gripping Hand had been exciting, but it’s not. It’s boring.
I listened to the audio version produced by Audible Studios and read by L.J. Ganser. This was a nice production. Too bad it was so boring.