Friday, May 10, 2013

The Mote in God's Eye

The following is another "reader's diary," this time reflecting on The Mote in God's Eye, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Spoilers abound, so those who have not read it and wish to learn about the story the old-fashioned way are advised not to proceed hence.


About 40 years ago, novice science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, who had a couple of pseudonymous novels and some short stories out under his own name, started working with Larry Niven, an award-winning young author to that point best known for his "Known Space" universe, especially the award-winning Ringworld.

The pair would start with the alien first-contact novel The Mote in God's Eye, and their success with it would spawn four decades and counting of joint works that stand at the front of science fiction publishing. One of its most attention-getting features was a cover blurb from science-fiction titan Robert A. Heinlein, who was about a year away from being named the first Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Heinlein eschewed common blurb-speak for a simple declarative sentence which ended: "...possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read." It would be hard to find tastier bait for the hard science fiction fan than a quote like that, and Mote went on to cement its iconic status and pave the way for other Niven-Pournelle idea-based fiction like Oath of Fealty and Lucifer's Hammer.

Heinlein had, in fact, read an earlier manuscript of the collaboration and offered the writers detailed suggestions about improving it. Although he told them he liked it very much, he didn't think they could sell it without extensive editing -- not to the plot itself, but for length and some in-universe logic. Looking at Mote from the perspective of the millions of books Niven and Pournelle had sold, it seems like its sale would have been a slam-dunk, but that's almost strictly a hindsight advantage.

Niven had been writing science fiction for about a decade and had pulled off a Nebula, Hugo and Locus award trifecta with Ringworld. But Pournelle had published mostly nonfiction and worked in political campaigns and the public policy arena. The pair would use an existing fictional universe for their novel of the first contact between human beings and intelligent aliens, but they didn't use Niven's Known Space. Pournelle said he couldn't believe the history and politics of Known Space, so they opted for his CoDominium universe, which at that time had a bare handful of serialized magazine stories in print. Publishers that might accept a collaborative maiden voyage set in a known name's preferred published history might also balk at the pair using the novice's setting.

Niven and Pournelle wisely paid attention to Heinlein's suggestions, which meshed with some of their own understandings of how they needed to revise their manuscript and which also made a lot of sense (The letter probably makes up the bulk of Heinlein's coherent output post-1970 outside of his novel Friday -- it's amazing that the narrative and writing eye he focuses so well on the Niven-Pournelle manuscript failed him so miserably when it came to almost everything he published after The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress).

Heinlein's support and perceptive editing suggestions helped Niven and Pournelle tailor the original Mote manuscript into one Simon and Schuster would buy and publish in 1974. It gained good reviews from a variety of sources, including mainstream newspapers and magazines. From it came a fairly common expression amongst the nerdy, "on the gripping hand," which is something the three-handed aliens sometimes say when they're trying out English expressions. Although much of Mote's immediate future timeline didn't play out -- rather than joining with the United States in 1990 in a global duopoly called the CoDominium, the Soviet Union broke up, and we most certainly did not test and perfect an interstellar drive in 2008 -- the authors did suggest a personal computer not unlike an iPad and created a first-contact story that science fiction authors even today may find themselves measured against.


Rod Blaine, first officer of the Imperial Navy Spaceship MacArthur, finds himself promoted to captain following a battle against rebels in the system of New Chicago. Blaine is a hereditary noble in the Second Empire of Man and his victory helped bring New Chicago back into the Empire and rescue several Imperial citizens being held by the rebels, including Lady Sally Fowler.

Blaine is ordered to take the civilians, along with suspected rebel sympathizer Trader Horace Hussein Bury, to the sector capital at New Scotland. While there, MacArthur gets emergency orders to intercept a probe of unknown origin than has entered the New Scotland system and may be dangerous. He does, but all of the aliens on board the craft are dead. Their origin is traced to a small star companion of a red supergiant. From New Scotland, the supergiant is in just the right place to look like a hooded man's glaring eye when seen against the Coalsack Nebula and the small star appears like a mote next to it. Some New Scots believe the Nebula to be the actual face of God (they say "Face of Him"), and so the small star is often called the Mote or the Mote in God's Eye. About 150 years earlier, the Mote had abruptly changed color and blazed green. Humans now understand that change happened because a civilization at the Mote used a gigantic laser to power the light-sail of the alien probe.

MacArthur and another Imperial ship, Lenin, will take a group of scientists and specialists to the Mote system to try to make contact with the aliens and see if they have peaceful intentions. They will use humanity's Alderson Drive, which allows a spaceship to instantly travel interstellar distances from certain points in a star system. They find that the Mote's Alderson Point is actually inside the red supergiant, called Murcheson's Eye, but using their Langston Field they can survive briefly inside the sun and they make the jump to the Mote.

There they find a single habitable planet and two asteroid groupings, all evidence of an immensely old civilization. A ship meets them and its single inhabitant is brought aboard. It has two right arms and a single large left arm, but seems unable to learn human language. It can, however, use tools to fix and improve almost anything mechanical, and it brought aboard two small animals that seem similar to it, although they have four equal-sized arms and do not communicate at all.

Then a ship from the planet arrives with aliens that can communicate with humans and do so very well. The scientist and military mindsets clash, frequently. Although they are not allowed on board MacArthur, a smaller human vessel docks with the aliens and human scientists -- including Sally Fowler -- begin to interact with and study them. Since human throats can't produce the alien language, they learn the human language and are called Moties. The Moties are divided into castes based on their specialties -- the Motie that first met the humans is an Engineer, the ones that talk to the humans are Mediators and they all take orders from a Master. Several Mediators are assigned to the humans to learn about them, and are called "fyunch(click)s" after the Motie sound that describes their role.

The original Motie the humans brought aboard begins to sicken and dies, while the animals it brought on board escape their cage and hide in the spaceship. Other wrinkles develop as humans learn their mobile social structure is incomprehensible to the biological caste system of the Moties, to the point that the adaptability drives some of the fyunch(click)s insane. More mysteries develop when MacArthur travels to the Motie planet, which shows evidence of massive wars long ago. Clues about the way these wars were waged, found in asteroid clusters in the system, are overlooked because the astronomers dismissed moved asteroids as less interesting than naturally orbiting ones.

Eventually the fecund Motie animals the original brought aboard, called "Watchmakers," overbreed and begin fighting each other and the human crew, who are forced to abandon MacArthur for Lenin. Most of the crew and passengers escape, but some find themselves stranded on the Motie planet, where they learn the aliens' hidden history. Motie evolution selected frequent breeding as its dominant survival trait, and Moties must reproduce often or the hormone imbalance will kill them. This is what happened to the original brown Engineer the humans encountered. But confined within a single star system, the population pressure eventually brings a societal breakdown, a massive war, and savagery from the deadly Warrior caste, heretofore unseen by humans. The stranded humans who learn this are killed and can't share their information with the others, who will leave the Mote system on Lenin. They take Motie ambassadors with them, who intend to negotiate trade agreements with the humans and finally escape the prison of their solar system, while keeping the existence of the lethal, fast-breeding Warriors and their inexorable population growth a secret.

Thanks to the observant eye of one of the MacArthur officers, the secret of the Motie Warriors and their breeding cycle is uncovered just in time. Humans must decide whether they will wipe out the Mote system or try to conquer it when the Motie ambassadors themselves suggest a blockade. With the only faster-than-light exit from their system buried deep inside the red supergiant, they will be unable to break out with any kind of force and human warships can easily destroy them. Blaine and Fowler become engaged and found a scientific institute to research Motie biology and find a solution to their biological problem.


Roughly spoken, literary fiction makes its central aim some kind of exploration or commentary on the human condition. Storytelling, characterization and such are important, but they are aimed at that commentary or exploration. So-called genre fiction usually focuses much more heavily on the narrative or the characters. It may or may not aim for commentary and if it does, such commentary may be less developed and exploration not overly deep.

Mote probably doesn't fit anyone's definition of literary fiction, although as a novel of ideas it certainly isn't a pure genre read driven by plot and action alone. As they examine different ideas about humanity, what it means to be other and how a truly alien civilization might behave, Niven and Pournelle can't help but observe and comment a little on that human condition.

Moties, for example, are trapped in what they call "Cycles" of population explosion, war, barbarism, recovery, expansion and repeat. This is because Moties change sex during their lifetimes, and a Motie which does not change from male back to female and subsequently become pregnant dies. For whatever reason, this is a survival characteristic for which Motie evolution selected early in the history of life on their planet. They thus believe that all life has that feature and any other intelligent race has to deal with Cycles and their effects. A race without this reproduction imperative would not survive to reach intelligence and achieve space travel. Being trapped in their single system has led them to believe the problem of Cycles has no solution and as a species, the Moties suffer from extreme fatalism.

The humans, on the other hand, do not have Cycles. Nor do they have the rigid, biologically-defined castes or the fatalism that the Moties believe are basic facts of existence. The humans in Mote, in fact, overlook important information when they divide themselves along professional lines; the military misses what the scientists learn and among the scientists, each researcher focuses only on his own specialty while ignoring the others.

Humans believe every problem can have a solution, but Moties consider that idea as much a proof of madness as we would the hearing of voices in our heads. Their term for this condition translates into the human language as "Crazy Eddie." In fact, it is this human belief that helps drive the mimicking fyunch(click)s insane when they adopt it. Even though they don't really try to dig too deeply into individual Moties and how they operate in their fatalistic worldview, Niven and Pournelle do explore some of the impact such a belief can have on a species and its society.

In separate writings about the creation of Mote, Niven and Pournelle talk about how hard the process was. From revisions to cutting to recasting characters to developing the science, political structure and history of the human space empire, they worked and reworked the novel several times. In his reply memo, Heinlein said he had so many suggestions because he saw such a great story at the root of the manuscript they'd sent him, and he considered the pair good enough friends that he did not want them to send it out without giving them the best suggestions that he could and the manuscript the most thorough reading that he could.

Stylistically, the pair were a good match. Niven has a breezier, easier authorial voice than Pournelle, who tends to be heavier if not sometimes leaden in his storytelling and prose. But Niven can sometimes let the wonder of the world or situation within which he's working overshadow his characters -- The Integral Trees is a good example -- to the point that a reader is overwhelmed with such a fantastic "where" that he or she either forgets or never sees the "who." Pournelle, though, puts characters and story front and center. When MacAruthur is overrun by the Watchmakers and needs to be destroyed, Rod hesitates about leaving before his crew is safe. Admiral Kutuzov, the expedition commander sometimes called "the Butcher" because he destroyed a rebel planet's society so thoroughly it's referred to as being "in the Stone Age," orders him to abandon his ship. When Blaine demurs, Kutuzov scoffs at him. "You are worried about what they will say about you?" he asks. "And this you say to me?" It's the kind of humanizing note that Pournelle often includes in picturing his parade of stoic military leaders and it helps draw a clear picture of a character whose role could have been pure cut-and-paste in a lesser book. Mote combines Niven's tone with Pournelle's humanism probably better than any other collaboration they did, except maybe Lucifer's Hammer.

Mote was well-reviewed when it came out, although it lost science fiction's top awards the year it was nominated. Some later opinion hasn't been as kind, as authors unfriendly to Niven and Pournelle's center-right-libertarian viewpoints use that antipathy as fuel for Mote's dismissal. English science-fiction author Brian Aldiss sniffs at it in his 1986 guide to science fiction, The Trillion-Year Spree, but reading that update of his earlier guide shows Aldiss sniffing at basically everything written 1) after 1970 2) by anyone born west of 30° longitude.

Niven and Pournelle returned to the Motie universe with 1993's The Gripping Hand, a confusing and not particularly necessary sequel, and allowed Pournelle's daughter Jennifer to do so with Outies, a didactic and flat expansion of the story that is even less necessary than Hand. Neither of these books needs to be read to appreciate The Mote in God's Eye as a great story, a great read, and a novel that explores quite a bit about what it means to be human. Mote can stand alone, and should.

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