on January 26, 1999
Starting on an unusual note; The Mote In God's Eye is the only SF book I have ever bought before reading. This may seem stupid, but I'm very glad I did it. Niven and Pournelle have succeeded in knocking Frank Herbert's Dune off my mental 'Best Books Ever!' list's top spot.
It's a fascinating tale of mankind's first contact with an utterly alien race - and for once, these aliens aren't all-powerful conquerers of worlds with but one weakness. Indeed, in many respects the Moties have problems similar to human difficulties...although that's not to say the Moties are at all similar to human beings. Oh no.
I won't go into depth about the alien society - that might spoil the book for you! The human society, however, is nearly as interesting as the alien.
At this point, I think back to comments I've heard about the book - that the human society is still plagued with today's problems (but of course - human society will not change radically in 1000 years, merely adjust to accept technological changes. And, of course, as the authors mention, an advanced human society will not evolve as natural selection can no longer apply [civilised societies care for the weaker members]). Another comment that sticks in my mind is that planets which belong exclusively to one ancestral faction from Earth are absurd. I beg to differ - those with similar cultural heritages would stick together, and countries would, I believe, launch individual colonisation programs, meaning that all the colonists on one world might indeed share their cultural heritage. And as a final note on the subject, the worlds with a single 'nationality' are few and far between; more than 200 worlds are colonised by mankind.
But back to the book. The expedition by the human science/military team is made up of a mixture of characters - an extremist admiral, who puts the safety of the Empire before his own beliefs, a captain belonging to the royalty, an exasperatingly narrow-minded science minister, and a reclusive astrologer are just a few of these.
The novel contains just the right amount of mystery and revelation to keep you trapped and spellbound right the way through - even up to the very last few pages. In conclusion, the Moties and the novel they reside within are well worth a look. More than that, they deserve many hours of your undivided attention.
on August 16, 2004
Some science fiction books are driven more by technology and plot situations, and other are driven more by characters and dialog. The great Isaac Asimov's stories usually were the latter; for example, in his great Foundation series, there's surprisingly little gee-whiz gadgetry.
Niven's stories have always been very strong on brilliant futuristic gizmos and clever alien creations, but weak in terms of fleshed-out characters interacting in a deep way that you'll find in other genres of fiction.
So I can understand some of the negative reviews; it could be that those folks are just not fans of Niven-style sci fi.
If you're new to Niven, I strongly suggest you read his "Known Space" series before this book. In fact, start with his short story collections before you move on to the classic Ringworld. The stories get higher- and higher-tech. He even admits it, in the preface to his short story "Safe at Any Speed." For a writer, it's basically a tough challenge to create an interesting plot when he has pretty much painted himself into a corner with so much incredible technology, not to mention a human race that has been successfully bred for luck!
That's what makes this book such a kick. I love that, in contrast to his Known Space books, this book is pretty low tech. It's retro, in the way that Star Trek: Enterprise is to its TV predecessors. I also really dig the Moties. I love that the central dilemma they're facing, the thing that regularly imperils their entire civilization and makes them such a threat to us, is something that we dealt with almost trivially years ago. To me, the concept that it never even occurred to them to deal with it as we had, reinforces their alien-ness.
So I give this book 5 very enthusiastic stars, but with two caveats: first, a big part of my enjoyment of this book wasn't so much because of its own merits, but due to what a marvelous and fun contrast its (relatively) low tech was in comparison to Niven's Known Space books. Second, in my opinion, the sequel to this book (The Gripping Hand) is not nearly as good an effort.
on June 24, 2010
There is part of me that really liked this book just based on the plot device. The whole idea of a truly alien race "stuck in a bottle" was very appealing and original -- even now, thirty some years after it was written.
But I still came out of this book feeling a bit let down overall. I won't rehash all the points made by the other reviewers who gave it four stars or less. For the most part, I agree with a good majority of their more erudite observations of inconsistencies, lack of character depth and datedness of prose.
But I do feel it necessary to add a couple of comments to the bucket just for the personal cathartic experience of doing so.
First, for a novel this long that has quite a bit of realistic detail, why did the authors decide to go so flat on the first contact with aliens?
*** (Don't read on if you don't want a spoiler.) ***
When the two human warships enter the Motie system and make first contact with the first living, sentient species in the history of mankind... it's all very humdrum and commonplace. There's no fireworks written into this momentous occasion, the biggest moment in mankind's history. Nobody on the ship is terribly excited. Nobody is particularly fearful. Very little criteria for first contact is put in place or carried out with an eye toward proper communication, safety, quarantine, or just good sense (Other than one warship standing by to destroy the other in case of trouble -- which was a good and believable scenario, but it didn't go far enough with the reality of the situation). In fact, a lone midshipmen is sent with no fanfare to blindly go aboard an alien ship where he then proceeds to take off his mask and breathe the air as if this kind of thing happens every day. No fear of germs. No fear of contamination to either side. No concern about breathing poison and dying instantly. And, most of all, no concern about the sociological, psychological, physical aspects of meeting an alien race for the first time. It was just so silly and flat. Especially since this book was written in the era of Apollo, and those of us who are old enough can remember all the rigamarole that NASA and the astronauts went through to avoid any kind of contamination or disease. Pournelle and Niven treated this first contact like a humdrum walk down a long vanilla corridor in a dreary office building. No pomp and circumstance. No reality. This poorly planned inconsistency took me way, way out the prerequisite sense of disbelief that is required when reading fiction such as this. And I had a hard time getting it back.
I didn't care for the fact that the Moties could pick up our languages and mannerisms in twenty-seven seconds of listening to a few people chat (I exaggerate, but not by much). And suddenly, apparently every Motie in the Mote solar system can speak perfect English. And yet, no human will ever be able to learn or mimic the Motie speech. This was an unnecessary device that stretched my patience.
Why was the Bury character in the story at all? He did relatively nothing to advance the plot. Further, his character seemed to have been flip flopped between the two authors as the persona from the first part of the book bore little resemblance to the persona in the second part of the book. And I don't mean just because he got scared by some aliens in the big evacuation. His personality just didn't flow properly from page first to page last. Not to mention, he was an entirely unnecessary character who had no reason to be in the story or on a warship. It felt like he was supposed to be a bigger cog in the narrative at some early stage in the planning of the novel. And then, at some point, his entire plot device was thrown away. And what could the writer's do? This was in the era before Word Processors. They couldn't just go edit him out in any simple fashion. So he stayed in the story. And he was completely and utterly unnecessary (and unbelievable).
I second and third a somewhat minor complaint that is mentioned by others in these reviews. I got confused with all the characters. Few of them stood out enough to make their names have resonance with me. So I was continually trying to figure out just who was who. There were two scientists whose names started with "H". I still don't know which was which. And one of them was just completely a throw away character who did not deserve all the print that was devoted to him. Then, there were a whole slew of midshipmen who were integral to one or two pages of plot here and there. I still don't know which was which, just who died, who made it back, who was even necessary at all. And, quite frankly, by the middle of the book I just didn't care anymore. I just kept reading and let my attention to detail reduce by a few decibels.
And lastly, my favorite phrase in the whole novel (and it is so good it is repeated twice in the book) is, "Good girls don't use the pill". Oh, I got a fantastic belly laugh out of that one. It's especially great because a similar line and sentiment was also used in another book by these same authors, Lucifer's Hammer. These poor guys were so lacking in real world knowledge, even back then! Yes, I was there. I was riding along through the seventies while they were writing this book. And I guarantee you, nobody that I knew would have ever uttered or endorsed that line. These authors were... well... science fiction authors. That kinda says it all, I guess. Didn't get out of their lonely dark writing rooms very much. I know, that's a disparaging and probably unfair and even slanderous judgement. But hey, they wrote that line in earnestness. How can I not make fun?
Yes, my review tends to the negative on these few points. But don't get me wrong, I did not despise the book. From the middle to the end, despite the difficulties, I was pretty engrossed. The authors went a long way in describing pretty believable empires, both in the human galaxy and in the Motie system. They did a good job with their hardware and their space travel concepts. The characters, although lacking, are at least enjoyable for the most part. And I did like the ending. It was not a "last page letdown after devoting such a healthy portion of my reading lifetime to it" book, like so many other long books out there (Lucifer's Hammer, for one).
But be forewarned that the book is a product of its era (and of its sexually reclusive authors). If you can approach it from that viewpoint and you like medium hard science fiction, it's probably worth a read. You'll have to slog through a lot of tedious page turning to start. But once it gets going, it is not half bad. It's no more than a three out of five star read, though.
"The Mote in God's Eye" is one of the finest collaborations I've ever read, only surpassed in literary quality and detail by Gibson's and Sterling's "The Difference Engine". Part of Pournelle's "Co-Dominion" future history series, the "Mote in God's Eye", is a fascinating, mesmerizing look at man's first contact with an alien civilization. Niven and Pournelle have created an alien civilization, "The Moties", that is among the most unique in science fiction. How the "Moties" interact with humanity's "Empire of Man" is both original and compelling to read. Although some may criticize Niven and Pournelle for creating a male-dominated, imperialist future for mankind, their female characters are a lot more credible than those I've read in recently published works such as Caleb Carr's "Killing Time". And I must commend how they've created many interesting personalities in their large cast of characters. You will find yourself rooting for them - both humans and Moties - as this gripping tale unfolds. Without a doubt, "The Mote in God's Eye" is one of the finest, most thoughtful, works of space opera, with an original twist on a time-worn premise. If you've grown tired of "Star Trek" or "Star Wars" or wish to delve further into science fiction, then this fine novel is a good place to start.
on December 14, 2001
The Mote in God's Eye is, quite simply, one of the best science fiction novels you will ever read. It is easily one of my top five books of all time. In the cannon of sci-fi, I would place it on the shelf next to Dune, Foundation and Stranger in a Strange Land. What do these books have in common? Very little. That's the point. The Mote in God's Eye, like all great books, stands on its own. If it the first sci-fi book or the millionth, you will still love it.
Written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (and quietly improved by the advice given them by Robert Heinlein) it is breathtaking in its depiction of mankind's first contact with an alien civilization. The story takes place in a human star empire that spans thousands of systems but has yet to contact alien intelligence. This changes suddenly when a spacecraft arrives at a human planet with a dead alien inside it. The craft was apparently launched from a nearby unexplored star system -- called the Mote in God's Eye (or Murcheson's Eye). The humans send out an expedition of two ships -- one Russian, one American -- to investigate. What they find is an ancient civilization of three-armed "Moties" who have a terrible secret.
As noted by other reviewers, this is the best first contact book out there. There are no Vulcans or Ewoks here. The book is one of the few that presents a truly alien civilization. The alien culture is, although similar to ours in some ways, fundamentally different from our own due to differences biology and circumstances. I won't elaborate as I don't want to ruin the surprises.
Although there is clearly some cannon of mythology at work in setting up the "Co-Dominion" of human society at that time, I was not confused at all. I had never read a title by these two authors before but found the human society and its history easy to follow.
What's amazing about the book is how logically it proceeds. To use the word "surprise" is misleading because after at every twist and turn, you find yourself saying, "Of course, that's exactly the way it would have to be. That makes sense." As the suspense and tension build toward a climactic clash between humans and Moties, you are swept up in the inevitability of the events. There are no trick deus-ex-machina moments or Tom Clancy tricks -- in which the characters talk about some secret without the dialogue being revealed. Everything is perceived through the lens of the human characters and their difficulty in understanding the alien civilization. So their fear, tension and surprise are ours.
All this comes through with a crisp narrative style, a group of vivid and identifiable characters (including Moties) and excellent pacing of the story. I highly recommend this book to any reader -- sci-fi fan or not.
on May 12, 2006
This is a brilliant book, still thought provoking after 32 years (hardcover came out in 1974). Here are two things that struck me.
- The characters are constantly whipping out their "cheap" pocket computers, connecting to the local mainframe, and interacting with the computers in pen-based handwriting. Sounds like the Origmai just coming out now.
- The tragic Moti cycle is population pressure leads to resource drainage leads to war leads to barbarism leads to uplift etc. I just finished reading Jared Diamond's collapse, where he details that same cycle as being behind the collapse of past civilizations. Unfortunately, Diamond does not see the uplift part -- once his civilizations use up their resources and collapse, they stay collapsed.
This is my favorite science fiction book after Enders Game.
on April 6, 2013
Mixed feelings on this book. I enjoyed the basic premise and a few of the characters developed beyond their basic introduction, but I never really cared for any of them besides the midshipmen.
Sally was thrown in and didn't develop love, but seemed stuck in it before her character was introduced, we moved directly past her obvious need for healing after the trauma of the prison camp and straight into being madly in love with another character (no spoiler here, but it's dead obvious).
Horvarth was just plain ridiculous. The archetypical pacifist scientist, he was included in places like diplomatic negotiations and military decisions (justified by a thin attempt to explain his authority early on) where he has no experience or authority, (minor spoiler, but is a recurring theme so much it was grating) he openly challenged the head negotiator during negotiations in front of the aliens. It was the last straw, if it hadn't occurred toward the very end, I wouldn't have finished the book.
They had a good take on the whole discovering aliens trope. The aliens were less advanced in some ways, more advanced in others and hindered by a unique racial trait. Their history and methods for recovering from societal collapse were well thought out. That part was interesting at least.
Reading reviews of this and the later books, both critical professional and amazon reader ones, I'm going to give the rest of this series a miss. Too bad, based on the recommendation I received, I was really hoping for more.
on July 25, 2011
First off, let me get the Kindle version comment out of the way. Whoever proofread or edited this should be fired. I assume it was scanned in and read with text recognition, because every other page there were errors like "1" instead of upper case "I" or "he" instead of "be." Mix that in with "Mode" instead of "Motie," and hundreds of other errors. Not unreadable, but I shouldn't pay $6 for something no one bothers proofreading.
I really enjoyed the concept, story, and background universe created for the story. Well thought out (if a bit dated from the 1974 initial publishing) and the aliens were sufficiently "alien" enough to not just be rewritten human characters. The technology was fun to read about too.
However, most interactions between people were... ugh I don't know. Not memorable or believable. The characters and dialog seemed as something the authors just had to get through to get to more aliens and technology. Too many characters were too similar and few stood out. I couldn't remember half of them a few pages after they last appeared. Those that stood out were the stereotypes: the Muslim Trader referencing Allah constantly, the Scottish Engineer, the Aristocrat Captain, the Russian Admiral, the Naïve Scientist, and the Only Woman. Notice that I can use one word to describe the few memorable (but still one-dimensional) characters.
Despite my distaste for the dialog and many characters, I "powered through" parts of the novel and was rewarded for a good story and an interesting take on how we would have to deal with a first contact situation.
Enjoyed the book, but wouldn't pay more than $2 for it had I known.
There's not much about "The Mote in God's Eye" that I could add to the thousands of existing reviews. So what I can do is comment on the conversion to Kindle.
Really? would be my first comment. Not many would be happy with a book edited this way and sold and I'm not pleased with the poor conversion done here. About one mistake per page is probably a fair estimate. From simple "but" changed to "hut" to "Blaine" changed to... other things. No page numbering. No chapters. Really?
This is available out there on mobi (copyright infringed, to be sure), but I paid for it because, well, firstly 'cause I hate the friggin' thieves who provide the stolen stuff, but also, in the few I have tried to read that were illegal conversions there were so many misspellings and errors it made them unreadable. I'd rather pay for the real deal than get some hacked-up mess for free. I don't watch pirated taken-with-a-camcorder movies nor take 'free' mp3's. I just don't feel it's the right thing to do.
But neither is it right to provide the consumer with junk like this. Was it readable? Sure. Were the mistakes so great that it interrupted and made reading tedious? No. On the other hand, why should I pay for sub-standard translations? Why should any of us? Amazon retains complete control, given the proprietary nature of the product and formats, not to mention they sell it. So they should guarantee the quality. And it's not there.
Sorry Jerry and Larry, but your work is better than this and deserves better. You should be pissed, too.
on September 25, 2000
The Mote in God's Eye.
First contact between humans and aliens is a recurring theme in science fiction. But it has never, in my opinion, been done as well as in this book. I've read lots of science fiction, and first contact novels are a favourite of mine, and this one stands head and shoulders above anything else in that line.
What sets this one out is the plausibility and originality of the contact, the extraordinary detail of the setting, the absorbing development of the plot, and, most of all, the aliens themselves. These are some of the best aliens you will ever read about.
You get to know them very well. At first, they are puzzling, as the humans meet a small ship with several aliens on it. Their behaviour makes no sense at first, but later on in the book, as you get to know their culture, you look back and it makes perfect sense. The alien culture is ancient, and absolutely fascinating. The aliens seem friendly, intelligent and reasonable, with a structured society based, among other things, on extreme specialisation. But the aliens have a secret, a bad secret. There's something about them that the humans cannot find out. If they did find out, the aliens fear that the human race would stop at nothing until they are destroyed. As I learned what it was, I must admit, I agreed - I would wipe them out! That might seem a bit bloodthirsty, but just wait'll you find out what the secret is!
This is a just fabulous book. It keeps you interested from page one, the humans characters are likeable and have depth, and the aliens are just incredible - likeable in themselves, and very useful - but there's that secret problem, isn't there? So, what happens? Do the humans find out? If they do, what do they do then? If they don't, just exactly what happens?
This is a fantastic read, and a book you'll treasure. After the first reading, ok, you'll know the secret, but just reacquainting yourself with the aliens and getting involved in the story again will bring you back to it time and again.