What I’m Reading: The Mote in God’s Eye

Now this is a great science fiction novel, and simultaneously an illustration of the limits of genre fiction. The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, succeeds at every level as an SF story. The primary character in a very large cast is Captain Blaine of the Imperial Space Navy, who leads an expedition to the Mote, a remote corner of the galaxy where humans, whose empire spans hundreds of worlds, have detected the first intelligence alien species they’ve ever encountered.

Upon arrival in the system, the humans encounter the Moties, as they come to be known. The Moties are shorter than humans and furry, but essentially human-like, with some notable biological differences–a large, strong left arm and two slender but dextrous right arms, for example. The Moties have tens of thousands of years of history and incredibly advanced technology, but have never expanded beyond their home planet and moons due to a weird circumstance. In this book, faster-than-light space travel is only possible through wormholes that have a single destination–and the only wormhole in the Motie’s system leads straight to the heart of a supernova. Every attempt they’ve made to explore deep space has ended in disaster.
The Moties are friendly enough, eager to learn about humans, and seemingly open about themselves. Theirs is a peaceful society, although rather caste-bound. Different types of Moties have different jobs–engineers, doctors, farmers–not just by avocation or ability, but because they’re actually genetically-engineered for the role. Farmers have thick fingers for dealing with soil but aren’t too bright, porters are huge and muscle-bound but positively stupid, doctors have long, delicate fingers for surgery, messengers have well-developed legs for running and an ability to memorize long messages. The ones of most concern to humans are the mediators, who are intelligent and good with languages (they pick up English in a matter of days) but utterly unable to make decisions on their own. It is the mediators, whose job is to settle disputes between conflicting parties, who are responsible for the centuries of peace that have passed on their planet, and also who befriend the human visitors.
Yet the mediators have a reticence to discuss certain topics, and although their world has avoided war for centuries, there are strange holes when they discuss their history. Not that they’re covering anything up–but that they don’t know. Carefully recorded histories going back millenia, but with gaps they can’t explain. It turns out the Moties have a secret–one that will affect their relationship with the human race in an unforeseen way.
Like I said, this is a great science fiction novel, a realistic account of what an encounter between humanity and an intelligent alien species might be like. It’s a long book (nearly 600 pages) but fascinating on almost every page, with tons of great details about the Moties, the human ships, space travel, and the nature of the human empire hundreds of years in the future. I heartily recommend it for SF lovers.
But not for anybody else. Because as great as it is as science fiction, it’s highly mediocre by the standards of mainstream literature. The writing is professional and effective, but rarely more than functional. Dialogue too is functional, and though a couple characters have stereotypical accents (Scottish, Russian), everybody pretty much speaks the same way. No characters are fully-rounded people, and beyond Captain Blaine and one or two others, most are strictly two-dimensional. A romance between Captain Blaine and a female anthropologist on his ship, Sandra Fowler, is almost comically bad.
So this is no Ray Bradbury or Robert Heinlein, transcending the genre of SF with gorgeous writing and brilliant characters. It’s rare to encounter a book that so fully exemplifies the merits of its genre, but without fulfilling any literary aspirations beyond the genre conventions, or even trying to.

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