You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

My Photo
Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye is by science fiction writing team Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Both engineers, they write hard science fiction with a good feel of real science.

The story starts with Rod Blaine, the new captain of the MacArthur, a space warship, as he returns to New Scotland from a military action. An alien probe has been detected decelerating into the system, and he is sent to investigate. As the ship approaches the probe, the probe shoots at the ship. When they capture the probe, they find one dead alien aboard. The alien is asymmetric, with one large left arm and two smaller right arms.

The powers that be decide to send a mission of two ships to the alien's system. Their sun is a small star near a red giant star, both of which are in a dark area of space known as the Coal Sack. The red giant is called God's eye, and the smaller star is called the Mote. Thus the aliens are called Moties. Blaine is sent on the repaired MacArthur, along with Admiral Kutuzov on the battleship Lenin (in this future history, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R had joined to form an empire, which has since been replaced with a second empire). Kutuzov has strict orders not to let human technology fall into alien hands.

A team of scientists travels aboard the MacArthur, including young anthropologist Sally Fowler. Sally is the only human woman in the whole story. The authors seem to have ignored modern trends and sentiments (the book was published in 1977) and had humanity return to a male dominated society. It is one of the failings of their vision, in my opinion. Anyway, other scientists travel on the ship, including biologists and astrophysicists and a linguist who is also the ship's chaplain.

The ships have to reach along special points to travel in hyperspace. It turns out the Alderson point into the Mote system starts inside the Eye, the red giant star. Fortunately, their shields protect them. When they reach the system, they make contact with a single Motie from an asteroid who comes onto the MacArthur and brings two smaller creatures like her. Communication is difficult, but a ship approaches from Mote Prime, carrying more Moties who learn to speak Anglic, the empire's common language.

It turns out the Moties have several subspecies, each devoted to one particular thing. The Motie from the asteroid is an engineer, and not very good at communication. The only Moties who can learn to speak to the humans are Mediators. There are also Masters and Farmers, and we learn later, Warriors. The small Moties are called watchmakers, and they have the tinkering ability of the engineers.

The Moties convince the humans to come to their planet and visit. Sally visits, along with the chaplain, Dr. Horvath, the lead scientist, and some of the others. The planet is crowded. The Moties have impressive technology, and everything is individually adapted. They show the humans a museum and a zoo. Meanwhile, the two watchmakers on the MacArthur have escaped and hidden on the ship. Blaine has the ship opened to hard vacuum to try to get rid of them. The Engineer on the ship dies, and they don't know why. Admiral Kutuzov is insistent that the Engineer and the watchmakers do not leave the ship, and refuses to tell the Moties that the watchmakers are even on the ship.

Soon it becomes apparent that the watchmakers have survived and have been tinkering with the ship's equipment and making it better, including coffeepots, which the crew appreciates. When they find the watchmakers it is too late--they have bred like crazy and adapted tools as weapons. Soon they threaten the entire ship, which becomes unstable. Blaine is forced to evacuate the ship, and the Lenin blasts it away, so that it doesn't fall into enemy hands. The visitors return to the Lenin. Three midshipmen who are last to leave the MacArthur end up taking lifeboats which the watchmakers had adapted and configured to land on the planet. There they discover a different museum and the Motie's big secret. They multiply like rabbits, because they must reproduce or die. As a result, their civilization has gone through cycles of dark ages and technological advance. Their civilization is very old, something like a hundred thousand years. The asteroids where some of them live show evidence of having been moved thousands of years earlier. The Masters of Mote Prime are not united, and some want to take advantage of the humans to escape their planet so that they may expand across the galaxy. The three midshipmen race to try to find a way to contact the Lenin, who has been told that they died on reentry. But they are killed by a rival faction.

Before the Lenin returns to New Scotland, the scientists and officers debate whether to take three Motie ambassadors who were sent by the Masters on Mote Prime. Eventually they decide to take them. The Moties discuss politics with the humans. The humans are about to make a pact to trade with the Moties and allow them to settle on empty planets, when they discover that the Moties have lied to them about their reproduction and the existence of the Warrior class. The finally humans decide to blockade the Moties and study them, in the hope that a resolution can be found to end the cycles and allow the Moties to settle on other planets.

The story is an excellent account of how a first contact with an alien sentient species would play out. There are factions among the humans who seek peace, some who seek trade advantage, and some who believe the Moties should be assumed a threat. Kutuzov is obviously in the latter category. Dr. Horvath and others believe they are peaceful and can't understand all the precautions. The Moties are about as foreign as an alien race can be and still be able to communicate with humans. Their society is complex. They are clearly capable of deception, and the main conflict of the story is the humans coming to understand the Moties and the threat they pose.

How as it aged? I've noticed that most science fiction novels fall into a narrow extrapolation of the future, where one technology or type of technology has advanced but the rest of civilization hasn't. In this case, space travel technology has reached an advanced stage. Not only are long space jumps possible, but the science of acceleration and ship's spin to reproduce the effects of gravity are very realistic. But society's ordering has regressed. Women do not serve in the military. Government is feudal, with an emperor. (Now, many future histories , such as Dune, posit a future government that is more feudal as it is spread across the galaxy. This is a believable situation when communication is not any faster than travel. It is also a bit exotic and gives the novels an alien feel. But I feel it is not always realistic.) I wouldn't expect the authors in 1977 to predict the effects of the Internet and the value of the Information Age. But there is no advance in other areas where one would expect to see a big difference. Human relations are in a 1950's mindset. The food is basically the same, even on alien worlds. There is still television, called tri-v, presumably because it is in 3D. There is no mention of literature and hardly any of music. Their biology and medicine don't appear to have advanced very far. I'm not saying any of this is a particular failing of this novel. It's very hard to predict where science and technology and cultural shifts will take human society in a thousand years. It's just something I notice in science fiction novels.

One thing that the novel gets dead on is that the Moties are not united in a central government. In fact, the factions of the Moties play a major factor in the plot.

The characters are memorable and strong, if not particularly three-dimensional. Some, like Kutuzov and Dr. Horvath, are barely more than spokesmen for viewpoints. The Moties are interesting. They mimic their human counterparts. They speak for their Masters, but have individual viewpoints. The Moties have a concept of a Crazy Eddie, one who has gone mad and tried to come up with a new way of doing things and getting rid of the system.

The discussions in the novel are realistic and engaging. I found the arguments about the Moties and their possible threat to be intriguing. The one failing I had is that they talk about many questions about the Moties but don't actually ask them. In a real situation, there would be more information flowing both ways. The humans would be able to find out about the alien biology and history. Nowhere do they examine a history book or biology book of the Moties. I found that frustrating. In spite of that, the book was overall very enjoyable. I'll give it an A-. The complexity of the alien civilization and their dialog with the humans kept me entertained.


Post a Comment

<< Home