Classic Science Fiction: The Gripping Hand

In my continuing expedition through the great SF novels of the last 100 years, I recently read The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a sequel to The Mote in God’s Eye. The authors waited 17 years between publishing the two novels (both of which were excellent for very specific reasons.  I reviewed the first novel in a previous post.

The Gripping Hand was an excellent novel for its vivid portrayal of the friction between two very different species, the Empire of Man and the Civilization of the Mote (‘Moties’).  The novel picks up 25 years after the events of the first book, in which the Empire opts to blockade the Moties into their own system rather than risk being overrun.  Events conspire to make a blockade impossible, and the Moties and Humans must come to terms in some way.  The evolution of this relationship, and the conflict within the Motie civilization and with the humans form the core of the novel.

In my review of the first novel I qualified my enthusiasm by noting the anachronistic social mores and gender relationships of the 35th century human culture.  The Moties were a brilliant exploration of what a truly alien species might be like.  However, at a glance, the Navy appeared grounded somewhere in the mid 18th century, a milieu in which Aubrey and Maturin would have felt completely at home. The gender relationships and ideas were pure idealized 1950s American. It was hard to get past the absurd social interactions between the human men and the single woman in the novel, with everyone getting embarrassed at the slightest hint of impropriety.  The cultural stereotypes were powerfully rooted in the mid-20th century as well (a loyal Irish Marine Sergeant with a knack for brewing whiskey, the Scottish Naval Engineer with the impenetrable brogue, the treacherous Levantine trader).

I was pleasantly surprised to note that the authors had been paying attention to social events in North America.  The Navy of the Empire now had female officers, the young women were prone to making their own decisions without it being ‘shocking’, and the culture had evolved significantly to allow for these developments (much like our own in the intervening years).  Even the treacherous Levantine appeared in a much more sympathetic light, and he was one of the main heroes of the novel.

In all, The Gripping Hand was an excellent classic of Science Fiction, and any true fan of the genre should make a point of the reading both novels.


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