I just finished reading one of the all-time science fiction classic novels. The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle is an imaginative leap into the far, space operatic future where humans have their first encounters with another sentient species. The humans are members of an anachronistic Imperial Navy, sent to make contact with the new species and assess if they are a threat. The aliens (“Moties”) are an intelligent, highly technological species that has many problems of their own. Each side has large and potentially dangerous misconceptions about the other, and the central plot of the book focuses on the secrets and problems that arise.
Chris Doll’s “MacArthur” scratchbuilt model
The book primarily follows the human characters, with a focus on Captain Rod Blaine, an aristocrat who is in command of the primary contact ship (The `MacArthur`). Many of the secondary characters matter, but Blaine is the prime decision maker both on the ship and later in a more elevated role.
The motivations of the Moties are the prime Macguffin of the story. Are they truly benign and friendly? Do they merely wish to escape their system and open trading routes, or do they have more dangerous intentions? The authors’ conception of the Moties actually held up more with time than his portrayal of the human characters.
Like all science fiction, most of the events reflect ideas and conceptions at the date of publication more than anything in the future. Published in the early 1970s, the characters reflect many assumptions of the time. As a prime example, consider that there were no women on the warships with the exception of one perky young aristocrat who sought to ‘make her own way’ before finding a man.
Sexual mores were firmly grounded in early 1950s America, and class relationships grounded somewhere in Napoleonic Europe. There was only one non-European character of note, and he was a sneaky businessman and a traitor to the Empire. Everyone was deeply religious, and the perspective of the Church (quasi-Catholic) was important and of significant concern, more so that it is even now.
Such characterizations even now seem quaint, though the authors did insert some future-historical justification for such anachronistic social structures. It is hard now, in our accelerating-change-as-norm existence to imagine any such throwback ideas gaining traction in the distant future.
On the other hand, the Moties were a fascinating exploration of what a wholly different alien species might be like, how they might think and act. Their society was deep in an eons old cycle of civilization alternating with chaos and barbarism, driven largely by population pressures far beyond those experienced by humans. Every aspect of their interactions with each other and with the humans was informed by the knowledge of an impending cyclical collapse. Their whole cultural groupthink made the assumption that anyone who made serious efforts to prevent the cycle was ‘Crazy Eddie’ and therefore insane.
It took me awhile to get past the mid-20th century American cultural assumptions that dominated the entire novel, but at its root The Mote in God’s Eye is a brilliant, creative novel about the moral quandaries that would face anyone who meets a new group of sentient creatures. We humans have not historically been very good at meeting new human cultures, and while I hope for the best, I suspect we will do worse with aliens.
I strongly recommend any Science Fiction fan read this book, as one of the must-read classics of the 20th century.