I had fairly
high expectations for THE MOTE IN GODíS EYE. For years Iíve
seen it listed time and time again alongside all-time greats
like the Foundation Trilogy and CHILDHOODíS END. Itís
frequently described as the greatest first contact novel of all
time, and Iíve even seen many describe it as the greatest SF
novel of all time.
In the reading
of it, Iím fairly underwhelmed. But weíll get to that.
A thousand years
in the future, humanity has spread to the stars. Scientific
revolution has discovered points of inconsistency in the
space-time continuum, and technological innovation has created
the Alderson drive which allows mankind to travel
instantaneously through these points, resulting in a network
linking the many stars and worlds of human space. Accidental
inspiration has also led to the creation of the Langston Field
Ė a generated shield capable of absorbing tremendous amounts
of energy in form (kinetic, chemical, etc.).
politics of the day have lent themselves to an aristocratic
empire, whose will is enforced through military might in the
form of warships protected by Langston Fields and capable of
wiping out entire planetary populations. The borders of this
empire are in constant flux, with numerous military campaigns
being waged in an attempt to unite all of mankind.
tenuous situation, a ship driven by solar sail enters the New
Caledonia system. Within it are the first aliens ever seen by
humanity. Now an expedition must be sent to the system from
which the ship came, but even before it leaves, Niven and
Pournelle clearly define their scenario of mystery and intrigue:
On the one side, there are the utter unknowns of the aliens and
their culture. On the other, the Empire must do everything in
its power to guard the secrets of the Alderson drive and the
Langston Field Ė for these may be the only advantages they
In the first
hundred pages or so, THE MOTE IN GODíS EYE reminded me
strongly of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. Not so much in the
particulars, which were quite different, but rather in the
general feel: There is, of course, the appearance of the alien
vessel and the mystery it represents. The science is also very
hard (with the notable handwave-tech exceptions of drive and
field), particularly when it comes to describing spaceship
maneuvers. The politics of academia are detailed, well-drawn,
and have an immediate (and understandable) impact on how the
aliens are approached.
This early part
of the novel also distinguishes itself as a page-turner. The
timeline which leads off the book, after summarizing a thousand
years of future history, closes enigmatically with, ď3019:
FIRST CONTACT.Ē The Prologue which immediately follows it
further draws you into the novel, emphasizing the essential
mystery of the vastness of space. And then, of course, there is
the alien ship itself.
The writing here
is tight. The plotting is intense. The mystery is fascinating.
The stakes are high.
problems start developing.
Book of Two Parts
In many ways,
Iím struck by the fact that THE MOTE IN GODíS EYE is really
a book of two parts.
For example, the
first problem to really strike me about MOTE were the
characters. Or rather, the caricatures, which were what stood in
for actual personality among most of the book's characters. On
top of the fact that most of the characters are woodenly drawn,
many of them are also forced into situations which doesnít
make a lot of sense: A suspected traitor, for example, is not
only allowed to accompany the expedition to the alien homeworld,
but is allowed unmonitored access to the aliens. Considering
that the expedition is explicitly charged with the protection of
Imperial secrets, this is absolutely bizarre.
But, on the
other hand, there are some characters which seem capable of
leaping off the page. And despite the fact that so much of the
character development feels as if the authors are simply pushing
them around a game board (the love story, example), some of it
is painfully powerful and believable (such as the experiences of
the aforementioned traitor).
of this inconsistency are the aliens themselves. They are
frequently described as one of the best alien species in the
history of science fiction. And they areÖ for the first half
of the book. But as more details reveal themselves,
inconsistencies and logical holes begin to develop. Not enough
to rob them of their effectiveness and cleverness, but enough to
mar what would otherwise have been a flawless creation.
thought labored upon the aliens is even more sharply contrasted
against the human society depicted. On the one hand, Niven and
Pournelle specifically call attention to the vast gulf of time
which separates us from the Second Empire. (Sometimes in silly
ways. For example, by asserting that George Washington and
Alexander the Great are though of as practically contemporary by
most people in the future.) But, on the other hand, the Second
Empire they show us is really nothing more than an analog of the
20th century with a 19th century
aristocracy thrown in for flavor: Hereís New Scotland,
populated by entirely by the Scottish Ė who, after a thousand
years, still speak with a Scottish accent, wear Scottish
clothing, and are famed for their engineering skills. Over here
Arabs and Jews still wage ceaseless war upon each other (despite
the fact that the territorial pressures which led to that war
have long since disappeared in nuclear annihilation). And on and
on and on.
I think the
biggest problem the book has for me is that the conclusion comes
on page 327, but the words ďThe EndĒ donít appear until
something of an exaggeration, but not by much. The central
problem for the first 326 pages of the book is the mystery of
the Moties: Who are they? What do they want? What (if anything)
are they hiding? How will they affect the future course of
On page 327, the
mystery is solved. Then, for another 150 pages, tension is
falsely maintained while political games are played. It probably
didnít help that Iíd been wondering since the beginning of
the book why they hadnít immediately adopted the course of
action which is supposed to be the major revelation of the
bookís conclusion. But even bearing that in mind, the last
third of the book seems to inexcusably drag after Niven and
Pournelle blow the surprise.
And this isnít
the only plotting problem, just the most noticeable. Lots of
inconsistencies slowly (and then rapidly) sap the book of its
strength. For example, despite the fact that the human
expedition is trying to keep the Langston Field a secret from
the aliens, they leave their fields turned on for the duration
of their stay in the alien system: Giving the aliens plenty of
time to observe the fields in action.
The setting is
also plagued by these inconsistencies. For example, Sally Fowler
starts off having to remind herself that people in the Trans-Coalsack
region are very puritanical. In very short order, however,
Fowler herself has inexplicably become puritanical.
In short, THE
MOTE IN GODíS EYE is an extremely uneven work. Iíve seen
first contact scenarios paced better on Star Trek, and X-Men has
a more believable invocation of evolution.
flip-side, however, THE MOTE IN GODíS EYE does offer a lot:
The aliens are probably worth the price of admission all by
themselves. The science details and science fictional concepts
are fun and well done (ignoring the evolution faux pas). The
first half of the book has a compelling, tightly-paced plot, and
even the significantly weaker second half maintains itself as a
fairly solid reading experience.
So, in the final
analysis, I recommend giving the book a try if you havenít
already. I found it to be a very entertaining read, even if it
does end up disappointing you after a strong start. In fact, I
enjoyed it enough that Iím going to give the sequel a try
(even though everyone tells me thatís a bad idea).
But if you think this is the greatest science fiction
novel youíve never read, Iíd suggest lowering your
expectations before pulling up a chair at the table.
For additional comments on THE MOTE IN GOD'S EYE,
which include SPOILERS, click here.