Review of The Mote in God’s Eye (1974)


Larry Niven (writer), Jerry Pournelle (writer).

Read in 2019.

First contact in the early fourth millennium CE.

Tremendous fun. It’s not just a tour de force of worldbuilding but a celebration of it, leveraging layer upon layer of careful reasoning and presentation to generate intellectual stimulation and suspense in equal measure. It’s an unalloyed triumph of the form, perhaps the exemplar of the entire school stretching back to Asimov and Heinlein’s early work adding rigour and context to grand extrapolations and space operas at the scale of a single novel.

No such feat is quite perfect. Like Theodore Sturgeon, I wonder why there’s no genetic engineering in evidence; the Moties comment only that humans are more advanced in that regard. Though they have touch-screen laptop and pocket computers in the book, the authors otherwise almost overlook the computer revolution. They remain enamoured with traditional ethnicities and Hesiodic notions of civilizational collapse, using a past war to explain the re-emergence of aristocracy and why women have been reduced to 18th-century roles.

Knowing this idea of cultural regression is thin, the authors are careful to write their only female human character as a feminist. She won’t be “an ornament to some man’s career”, but she is symptomatically young and beautiful. To the authors’ credit, it is this same character, Sally, who most clearly expresses the novel’s great love of parsimonious reasoning in worldbuilding. She does it silently, to herself, because her burning scientific curiosity would be out of place in a woman. In this way, the authors make Sally their hero and mark the improbable oppression of women as tragic. This isn’t too shabby for 1974. The character writing in general is thankfully competent, better than average for a genre where it’s normally weak.

The museum in the third quarter of the book is At the Mountains of Madness (1936) wrapped up in 1970s angst about the population bomb and the hydrogen bomb, developed to the point of Motie civilization building cross-civilizational infrastructure in the boonies, accepting an apocalyptic reduction to barbarism as a given and merely bootstrapping the next iteration. The basic symbolism is the same: Instead of HPL’s monsters, Niven and Pournelle have a similarly horrific and delicious sociological superstructure.

References here: Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), Speaker for the Dead (1986), “Darmok” (1991), Rick and Morty (2013).

text fiction