Man versus Motie

The Mote in God’s Eye — Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Moties, book 1


1974’s Mote in God’s Eye was the first collaboration between Niven, by then a winner of multiple Hugo Awards, and Pournelle, the winner of the 1973 Campbell for Best New Writer. Readers could be excused for expecting a lot from this novel given who wrote it. They must have liked what they found, because this earned nominations for both the Best Novel Hugo (losing to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed) and the Best Novel Nebula (losing to Haldeman’s The Forever War). Forty-one years later, does it still stand up?

As this book opens, we find ourselves in the era of the Second Empire of Man. Governments encompassing all humans, or attempting to do so, have formed three times and fallen twice.

  • The first fall: the Great Patriotic Wars, which scoured Earth with nuclear fire1.
  • The second fall: the revolt of the Sauron supermen, which brought the First Empire down in civil war.

The Second Empire is trying to pick up the pieces of the First. Although they have yet to reclaim the full wealth and technology of the First Empire, the rulers of the Second are determined to bring the whole of humanity under one rule again. In pursuit of this goal they are willing to do to habitable worlds what the combined might of the USA and USSR were unable to do to Earth; world-murder is always on the table where the Second Empire is concerned.

Until now, it was not clear where non-human intelligences might fit into their paranoid scheme, since nobody knew of any non-human intelligences. Until now….

The Empire of Man claims over two hundred worlds, spread throughout a volume of fifteen million cubic parsecs. As pointed out by respected imperial pundit Dr. Anthony Horvath, given the postulated workings of the faster-than-light Alderson Drive, what this actually means is that the Empire has a portal network with two hundred nodes. The Empire takes little interest in the vast spaces between stars or in systems that are not connected to any imperial system by a tramline (wormhole-like structures whose paired end-points are always within a billion or so kilometers of the stars at either end).

As a consequence, an alien interstellar probe is able to get pretty close to the New Caledonia system before anyone spots it — despite the fact that the probe sports a light sail of the same area as a respectable planet.

The probe’s system of origin is easy enough to determine: it is a sun-like star called the Mote, about ten parsecs away, a system that humans have never explored (at least as far as the Empire knows).

By pure happenstance, the battered INSS MacArthur, fresh from putting down a rebellion at New Chicago, is the only imperial warcraft in a position to investigate the probe, which is falling towards New Caledonia’s star at a significant fraction2 of the speed of light. Despite some pretty serious operational challenges, MacArthur manages to recover the probe, which is indeed of alien manufacture.

Unfortunately the alien pilot does not survive. As there seem to have been no passengers, the Empire is left with the physical evidence of the probe itself as the only basis for speculation concerning humanity’s new-found neighbors. What they can tell from the relics in hand is that whoever is living in the Mote System is both smart and alien.

The time involved in getting a sub-light probe from the Mote to New Caledonia suggests that the situation isn’t a rapidly evolving one. An examination of tramline paths suggests the “Moties,” as the aliens are called, are bottled up in a system that makes use of the Alderson Drive difficult. The only tramline out of the Mote system leads into the photosphere of a red giant. Any civilization that has not mastered the Langston Field (another impossible technology of the Second Empire) could not hope to survive the photosphere.

The Second Empire prefers action over inaction and so an embassy to the Moties is thrown together from the resources available in the Trans-Coalsack Sector. MacArthur, under the command of young Roderick Blaine, is tapped to be one of the two Imperial capital ships involved in the mission. MacArthur will be accompanied by Lenin, rather ominously under the command of Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov; Kutuzov is most famous for having burned off an entire world to forestall a regional rebellion.

While the mission does include experts, diplomats, and scientists, thus all the skill sets appropriate for a first contact, the selection is governed by who happened to be available in the Trans-Coalsack Sector at the right time. The expedition includes Blaine’s old friend Lady Sally Fowler, recently recovered from the Republican concentration camps of New Chicago. It also includes the trader Horace Bury. While it’s true that Bury might offer some useful perspectives on possible interspecies trade, the real reason he is dragged along is because the Empire is pretty sure Bury financed the unpleasantness on New Chicago. Although nobody says it out loud, Bury is essentially Blaine’s prisoner.

The expedition finds the Mote system home to an advanced and ancient civilization, one that has shaped the lone habitable planet — Mote Prime — and the local asteroid belt to its needs and desires long ago. Although the first Motie the humans encounter is oddly uncommunicative, Mote Prime is able to organize and launch their own diplomatic mission to rendezvous with the human visitors in surprisingly little time.

The Motie diplomats do their best to convince the humans that human and Motie can live in peace, an illusion that is at first quite convincing (at least to those humans predisposed to believe advanced aliens must be peaceful). Despite the Moties’ determination to avoid a conflict between human and Moties (one that the Moties fear they would lose), to do this they must conceal from the humans a deadly truth about the Moties that is painfully obvious, if only the humans think to look.

I first read this under somewhat trying circumstances: I was walking from my dentist’s office on Belmont down to the University of Waterloo, following some unpleasant dental work. The book held my interest despite the fact I felt as if someone had set off a road flare inside my jaw. I was a bit hesitant to revisit the book, given that that I wasn’t exactly positive in my recent reviews of Lucifer’s Hammer  and Footfall. I am going to snark about certain elements of this novel, but I must admit that, on the whole, it has held up pretty well.

One element that has weathered well is the plot/page count ratio. My mass market paperback is about 560 pages long, which would make this, what, about one eighty, two hundred thousand words? Somewhere in that neighborhood. When Mote was first published, SF novels generally ran about a third of that length. Because the novel was mercilessly edited pre-publication, as a result of a critical letter from Heinlein, Mote is a surprisingly lean book for a novel of its length. Readers used to flabby, meandering messes like the works of George R. R. Martin, Peter Hamilton, or David Weber may want to look at this to get some idea of what a long novel can be like when someone takes the time to flog the writer(s) properly.

There’s an interesting transition about two thirds of the way through the book: the already fast-moving plot shifts gear. Before that, this is a fairly standard First Contact novel. The transition itself is a short horror novel (or at least a novella) in its own right. Although the section I like to call the Tragedy of the Midshipmen has to deliver a lot of exposition, enabling the reader to savour damning facts that the other human characters don’t yet know, it does not inhibit the pace and the consequences push the novel along at a nice speed.

The authors also get points for their vision of future technology, which includes devices much like modern tablets. (Bury seems to have a pretty old-fashioned wrist watch, but his homeworld of Levant may be comparatively backward.) It may seem odd to moderns that most people of the time (1970s) didn’t speculate as to how Moore’s Law would affect small devices … but they didn’t.

I do have to deduct points from the authors for having fusion-powered photon rockets. As we all know (Bob), P = FC. Photon rockets are therefore power-hogs. Even if the MacArthur were made entirely of fuel, it would run dry surprisingly quickly. On a related note, there’s no way MacArthur would have to worry about how much power the communications laser eats — not unless the ship is using its laser batteries to burn messages on a planet surface.

While they touch on the topic from time to time, I think the authors never quite realized how time-consuming even high-boost military interstellar travel would have to be. Even if the ships do nothing but race from jump point to jump point, I figure that they wouldn’t be able to do more than about one or two jumps per month. If one assumes a forty-year career, a spacer could log maybe a thousand jumps over a whole career (probably many fewer). The reason I mention this is because Blaine is both young and said to have experienced “hundreds of transitions.” I don’t see how that’s possible.

The Mote system seems to me to owe something to Cole and Cox, albeit taken in a less hopeful direction than Cole and Cox might have preferred.

The humans do manage to work out many implications of the fact that the Mote system has been occupied by a space faring civilization for a million years However, there is one aspect that they miss: the Mote may be isolated in space now, but stars move. Who is to say how often the Moties managed to escape over a million year history, via either STL or tramline? There is no reason to believe that there is only one tramline network in our universe. There’s lots of room for multiple independent networks, only one of which might be free of Moties.

In many ways this book’s background may seem straight out of a standard MilSF series. However, the discerning reader will note that MilSF didn’t exist when Mote was published. Mote is one of the books that shaped what later became MilSF. It is not a derivative work; it is a prime source of the conventions and clichés of MilSF.

Like so many Americans, Niven and Pournelle apparently regret that most USians have been denied the enriching experience of aristocratic boots on plebian necks. Some cynics might speculate that the authors fancy themselves as the sort of people who would be aristocrats in better times, but I feel this is unfair; Niven’s family is much closer in its essential nature to Bury’s than Blaine’s, and Pournelle is, of course, a self-admitted former3 card-carrying Communist, whom any prudent aristocracy would shoot out of hand on the basis of his past associations.

The authors seem to have based their Second Empire on is the British Empire of the 19th century. It’s tempting to say that they take a sunny view of the British Empire. However, as bad as that Empire was (and it was often very bad indeed), it was not as bad as the Second Empire is shown to be here. The later Empire considers planetary genocide a viable option. The people running it evidently believe that the ends justify the means; one wonders what the neighbors think.

Speaking of puzzles, it’s not really clear to me what Bury expected to get out of the New Chicago rebellion. Was it a test run for prying his own planet and its population, tolerated but consigned to second-class citizenship, out of imperial hands? Or is it just a slyhat tip from Niven to his own grandfather’s alleged business practices?

It would have been nice if the authors had not hewn quite so closely to their original models in some matters. I speak here of New Caledonia and its two terraformed worlds, New Ireland (which rebelled) and New Scotland (which didn’t). Natives of both worlds talk like the Scots-Irish of old. I say this as someone of Scots decent whose grandfather was actually a ship’s engineer named Scotty: even in the long long ago, this was pretty dated stuff.

The characters… are serviceable enough. They tend to be stock types, though.

Speaking of things that are dated, poor Sally runs afoul of … let’s say it’s the Second Empire at this specific time and not the authors … highly constrained views on the proper role of women. There are no female members of the space navy, which — given the hints that sailors are uncontrollably rape-happy — may be just as well. While society will tolerate its women dabbling with education, women explicitly exist to marry according to the demands of the State (something Sally inexplicably managed to miss, even though she has picked up the rules of her society enough to be surprised when an alien engineer is female4).

The Moties are caught in a particularly nasty Malthusian trap, victims of past natural selection that makes them their own worst enemy5. The book makes it clear that humans are in a similar situation, although not to the degree that the Moties are; even on New Scotland, population always grows as fast as terraforming will allow. As a consequence of their intrinsic inability to limit their birthrate, the Mote system is always crammed to bursting when it’s not recovering from apocalypse; the Moties are often very advanced but also very poor. They get a lot of use out of their resources because they have to.

Let’s assume for the moment that Moties are not supposed to be to the Second Empire of Man what the Qing Dynasty was to the Second British Empire, and that the similarities between the Moties and the standard way some Westerners tended to see China are in fact entirely coincidental. Interesting historical trivium: if some supposed former Communist posing as a right-winger were under the secret control of the Kremlin in the 1970s, China is exactly who the bad guy would be in their fiction. But then, China has been a popular foe in Western fiction for a long time.

As mentioned several months ago on my Livejournal, the Big Twist in this is that having established the Empire as both genocidal and also rather cool on family planning, once the true nature of the Moties is exposed as the (unwilling) menace that they are, the people on the spot, with few exceptions, do their damnedest to think of a solution that doesn’t involve glassing Mote Prime while hunting down every Motie in space. The final solution … yeah, that’s not a good choice of words … the ultimate solution that the Empire chooses is to embrace the potential of family planning while trying to buy time in a comparatively peaceful way.

I’d really rather that SF wasn’t the sort of genre where “hey, have we tried not being genocidal?” counted as a bold and daring gambit but “as you know, you have to (read the genre) you have, not the (genre) you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Perhaps memories of how much I enjoyed this forty years ago are colouring how I see it now, but, despite my quibbles, both the ones above and the ones left unstated, I don’t regret rereading this old favourite. Which, as you know, isn’t something I can say about all my old favourites.

Mote is still available as is the Niven and Pournelle sequel, The Gripping Hand, which, sadly, is much inferior to the original. The sequel I would recommend is the one written by JEP’s daughter, J. R. Pournelle. Her 2011 novel Outies, which is available here, is a worthy successor to her father’s novel.

1: Mind you, not only is Earth not lifeless, certain currently endangered species like chimpanzees seem to have survived into the modern era.

2: 7%, in case anyone cares.

3: I take JEP at his word that he is an ex-Commie. I am no red-baiter who hints at secret Muscovite masters pulling the strings on every supposed right-winger in the USA. Those of you who point out that that the first human government in Mote’s timeline [link] included as one of the two partners the Red Menace itself, the Soviet Union, as though that was in some way a hint about the author’s secret affiliations, should be ashamed of themselves.

Similarly, Niven may have hung around JEP for decades and sure, some people, terrible people of whom I might disapprove for all you know, might think there’s more than a hint of class-treason in that association between a nouveau riche author and a … former … Communist but I certainly wouldn’t think of calling for the FBI to take a closer look at these guys. Well, not unless JEP, Niven, and their fellow conspirators writers were trying to shape US policy somehow.

4: I don’t get the impression that the Empire’s aristocracy is selecting for smarts, to be honest.

5: Protector  makes me think we have Niven to thank for large portions of the Malthusian trap that drives the plot in this novel.

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