James Nicoll Reviews

Home > Reviews > Post

Guess You Need Some Bringing Down

The Gripping Hand  (Moties, volume 2)

By Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle 

28 Oct, 2021

Special Requests


Support me with a Patreon monthly subscription!

1993’s The Gripping Hand is the utterly unnecessary sequel to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 The Mote in God’s Eye. I still consider Mote a classic. As this is not. 

A quarter century after the events of Mote, Horace Hussain Bury is an unpaid servant of the Empire of Man. He fears that humanity will be overwhelmed by the highly intelligent, quick-breeding Moties and has engaged in an unending quest to save his species. 

Untoward events on Maxroy’s Purchase suggest Bury’s vigilance has been for naught.

Among Bury’s strengths, financial analysis. There is too much money flowing through Mormon-dominated Maxroy. Additionally, Mormons1 tried to kidnap Bury’s reluctant lackey/minder Sir Kevin Renner. On top of that, Maxroy is home to certain unusual gestures and phrases. It all spells secret alien trade alliance to Bury. Incorrectly, as it turns out, but at least it’s appropriate prep for the true crisis.

Recently, Motie attempts to use their tramline have changed. Instead of providing their ships with forcefields, they have taken to sending unshielded ships. This is odd, because the Motie tramline ends inside a giant red star. Unshielded ships will go poof. 

As the humans realize shortly before it is too late, the cause of this behavioral change is astronomical. Nearby Buckman’s Protostar is about to become Buckman’s Star, centuries before humans believed this would happen. Once the star ignites, new tramlines will form. The Moties will have another way out of their otherwise isolated star system.

Thanks to Bury’s paranoia, Navy ships arrive in the Buckman’s Star system in time to keep the Motie ships from transiting through Buckman’s and out into the greater galaxy. They are too late to prevent Motie ships from reaching and taking refuge within the Buckman’s Star system itself. The situation is unstable. Thus, Bury and his allies do something no sensible person would want to do: they return to the Motie System to negotiate a new status quo. 

The odds of success seem low, as do the odds that the expedition will survive the complex, violent politics of the Mote system. 


I call this utterly unnecessary sequel” but that’s only from the reader’s perspective. From Niven and Pournelle’s perspective, writing this novel served the very useful purpose of fulfilling a contractual obligation. From Playgrounds of the Mind:

[T]en years ago Jerry and I were persuaded to sign a contract for THE MOAT AROUND MURCHESON’S EYE. […] The contract blocked us from collaborating on anything until we’d finished MOAT; but not triple collaborations. 

As it turned out, most of Niven’s collaborations since Gripping came out have been with authors other than Pournelle alone, and the same seems to be true for Pournelle. Still, they could not have known that when this novel was written. 

Some of you may have wondered what’s the latest SF novel to quote quoted Kipling on the white man’s burden?” This novel quotes Kipling with approval, so we can be sure that as late as 1993 the notion of white man’s burden” still had some currency. Are there more recent examples? I can’t think of one, but perhaps you will tell me about it in comments. 

In this case, our noble humans give birth control to an exotic race cursed with destructive fertility. Good? Bad? My editor (female) assures me that she approves of birth control no matter who is responsible. But that she wouldn’t want someone to impose it on her. I on other hand thought the Moties had tried birth control in the past, only for groups that used it to be overwhelmed by groups that did not. I am not sure what’s supposed to be different for the Moties this time round2.

Frank Herbert once said I’m still against the idea of sequels in principle, because it’s like watering down your wine all the time until you’re left with just water.” Harsh. However, a comparison of the nominations garnered by Moteand by Gripping suggest that perhaps Mr. Herbert had a point. 

The Gripping Hand got the following nominations: 

  • Nominee for 1994 Locus award for Best SF Novel
  • Nominations below the cut-off for being named as a finalist for the 1994 Hugo Best Novel

Mote, on the other hand, got these:

  • Nominated for the 1975 Locus award for Best SF Novel
  • Finalist for the 1975 Hugo award for Best Novel
  • Nominated for the 1976 Nebula award for Best Novel
  • 1987 Locus award for All-Time Best SF Novel
  • 1998 Locus award for All-Time Best SF Novel before 1990

The entire Maxroy’s Purchase subplot in Gripping is a plot that I think would have been better cut from the book, as a analogous plot was cut from Mote on the advice of Robert Heinlein (who saw an early draft of Mote)3. That’s the difference between Mote and Gripping; Moteis gripping but Gripping isn’t. Too much irrelevant wheel-spinning. 

I could maunder on re all the other flaws in Gripping, but they strike me as either uninteresting or so inevitable as to make discussing them pointless. I mean, sure, cultures are weirdly stable in this setting and the fact they seem to be race-specific4 is, uh, not great but this is a book about dealing with aliens who are problematic entirely due to genetic traits so why would you expect its portrayal of humans to be any better? In fact, compared to the authors’ other forays into George Fitzhugh territory, the Motesetting borders on nuanced. 

Ultimately the problem with Gripping isn’t that it had problematic elements — it’s Niven and Pournelle, so did you expect? — it is that despite all the running around, it is all rather dull. It is unmemorable to the point that on rereading (I last read this in 1993) I found that I had forgotten large swaths of the book. No doubt I will forget them again.

Still, if you’re easily entertained, the book does have the virtue of being in print. The Gripping Hand is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), here (Book Depository) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: These Mormons are not quite the same as modern day Mormons. See [4]. Why Mormons, you ask? Why not Mormons? Mormons also feature in J. R. Pournelle’s authorized Motesequel, Outies.

2: Have I ever done a piece on birth control for tor dot com? Could I write a piece that didn’t leave the comment section in flames? 

3: From what I have learned about Heinlein’s work with editor Alice Dalgliesh, it seems that he might have learned something about pruning extraneous subplots. Advice later forgotten?

4: There are Irish and Scottish stereotypes occupying New Ireland and New Scotland, respectively. Although see [1].