Larry and Paul... doesn't that sound like a sitcom couple? I've read a lot of Niven and Pournelle's collaborations over the years, and at the height of my Very White Space Opera phase (i.e., when I was a teenager with no taste and liked anything with spaceships and aliens in it) Niven was one of my favorite authors.The Mote in God's Eye
was their first collaboration, and never having read it before, I was expecting something like Footfall
. It kind of is, but of course it was written over twenty years earlier. This shows mostly in the fact that like most 70s science fiction, computers are still big clunky shipboard installations, and interstellar communications are formatted like telegrams and decrypted on tape machines. Other than that, though, the SF holds up pretty well; Niven and Pournelle have always written relatively hard sci-fi (yes
, I use "SF" and "sci-fi" interchangeably - get over it!), and their close attention to astrophysical, engineering, and biological detail makes this a book that, aforementioned computer/communications issues notwithstanding, reads like a fairly contemporary work.
Sci-fi-wise, that is. Character-wise... oh boy, that's another matter.
So, let's start with the setting. It's the Empire of Man, some millennia after humans left Earth and began colonizing the stars. There have been collapses and previous empires before now, and the current Empire actually has technology inferior to what bygone space empires had. But in all these centuries, no sentient alien race has ever been discovered. Then an Imperial warship encounters a probe launched from a star system that is a "mote" in a stellar nebula; the probe contains a dead alien pilot, and results in a ship being sent to investigate the system it came from. The crew discovers a race which the humans call "Moties," who appear to be friendly and peaceful and highly civilized. They are actually superior to humans, mentally and technologically, their only disadvantage being that they haven't yet figured out how to build working faster-than-light starships, so they are still trapped in their home star system.
The rest of the book is mostly told from the human point of view, but sometimes switches to the Motie one. We learn that the Moties, well, aren't so peaceful (surprise!) and they have a few secrets they are trying to keep secret from the humans.
As a First Contact novel, this is a very good one. The aliens are alien, and don't fall into any easy roles. They're not malevolent, per se, and individual Moties can be friendly (and refreshingly, they are individuals — Moties, like humans, don't all think alike or subscribe to the same philosophies and racial strategies), but they are definitely a threat. When the humans finally figure out the truth, they face a real moral dilemma.
Where The Mote in God's Eye
fails, though, is characterization of the non-aliens. The humans are all straight, and I mean straight, out of 70s Central Casting. You have heroic square-jawed aristocratic naval officer Roderick Blaine, ruthless planet-killing Admiral Kutuzov, the sleazy bad guy Horace Bury who of course is a Muslim Arab, and Lady Sally Fowler, a noblewoman, anthropologist, designated love interest, and the only woman in the book, who at one point informs the Moties that humans have birth control technology but "decent women don't use it." We're supposed to admire the generally lawful and benevolent Empire of Man, even though it's about as socially progressive as Victorian England, and like Victorian England is in the middle of colonizing other human worlds by force. The stereotypes would have been less grating if the characters weren't also so flat; they did little but play their roles.
So, this is good science fiction, but hardly great literature. If you want interesting aliens and an examination of civilizational ethics, with a decent amount of spaceship action thrown in, enjoy, but there isn't a lot of depth, nor characters you're really going to care about.