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Book Note: Larry Niven, The Mote in God's Eye (#2)

I read this book about 1-Feb-2014. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 1974. This note was last modified Thursday, 01-May-2014 16:15:49 PDT.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


I'm rereading my top-five list SF books. This one is a collaboration between Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

I notice that, until here, my picks for this list are all Hugo Award winners. In what I view as one of the most spectacular miscarriages of justice to ever strike an SF awards process, The Mote in God's Eye was beaten out by Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed for the Hugo that year. I remember, at the time, thinking that possibly Le Guin's book had more literary merit, or something, but that it certainly was not nearly as interesting or fun.

Over time my position has hardened a lot—it now seems to me that Le Guin's book won based on current political issues that the book actually had little of interest to say about. Looking back 40 years, Mote is a far more important book to science fiction; it has aged very well, while Le Guin's book has aged poorly.

The Hugo awards are chosen by a large, self-selected group of SF fans voting for what they think is best—they're a popular choice award among knowledgable fans (members of the World Science Fiction Convention). That year, those fans (including me as a voter) on balance chose Le Guin. Such awards are inherently subject to such situations, and nearly any scheme for selecting winners other than pure randomness is subject to the limits of knowledge at the time the choice is made. In the end, this all comes down to "the voters made a choice I now disagree with." In particular, I suspect many people who ranked the Le Guin above Mote then would still do so now.

This novel is one of the best examples of collaborative writing I've ever encountered. It doesn't sound all that much like either Niven or Pournelle, and has good things in it each of them is not that good at. This is what happens, in theory, when collaboration works well—each collaborator recognizes the places where others can contribute something they can't do themselves. In real collaborations, the other alternative is for one or more participants to view their weaknesses as virtues, and fight to keep them from being fixed. (And, allegedly, people claiming that specific bits of text are "obviously" by one or the other author are very frequently told they are wrong.)

(As an example of how things related in one way can be very unlike each other, the other amazingly fine example of collaboration that comes to my mind is Gaiman and Pratchett's Good Omens.)

In addition, Robert Heinlein responded to a draft that reached him with a blurb request with a long letter giving them lots of very specific unsolicited advice, quite a bit of which they followed. That letter is now available in the Heinlein archives, and in the sample PDF distributed by The Virginia Edition; for example here (PDF). His letter starts with his own summary:

  1. This is a very important novel, possibly the best contact-with-aliens story ever written.
  2. It has a major fault and a very large number of trivial faults. Both the major fault and the endless trivial ones can be corrected.
(Heinlein seems to be rather annoyed about the trivial endless faults; he says "Gentlemen, this MS needs a shave and a haircut and its shoes aren't shined; it is not ready for inspection. it is loaded with errors in grammar, in spelling, in punctuation, even some in usage." Heinlein writes as a Naval Academy graduate, in the context of a book a lot of which takes place on a Naval vessel.)

I've heard people react negatively to this book because it's "militaristic"; and I suppose it is, if you start from the position that a military is never necessary and always a bad idea. But the basic plot of the end of the book, once they've figured out the Motie's population problem, is how to responsibly protect humanity without exterminating the Moties. And their decision is basically to spend billions of credits kicking the can down the road—blockade the Moties and hope to figure out something to do later. This choice is not the safest for humanity, either. They're spending money and taking large risks to avoid the obvious genocidal solution.

More generally, some people object to the form of an empire with a monarch, even a constitutional monarch. I'm not sure I'd want to live in one myself, but it's a widely-used governance format in SF and fantasy, and this universe is better-behaved than most. And the political system is mostly a background feature, the same real story (the first contact, and deciding how to deal with it) could have been told against a wide range of backgrounds. So that either means the choice of governmental structure isn't important, or else it means that it's important to the authors, depending on which side of bed you got out of this morning. (It follows from basing this book in Pournelle's Codominium universe—but that was a free choice, so far as I can see.)

Detail Notes

Largely nit-picking, of course. Any page citations given are to the Pocket Books paperback 0-671-74192-6, 28th printing.

I'm not quite sure how you make table crystal from the windshield of a First Empire recovery vehicle when you can't make the material (P. 27). It can be worked elegantly be techniques they know, but not created? And having fabrics from then be the source for invulnerable table cloths seems even weirder. But does give Blaine a chance to explain to us that they haven't caught up with the First Empire yet.

Rather unpleasant usage of "rape" as a general term of disregard for something. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable with Empire values. It's used twice early on by Rod, on p. 39 to Cargill he says "Rape the...my compliments to the passengers" when giving the order for the speed run to meet the Motie probe, and on p. 61 he uses it to Cargill in response to a warning they might lose the hanger deck hatches. Later, on P. 395, Renner uses it to Rod in response to Rod's serious worry about the court martial he faces for the loss of Macarthur.

On p. 75 the Emperor is described as being in uniform with no decorations or medals. What's the difference? Hmmm; US informal usage is that they mean pretty much the same thing, but British usage (or most other countries?) distinguish a "decoration" as being for an act of heroism or gallantry, while a "medal" is for taking part in a war or campaign. I guess specifying both covers readers who think they mean clearly different things, and is at worst redundant for readers who don't.

P. 76 says the probe tech shows the Moties to be ahead of the First Empire in some areas. But on P. 77 Armstrong says our Apollo tech could have built the Motie probe (describing the progress of technology in our history).

P. 126 Sally on female asteroid miners (the Empire doesn't have them) and "overprotectiveness" of women in general. There's a suggestion that they need to breed. However, none of the characters in the book refer to more than one sibling, and no family is described as having more than two children anywhere I can remember. So apparently they aren't working very hard at increasing population, and these customs are hold-overs rather than anything they actually need now.

P 128 Sally (miniatures have 4 arms but musculature for left arm attaches to top of skull for leverage) and Renner (gun fit him better than Horvath) have intuitions leading to more understandings that aren't tested immediately. Renner at least has Kelly and his modified sidearm handy to test the "individual fit" theory, but doesn't. We're just allowed to assume its true, without further testing. Also, there's no mention of custom shoes and clothes for perfect fit (or shotguns for that matter), and it's something all military officers would have heard of and also all aristocrats.

P. 141 "dominant race" rather than something like "most common appearance" apparently determine what sort of images appear on Navy recruiting posters.

P. 146 Sally assumes the parietal lobe in the Motie brain has the same functions as in the human brain. That there even is a lobe that fits the definition seems somewhat surprising to me, and it's crazy to just assume the structure is the same.

P. 152 What does "beyond fusion" even mean? That's the top source of power both for the Moties and the humans, so clearly neither culture is "beyond fusion" at least on a power scale.

P. 155 plants the idea of a long span of observations of the coal sack, so that gaps will be significant later. Nicely done.

P. 217 His Motie is copying Rod's nose gesture. First introduced really early. Carried through most of the book, too.

General - Moties confused about officers both giving and taking orders. But mediators take orders from masters (but sometimes argue), and give orders to engineers and other castes. And for that matter, I'm not convinced all masters are really that independent. They have to contort the story a bit to explain how middle managers work within their theory. P. 470 Charlie says no master works directly for any other.

P. 260 Horvath snaps a picture, which is important later (Horowitz recognizes the "rats" as descended from Warriors). Only instance in the book where a human snaps a picture (there is footage from surveillance cameras and such). Seems like there'd be a lot of official and unofficial photography going on.

P. 263 Motie sculpture is expected to be more comprehensible than flat art because pigments aren't an issue. Implying moties don't use pigments on their sculpture. Which is rare in human history, though that wasn't known when the book was written I think (at least widely).

And if all motie art is by and for mediators, why isn't it down a rabbit hole? Closed conversations among a small class of society and all that.

P. 395 Renner's family not ever nobility. Um, but he had a Signet ring earlier? (And he gets a knighthood at the end of this book of course.)

P. 442 Fowler gives Rod choice of whether Sally goes with him in the message sloop (it wasn't just that the message was to Rod, it explicitly gives him and the surgeon authority to decide), and she accepts it (but Rod says it's her choice, as of course it should be). Sally doesn't seem to be discriminated against by scientists or officers, though (on account of sex; at least one thinks she there on account of her class or economic status rather than her ability, though). She seems to be kind of inconsistent about her feminist principles. For that matter, she and Rod are at least making out fairly seriously (based on the conversation when Kelly stays up to protect Sally's reputation by making absolutely sure Ben Fowler's message is delivered), but she talks about birth control very much as for other people.

The mediators must be mules because p. 482 a fertile mediator must have acted in her children's interests rather than the tribe's. This feels like a conservative meme that I've never really understood. I don't see it happen in the world around me (and when I do, it's often short-sighted stupid views of interest, and thus nonsense in evolultionary terms).

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David Dyer-Bennet