Published in 1974, The Mote In God’s Eye was a runaway success. It fused the space opera of Star Trek, the world-building of Dune, and the militaristic elements of Starship Troopers. It’s 537 pages of space-faring goodness. And if you think Europe has a lot of museums, just wait until you get to Mote Prime.
Unlike Star Trek, Dune and Starship Troopers, The Mote In God’s Eye shows its age. Race still divides people. Somehow the Scottish accent has survived for 1000 years, even when humanity has colonised every rocky planet within spitting distance of Earth. Unlike Star Trek, which was woke 50 years before the term even existed, The Mote In God’s Eye feels rooted in the 70s. Themes of race, overpopulation, xenophobia and the military-industrial complex weave their way into the story.
If you read a book written five decades ago, you have to give a few things a pass. However, these retro aspects didn’t worry me too much.
The Mote In God’s Eye features a large cast of characters. The main character, Rod Blaine, is a Captain Kirk-ish figure with a tendency to touch his nose when he’s feeling insecure. His counterpart is the menacing Russian stereotype Kutuzov, a man so devoted to keeping humanity safe he’d sleep just fine after an unprecedented act of genocide. And indeed, it almost comes to that.
It will thrill fans of diversity to find but a single female character, Sally. She acts as both Rod’s progressive conscience and his love interest. Ok, all the Moties except for a few is female… but they don’t count. With female leads standard fare these days, it’s odd to imagine a future in which men alone rule the stars.
The aliens themselves are the stars of the show.
The world-building is impressive in its scope and detail. The CoDominium, as it is known, is the rich and complex universe in which the story takes place. Some of Pournelle’s other works are also set in this universe. However, this book remains independent, and you don’t need to read the others to get the overall story.
The aliens themselves are the stars of the show. They are lopsided and grotesque, with a permanent smile planted on their face, like a politician at a dinner party. Once the humans make first contact, they visit Mote Prime and see the sights. The first stop on the Motie’s Hop-on Hop-off bus is one of many museums. Rod and co learn that the Moties breed like rabbits. Overpopulation, followed by cataclysmic wars, is par-for-the-course on their world. So the population keeps a few time capsules for the next time their entire civilisation crumbles, and the neo-caveman Moties start all over again.
My main gripe with the storyline is that I never saw the Moties as a threat. Everyone is so paranoid all the time, except for Sally and a few scientists. The basic premise is that they will expand into humanity’s territory and get into mischief because of their crazy engineering skills and a bed-breaking breeding rate. Imagine that? Humanity, so troubled by reproduction rates, they’re prepared to launch a giant old bomb with Die Motie’s Die scrawled on the side. Somehow, it just never quite rang true for me.
The book offers an entertaining, very readable space opera adventure. It’s a first contact story, jumbled amongst a patchwork of different sci-fi tropes. Niven and Pournelle always write in a lean-and-clean style, which is easy to read and focuses on the story and characters.
A long list of characters fills the chapters. Like Niven and Pournelle’s Footfall, certain characters don’t serve any obvious function. For example, Nabil (Horace Bury’s servant/assassin) is touted to be an underhanded and deadly threat. And yet, that particular Chekhov’s gun never fires. Nabil does pretty much nothing. Also, as with Footfall, the aliens come across as quite samey. The idea of the Fyunch(click) Moties was cool. Every main character had their Motie. But Niven and Pournelle portray them as a homogenous group, thinking and acting like one.
Niven and Pournelle have become some of my favourite authors. Having read two of their works, I am looking forward to reading Lucifer’s Hammer next. Each of their books is the size of a typical YA trilogy, so you get good value when you pick up one of their tomes.
The Mote In God’s Eye is an epic adventure full of original ideas and fun characters. Yes, in some ways, it hasn’t aged that well. And yes, it gets a bit bogged down in the second act. Perhaps it could have been 50 pages shorter. But it’s still a rewarding read, even in 2021.