REVIEW SUMMARY: Exceptionally strong old-school space opera detailing humanity’s first contact with an alien species.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Lord Roderick Blaine, fresh off his promotion as captain of the INS MacArthur, is asked to intercept and contact an alien probe entering the New Caledonian system for a remote and un-explored system called the Mote. Things don’t quite go as expected, and soon Rod, and his crew, are sent to the More system to make contact with the Moties.
PROS: Well written, ‘hard’ SF space opera. Unique aliens and society. A page turner.
CONS: Devolves into diplomatic/political intrigue.
BOTTOM LINE: A very strong first contact novel that more than lives up to its Hugo Nomination.
In the 31st Century, mankind is struggling to lift itself from the ashes of the First Empire of Man. Starflight between systems is common, but the science and technology available is not equal to what came before the First Empire fell. After a pacification mission to New Chicago, Lord Roderick Blaine is given command of the cruise INS MacArthur and is asked to intercept an alien probe that is entering the New Caledonia system and heading directly into the sun. After an encounter that results in the deaths of all aliens on the probe, an expedition is mustered to contact the aliens in their own system, known as the Mote. MacArthur, along with the battleship Lenin, are tasked with contacting the aliens and assessing any danger to the Second Empire they may represent. The aliens themselves have a secret they must hide from the humans, or face a possible overwhelming military operation against them.
I first read The Mote in God’s Eye back in the early 80’s and I remember really enjoying it. After re-reading it again some 20 years later, I can say unequivocally this is one of the best SF books I have ever read, although stories like this aren’t written much anymore. The teaming of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle hits on all cylinders throughout this book and makes for a very enjoyable and engrossing read.
First, the positives. I would consider this book to fit into the ‘hard’ SF category, but it doesn’t follow any of the modern day tropes of hard SF. There is no nanotechnology, no AI, no singularity, and no super technology. What there is, is rigorously grounded in classical science theory (except of course for the FTL drive and the Langston Field generator). The science covers everything from the stellar classifications of stars all the way to the way ships operate in space, including spin simulated gravity. I sensed Larry Niven’s presence with these parts. And the science is worked into the story in ways which don’t break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In fact, the science tends to solidify the belief in the story being spun. The duo has also created an interesting and unique alien species, whose threat to humanity is not predicated on their being evil or power hungry. Their motives are solely biological and this generates a good amount of sympathy for the Moties and their plight. Niven and Pournelle have managed to create a truly alien race, yet, at the same time, one that is hard not to sympathize with. This leads to humanity having to make some very difficult decisions. Decisions the reader is forced to agonize over as well. Very well done.
If there is one negative, its that the last third of the book slows way down as the rush of first contact and mutual discovery give way to the diplomatic and political realities of hammering out treaties between the two species. In fact, one whole section of the book serves to give the reader information on the Moties that the Empire does not have. It felt odd and out of place, even if it gives insight into the Motie ambassadors’ actions later on. Even though we’re talking about roughly 150 pages for the last third of the book, its still relatively interesting, its just not up to the standards of the other parts.
All in all, this is one book every SF fan should read.