Review: The Mote In God’s Eye

REVIEW SUMMARY: Exceptionally strong old-school space opera detailing humanity’s first contact with an alien species.

MY RATING:

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.

MY REVIEW:

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.

6 thoughts on “Review: The Mote In God’s Eye”

  1. I wish Niven and Pournelle would release a “director’s cut” or a anniversary edition or something. I’ve found two sections that were cut out that were later published separately–“Motelight” and “Reflex”, I’d love to get an edition with those put back in (plus anything else that they might have in their files.

    Boy you folks are really burning through this project!

  2. Sequels…

    King David’s Spaceship or A Spaceship for the King: set roughly at the same time as “Mote”, but in a different section of the reborn Empire. The incidents in “Mote” are mentioned kind of an aside in one chapter of the book. This one was closer to one of Pournelle’s “Falkenberg” novels (and in fact is written solely by Pournelle, it wasn’t a joint effort) than “Mote” in feel.

    “Gripping Hand” was written by both, and is, alas, not as good as “Mote”. I sometimes think that it was written to satisfy a contractual obligation, not of a love of writing.

    Pournelle wrote (and co-wrote) several novels in the “Falkenberg” sequence, set at the end of the CoDo and the start of the First Empire. The first couple by him (solo) are better than the couple that were co-written. (He’s been promising one or two more Falkenberg sequels for a bunch of years…I guess we’ll see them around the time we see his long-promised sequel to H. Beam Piper’s “Space Viking”!)

    Finally, there’s a shared world series set in a world during the rebellion of the Saruon Supermen at the end of the First Empire. It varies in quality, some stories (like one by Niven) were good, others not so much.

  3. Having read the book the first time it was published, then re-reading it a dozen years later and now on my third read. I must say like fine wine that ages, so does this story. Albeit, it has some shortcomings, it’s still a good read.

    I’m very surprised that Hollywood has never picked it up and made it into movie screeplay. It certainly would make for a fasinating veiwing.

  4. I think that the Moties were the killer for Hollywood. CGI has only recently (relatively speaking) matured to the point where it could be done.

    On the other hand, some recent SkiiiiFiiii “blockbusters” have not done as well as expected, so I figure we’re in retreat mode on SF epics until somebody does one that does well. Then maybe we’ll see a bid on Mote.

    Good news, of sorts. Baen Books has a re-release of the book on tap. Details are sketchy, but it seems to be an omnibus (so Mote + Hand), and some folks are asking that excised text that exists be put back in. Keep your gripping hand fingers crossed!

  5. Yes, I have been re-reading.  It is ‘hard’ sci fi.  Way too much fantasy, and too many vampires nowadays.  I, too, always wondered why no movie, and ditto with the Gentle Giants trio by Hogan.  I have come to the conclusion Hollywood don’t read.

  6. I have just bought this book again in order to reread it. I agree with carolethecatlover hollywood don’t read – hence remake after remake, the day after tomorrow, Star trek, yawn. The mote in god’s eye would make an epic movie.

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