Monday, May 8, 2017

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye

© 1974 by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

WW2 battleship personalities in a monarchial society do cold war first contact with Spongebob Squarepants a millennium in the future.

Yeah, to me, that’s The Mote in God’s Eye, a classic forty-plus year old SF tale by masters Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I’ve read and enjoyed other works by both authors, and with deity Robert Heinlein’s front page endorsement, it seemed a no brainer to delve into this novel. I was looking for a world to submerge myself in now that I have some free evening time. And they do create a detailed future world – er, worlds, as mankind has colonized, and fought wars of secession between, dozens of extra-solar planets. In fact, when I skimmed the timeline at the beginning of the books and saw “Downfall of the Sauron Supermen” in AD 2640, I had no choice but to read it.

By all objective measures Mote is a good story. It moves. The characters come to life, and with the possible exception of a forced romance their actions flow, but I don’t read these books for the love angle. I want hard SF, intriguing aliens, a compelling plot with a twist or two or three near the climax to resolve the seemingly insurmountable problems our heroes face.

Yes, it does have some neat hard SF, especially in what’s called the Alderson Drive and the Langston Field. The Alderson Drive enables starships to hop the light-years gulf between planetary systems, though they rely on non-“warp” propulsion to get to the various Alderson Point for each sun. And they in fact transport into the heart of the star, protected only by the Langston Field, an opaque black force field that surrounds the craft and keeps it impervious to the exponential heat at the heart of a star or an enemy’s carefully aimed laser cannon.

Immediately after suppressing a revolt on New Chicago, the starship MacArthur, helmed by rookie commander Rod Blaine, is ordered to intercept an approaching alien craft. Though mankind has spread throughout the galaxy the past ten centuries, it has never encountered any completely foreign entities. Now is the historic moment …

First contact is made, and nothing ever happens the way you think or expect it to. This is a good thing. Not to give away any detailed spoilers, but people are killed and things are lost, I did not foresee who would be killed or what would be lost, nor the manner of the killing or losing. And the second third of the novel definitely moved and had some excitement to it, after a build-up and the setting of the, er, setting in the first third.

It’s in the third third where I realized I didn’t like the book. Maybe didn’t like the direction it took would be a better way of phrasing it, for I had an entire Langston Field of goodwill with me. But it rapidly turned too “Cold War”-ish, right down to the point of dozens and dozens of pages focusing on ambassadorial diplomacy and negotiations. It lost whatever momentum it had in the early 300s (of a 560-page paperback), and with it, my enthusiasm. Or at least willingness to read further.

Yet I did finish it. And could only recommend it to true SF fans, from a historical literary perspective. There were too many things that didn’t win me over. The military crew speaking and acting right out of a 1940s Hollywood war movie I could deal with; it seems to be one of Pournelle’s things from what I’ve read. However, I found that, a thousand years in the future, whole peoples would be mirror reflections of purebred Scots and Russians, well, that didn’t seem realistic. I mean, I don’t carve wood picture frames in my spare time like my Italian ancestors, nor do I speak with a thick Neapolitan dialect, and this only goes back a century or two for my genealogy. Why would the Russian in charge of a starship drink tea from ancient Russian urns and decorate his cabin with Russian tapestries from the Middle Ages?

But the biggest roadblock to enjoying The Mote in God’s Eye was, for me, the aliens, the “Moties” as they’re nicknamed by the MacArthur’s midshipmen. The first image to pop into my mind upon the first description of a Motie was – Spongebob Squarepants. And if you google image “Moties,” what you’ll see is that most graphical representations of the aliens are to Spongebob what Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk was to Bill Bixby’s David Banner. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t get that fellow who lives in a pineapple under the sea out of my mind, and that hurt my suspension of belief as I read the book.

Sooooo … based on the good and the bad above, I have to grade The Mote in God’s Eye a B-minus.

But with that book cover, how could you not want to read it?

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