Sunday, September 21, 2008

Niven, Pournelle, "The Mote in God's Eye"

Published in 1974, this "hard-science" sc-fi novel is one of the best reviewed alien "first contact" stories of all time. A millennium from now, mankind has settled the nearby galaxy, and established an empire. That empire has fallen, and is being re-united. Man has warp drive, but in all mankind's exploration, no other sapient life form has been found. Until now. Captain Roderick Blaine has just pacified the planet New Chicago in the Trans-Coalsack sector. Fresh from victory, Blaine is assigned to head an expedition to the Murcheson's Eye binary star system, whence an alien probe had been launched at sub-light speed before its unfortunate destruction as it entered human space.

Mote in God's Eye
works quite well as a drama. It has what might be seen as stock characters, the autocratic Russian Admiral Kutuzov, a militarist and xenophobe who has destroyed worlds before, the Arab Trader Horace Bury, corrupt as only a Levantine could be. Yet the characters are well fleshed out, and an ingenious and well-researched plot, not formulas and stereotypes drives the story.

The aliens of the Mote are presented fully fleshed out as well. Trapped in their system for millions of years, the Moties are in many ways far beyond human development. Yet they suffer a strange handicap, one which threatens to destroy them, or humanity. Blaine must discover the nature of this handicap, and find a way from allowing the threat it presents to escape into the wider universe, where men like Horace Bury might sell out humanity, while preventing Kutuzov from annihilating the Moties altogether

The authors put much thought into the biology, psychology, history, linguistics and personal motivations of the aliens. They do not come across as humans in costumes, as many aliens in other lesser stories do. In being identifiably different from humans, they serve to illustrate human nature in the contrasts they afford.

This book is an excellent science fiction novel for those who value sci-fi, and for those who do not particularly enjoy it. It features starships and gunfights, but more importantly it showcases ideas and interesting characters. This title is recommended without reservation.

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