Monday, January 30, 2012

Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle' "The Mote in God's Eye" (novel, space opera): Star-faring humans blockade "Moties" to their home star system

Cover image of the novel The Mote in Gods Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
Fast moving story, & among the most famous novels of the genre. But way too long, consequently has occasional boring stretches.

Story summary.

A clearly alien probe is detected in a far-off human ruled star system. Trapping it yields a dead alien who obviously traveled 35 light years in a solar sail powered slower-than-light craft from a certain star system. So two human warships, one with a lot of civilian crew, go to investigate the system. System is "Mote" & natives are "Moties" to humans.

At the heart of the story is the complex FTL technology the humans use, the peculiar biology of Moties, & the peculiar nature of space near Moties' home world:
  1. FTL travel is possible only between "Alderson Points", small regions of space near star systems. Some stars have no such point, others have more than one. Travel between points is instantaneous; elsewhere it slower than light.  Each point leads to a specific pre-determined point in another system.
  2. Moties are specialized at birth: "Masters" give orders, "Engineers" are good at tinkering with gadgets, "Mediators" specialize in communications, ... And while two individuals of different sexes must mate to produce an offspring, each individual spends part of its life as female & part as male, periodically switching between the two. And while female, it must quickly become pregnant, or the internal hormonal imbalances will kill it. This means practically uncontrollable birth rate. Which leads to a cyclical civilization: rise, fall to primitive level, rise, ... Moties are close to the point where fall must soon occur when humans arrive.
  3. Alderson point after the first jump from Moties home system lies in the corona of a star. Human ships can survive here because of a certain shield; unshielded, you get instantly cooked.
Contact is peaceful, with both sides apparently very open, & obviously hiding a lot. Lot of action. Humans will return with three alien ambassadors & still apparently friendly aliens, but only after violently losing one of the ships. Post return analysis will show Moties as a potential serious threat, so human warships will be placed to permanently guard the Anderson Point of first jump off Motie homeworld; if Moties ever discover FTL & don't get cooked in the star's corona where they'll emerge, human warships will destroy them.


  1. Some reviewers classify it as a first contact story. To me, it read more as space opera than first contact.
  2. Moties of different castes - functions - have differently colored fur. I wonder if some of the colors reflect one of the author's personal prejudices: Whites on top, then White+Browns, then Browns.

See also.

  1. L Sprague de Camp's "Finished" (download scans as part of a larger package): While Mote ends with a total blockade as the solution to alien threat lest they acquire human technology, Finished offers a glimpse of what can happen after a technology blockade is imposed.

Fact sheet.

First published: 1974.
Rating: A.
Related: Stories of Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle.


Neil said...

I've re-read this book several times, and it's one of my favorite SF books, certainly my favorite by Niven and Pournelle.

You mention this is more of a space opera than a first-contact story. I think it quite happily co-exists as e member of both categories.

Larry said...

I now have this book on my shelf and look forward to reading it some time!

Tinkoo said...

Yes Neil. And good luck Larry.