11 May 2012

If it was November, we must have been re-reading

Science Fiction | Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Recently re-read: The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle


In 1975, Larry Niven, the guy who populates short stories with more ideas than many another author feels overcrowds a trilogy, teamed up with his long-time friend Jerry Pournelle, who writes military SF and the Chaos Manor chronicles, to come up with a story of first contact with an intelligent alien species. They wrote a follow-up in 1993, which I'm currently reading, called The Gripping Hand.

Mote is placed in Jerry's universe of the CoDominium, where the Space Navy protects the Second Empire, and is busy reabsorbing, sometimes by force, planets that descended to chaos during the Secession Wars. Having lost much of the advanced tech of the revered First Empire, the humans have tech which we readers can relate to (mostly; I'll come to that later). They then detect an alien craft decelerating into one of the Trans-Coalsack worlds. From that world, the Coalsack nebula looks like a hooded man, with a red eye (giant star) with a yellow mote (companion star). It's a light sail.

Rod Blaine, the new Captain of the MacArthur meets this probe, and is then appointed on the expedition to the Moties' planet. The Moties turn out to have idiot savant Engineer sub-species, and a whole set of other species, including almost-mind-reading Mediators. There is a mystery involved, but I'll not give you any more spoilers. :)

I've never quite understood the penchant of SF writers to imagine Emperors and Dukes and stuff way into the future. Surely, even if we lost a lot of tech for assorted unexplained reasons, including interstellar wars (!), we wouldn't regress to feudalism? It's surely easier to retain social advances than high tech, which, by definition, needs a pyramid of tech to sit atop. THis book also has The Church, which does not help me understand the USA either (all SF more reflects the life and times of the authors than the future they imagine and, if they are bestsellers, the life and times of the target demographic). Anyway, the future society also has a very 1960s attitude to women, of which we have just one, the Lady Sally Fowler. We have a sinister trader, Sir Horace Hussain Bury, predictably (this was written at the time of the first Oil price Shocks) Muslim (Moslem, in the book) and cunning. We have the sailing master, Kevin Renner, a very Larry Niven character, full of irreverence and ideas. And we have the Moties, who have three arms, two on the right, most of whom are female, most of the time.

The tech of the space drive is still futuristic. It is based on the Alderson Drive, 'invented' in real life by the JPL scientist Dan Alderson, and a bit of a wormhole process. There is also the (ahem!) Langston Field, which protects the ships from laser and missile attacks. The tech, predictably, falls short when it comes to computers, but surprisingly, not very short. The book has pocket computers, linked to the ship's mainframe, which has all the data stored in it. In the 1990s, this was laughable, but in these days of cloud computing, it's very close to high tech today. The machines are voice activated as well as taking stylus inputs (we've moved beyond, heh heh). The culture that takes wine and whisky is contrasted with the one that takes coffee, which in turn is contrasted with one that takes tea. And once, it is pointed out that most of these cultures are based on what the people then imagine as the authentic version of 20th century Earth. Again, why anyone should aspire to 20th century cultures is mysterious in reality, but not if you want to sell your books. Along the way, we find the Moties have superconductors of heat (not as much of an oxymoron today, very much so in the 1970s), a frictionless toilet, and a superior coffee-processing surface, though they can't stand coffee themselves.

Quote from when the humans land on the Motie planet:
"Blasted show offs," Renner muttered to Bury. When the Trader looked at him quizzically, Renner pointed. "There's city all around, and the airport's got not one meter of extra space."
Bury nodded. Around the tiny field were skyscrapers, tall and square-built, jammed close together, with only a single belt of green running out of the city to the east. If there were a plane crash it would be a disaster--but the Moties didn't build planes to crash.
You'll love and fear the Moties, like the humans in the book do. A very tightly written story, with suspense all the way up to the last few pages. The mystery is solved, and so is the moral dilemma: do you look at an alien species from what benefits they can offer or from what peril they can result in. I don't like sad endings, they prevent me from rating a book high. This book gets a high rating. It still remains one of Niven and Pournelle's best books. Read it.

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