fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Gripping Hand by Larry Niven & Jerry PournelleThe Gripping Hand by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

The Gripping Hand (1993) is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s sequel to their popular 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye, which you probably want to read first. This review will have a couple of spoilers for The Mote in God’s Eye.

Recall that by the year 3017 AD, humans had designed the Alderson Drive — an interstellar transporter which allowed them to jump out of our galaxy to colonize different star systems. Then they discovered the first alien species — the Moties — who were excellent engineers but did not know the science behind the Alderson Drive. The Moties must breed to survive and were quickly overpopulating their own star system. Because they represent a major threat to our species, the human space navy has been guarding the only known gateway out of the Motie system so they can’t escape.

Twenty-five years later, His Excellency Horace Bury, a billionaire merchant trader, and his charismatic pilot, Sir Captain Kevin Renner, are spying for the human navy as they go about their usual business. Their navy job is to keep an ear and eye out for rumors of revolt against the empire but, because of their previous experience with the Moties, they also listen for anything that might hint that the Moties are trying to escape their system. Recently they’ve started hearing people use the term “the gripping hand,” an idiom that only makes sense to the Moties because of their peculiar anatomy. Bury and Renner suspect that some group of humans might be working with the Moties. This leads the duo to the planet Sparta to investigate, and then on to inspect the naval blockade of the Motie system. As they worry about an imminent Motie break-out, they discover that the Moties lied to them 25 years ago. After talking with cultural anthropologist Sally Fowler, who was also in the original delegation to the Motie system, they also discover a possible permanent solution to the Motie problem. The human race doesn’t know it yet, but they’re depending on Bury and Renner to solve all these problems and keep them safe.

In my review of The Mote in God’s Eye, I reported that I enjoyed that book’s mystery, its exploration of an alien civilization, and its occasional humor. My complaints were that the prose lacks style, the characterization is shallow, there is way too much dialogue, and it feels old-fashioned for a story set in 3017 AD. Unfortunately, The Gripping Hand suffers from all of the issues I listed as “complaints” and retains none of the good features of The Mote in God’s Eye. The book is excessively talky as the characters (who are still shallow) move from meeting to meeting, trying to decide what to do about the Moties. Their talking wore me out and eventually I started to zone out during the meetings. I totally agreed with one of the characters who said “I wish you had a fast forward button, Kevin” and groaned when Kevin later said “I may have to lecture.” And unfortunately, Kevin is actually the most interesting character in the book.

The Gripping Hand was published in 1993 and the story is set in 3042, yet Niven and Pournelle’s female characters feel like they were written in 1970. I can tell that the authors have tried to make the ladies seem modern by making them educated and letting them sleep around, but they’re still treated as sex objects. Each (except for Sally, because she’s the older married woman) is sized up for her physical attributes and how “expensive” she is. In one restaurant where Kevin is eating, he says the men are “very busy” and the women are “expensive.” This seems like an old-fashioned way to think about women. Each woman also has to be a sexual partner for one of the men (they can’t just be single) and we’re told when the female reporter is and isn’t wearing underwear. There are numerous little places where Niven and Pournelle try but fail to convince me that their women are modern. Even the character names feel like 1970: Kevin, Jennifer, Sally, Sandy, Glenda Ruth, Cynthia, Joyce, Horace. I just couldn’t believe this was the advanced human society of 3042 AD. If so, it seems we’ve regressed.

I know that this is simply an issue of two 60 year old men (they are now around 80) trying to write modern female characters. They probably can’t help it, poor guys. I could have forgiven the sexism if The Gripping Hand had been exciting, but it’s not. It’s boring.

I listened to the audio version produced by Audible Studios and read by L.J. Ganser. This was a nice production. Too bad it was so boring.

~Kat Hooper

The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven & Jerry PournelleThis is a two-time DNF for me. I like The Mote in God’s Eye so much and I kept thinking, even if the sequel’s not as good, it has to be worth reading, and I really want to find out what happened with the Moties. And both times — several years apart — I got about half-way through, bogged down and quit. The storyline just got too slow and confusing and I completely lost interest.

~Tadiana Jones

Publisher: Robert Heinlein called it “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” The San Francisco Chronicle declared that “as science fiction, The Mote in God’s Eye is one of the most important novels ever published.” Now Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, award winning authors of such bestsellers as Footfall and The Legacy of Heorot, return us to the Mote, and to the universe of Kevin Renner and Horace Bury, of Rod Blaine and Sally Fowler. There, 25 years have passed since humanity quarantined the mysterious aliens known as Moties within the confines of their own solar system. They have spent a quarter century analyzing and agonizing over the deadly threat posed by the only aliens mankind has ever encountered– a race divided into distinct biological forms, each serving a different function. Master, Mediator, Engineer. Warrior. Each supremely adapted to its task, yet doomed by millions of years of evolution to an inescapable fate. For the Moties must breed– or die. And now the fragile wall separating them and the galaxy beyond is beginning to crumble.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle The Mote in God's Eye, The Gripping Hand Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle The Mote in God's Eye, The Gripping Hand


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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