The Mote in God’s Eye: A classic First Contact story

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven & Jerry PournelleThe Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

The Mote in God’s Eye, co-written by frequent collaborators Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is a classic First Contact science fiction story which Robert A. Heinlein called “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” The story takes place in 3017 AD in the future of Jerry Pournelle’s CODOMINION universe (though it’s not necessary to have read any of those books to enjoy The Mote in God’s Eye). Humans have developed the Alderson Drive which allows them to immediately jump to certain points in space. Thus they’ve been able to colonize many planets which are ruled by a single government similar to the British monarchy.

Up to this point humans have assumed they’re the only intelligent species in the universe, but an alien spaceship has just been detected near the Mote system. The spaceship MacArthur, captained by Lord Roderick Blaine, is dispatched to intercept the alien. Besides its regular crew, MacArthur has a couple of civilian passengers temporarily on board: Horace Bury, a trader and political prisoner, and Sally Fowler, a cultural anthropologist (how fortuitous) and senator’s niece.

It turns out that the alien in the probe ship is dead, but the humans figure out where the home planet must be, so Roderick Blaine, Sally Fowler, Horace Bury, a priest, the crew of MacArthur and a team of scientists are sent on a diplomatic mission to the planet they call Mote Prime. The ship Lenin is sent for back up. It’s captained by Admiral Kutuzov, a ruthless but effective man whose job is to not let the Moties learn anything that could help them build an Alderson Drive and escape the bounds of their own solar system.

Upon arrival at Mote Prime the diplomats find that the Moties are friendly and want to be allies. An alliance and trade agreement with the Moties would be beneficial to the human empire because, except for the lack of an Alderson Drive, the Moties are far more technologically advanced. But that means they’re also a threat. The diplomatic mission must discover all they can about the Motie society so it can make a recommendation to the empire about how to deal with this species they’re sharing the universe with. This, of course, is not as easy as it seems. Do the Moties really have pure intentions toward the humans, or are they deceiving them for some reason?

The Mote in God’s Eye, published in 1974, is a nice change of pace from most of the human vs. alien science fiction that had been previously published. Niven and Pournelle create a truly alien society and explore its evolution, history, sociology, and motivations. The story is compelling because Niven and Pournelle capitalize on the mystery, leaving the reader as much in the dark about the Moties’ true intentions as the human characters are. The truth is surprising (though, I thought, not completely believable).

Niven and Pournelle write unique stories but they’re not superior stylists; I read their books for the plot and ideas — not to admire their use of structure or language. This particular story is interesting, has a few great characters (Blaine, Kutuzov, the priest, and the Brownie aliens), and has an occasional nice touch of humor, but it sometimes suffers from shallow characterization, excessive dialogue, and an old-fashioned feel. The action is exciting, but limited. There is a lot of the normal “hard SF” explanation of drives, fields, stars, ships, etc, but there are also a lot of meetings in which the humans (or aliens) are trying to figure out what the aliens (or humans) know, assume, intend, and plan. Some of this was amusing (for example when the aliens are trying to figure out some aspects of human behavior) but many of the discussions just go on too long. Also, for a story set in 3017, ideas about birth control, sex, and women’s roles in society feel rather quaint.

The Mote in God’s Eye was published in 1974 and nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. Nearly 20 years later Niven and Pournelle published a sequel called The Gripping Hand. It was not well received so, in 2010, Jerry Pournelle’s daughter J.R. Pournelle wrote and published another sequel called Outies.

I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio version of The Mote in God’s Eye. L.J. Ganser does a great job with the narration. This title has recently been released in CD format by Brilliance Audio.

Moties — (1974-1993) By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Publisher: Writing separately, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are responsible for a number of science fiction classics, such as the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Ringworld, Debt of Honor, and The Integral Trees. Together they have written the critically acclaimed bestsellers Inferno, Footfall, and The Legacy of Heorot, among others. The Mote In God’s Eye is their acknowledged masterpiece, an epic novel of mankind’s first encounter with alien life that transcends the genre.

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

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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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  1. One of the most interesting things to notice is that at the time of publication the world population hit FOUR BILLION. It is now beyond 7 billion. Asteroid mining was part of the ancient history of the Moties. That idea has been in science fiction for decades but now people are seriously talking about doing it, though it may be more robotic than previously imagnined.

    But The Mote in God’s Eye gets across the idea that it is possible to wreck a planet and for technological civilizations to collapse. The human population did not reach one billion until 1800 but we had a billion cars in 2010. Maybe the style of the writing is totally irrelevant because WE are the Moties. Look at Venezuela.

    • These are good points, Karl. I love to read science fiction for the reasons you mention. It is full of both dire warnings and hopeful possibilities for the future.

      I never think the style is unimportant, though. If a story has something important to say, it is more likely to be read, revered, and recommended (alliteration intended) if its style is appealing.

      • Also, for a story set in 3017, ideas about birth control, sex, and women’s roles in society feel rather quaint.

        But you did not complement Komarr for having a woman physicist solve the physics problem.

        • Komarr? I needed to compliment Bujold (a woman) for having a woman physicist solve a problem? As if a woman physicist solving a problem is unusual and needs to be pointed out? It never occurred to me that it was something notable… Maybe I don’t get what you’re saying….

          BTW, Karl, we added a new feature here. You can rate the books you’ve read so we can have your opinion, too. We’d like that.


  1. The Gripping Hand: Boring sequel | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - […] Gripping Hand (1993) is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s sequel to their popular 1974 novel The Mote in God’s…

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