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The Mote In God's Eye

This review was written approximately thirty years ago, not long after The Mote In God's Eye was published. The novel remains as a major "first contact" novel, one that many consider to be THE first contact novel.


I have recently been reading and rereading The Mote in God's Eye. It is both infuriating and fascinating. It is infuriating because there are so many sections that are so bad and unnecessary, so utterly boring. One is tempted to attribute all that is bad to Pournelle and all that is good to Niven. This is probably incorrect and unjust. People who do collaborations rarely split up the work in the way that one would assume from reading it.

But it is true that the things that are peculiarly bad about the book are associated with concepts that Pournelle is associated with, and that the things that are peculiarly good in the book are things that are characteristic of Niven's work.

The major weaknesses of the book are: (a) the beginning, which is slow, dull, and irrelevant, (b) the dependence on an idiot plot (it is an essential part of the plot that the anthropologists and social scientists simply don't know what they are doing, and (c) the assumed human society. Correction- these are some of the major weaknesses. The strengths are the alines themselves and the "Crazy Eddie" concept.

The human society is the thousand year old Empire that Pournelle has been using. This sort of thing is out of fashion these days and is usually treated by reviewers as being unbelievable and bad sociology. This critical fashion is probably overdone. An interstellar technological quasi-feudalism is conceivable, but it is true that this sort of thing has been overdone. Hack after hack has rewritten Roman and European history into galactic Empires, dark ages, etc. It has been all too much a matter of projecting the romanticism of the past into the future without any real consideration of plausibility. Feudalism is an anachronism; aristocracies are an anachronism; the conditions that gave rise to the feudalism of Europe are totally inconsistent with any sort of industrialism. I won't deny the possibility of a revival of feudal trappings, but I should like far better reasons for them.

One rather gathers that Pournelle is enamoured of that particular aspect of the past (monarchy, aristocracy, the military, the medieval church, etc.) and is recreating it, willy nilly, whether it makes any sense or not. But, then, these are merely personal obsessions of his, and not uncommon ones at that.

Still and all, this is not a grievous fault. Let's face it; almost all SF rests on grossly improbable sociology, technology, and futurology. Science Fiction tells us much more about our attitudes and the attitudes of the authors and the current views of what the world is like now than it does about what the world is likely to be. Science Fiction on an interstellar scale is really no more than a particular breed of fantasy.

The trouble with Pournelle's projected future history is not that is improbable, but that it is dull and hackneyed. It is interesting if one is interested in the paraphernalia of the middle ages and a bore if you are not. Perhaps others find the sections of the book that are concerned with his background society interesting. I find them to be a bore, and a severe strain on my "suspension of disbelief." So be it.

The beginning of the story is irrelevant. I suggest to anyone who has not yet read the book that they start at about page 60 or 90 and read the rest of the book first and then go back and read the beginning for the sake of completeness. The whole thing with the New Chicago revolt, the heroine's internment, and getting the various characters into the scene could have been handled with a three paragraph flashback, and the book would have been the better for it.

It is hard to see how the idiot plot elements could have been avoided without completely reworking the book into something totally different. It is quite true that everyone involved has to be a boob not to figure out that the Moties were undergoing periodic collapses. But, if the plot demands that nobody see the obvious until the very end of the book, then you are stuck with people just not seeing the obvious.

If the book were no more than the usual adventure novel with the usual hack weaknesses that I have mentioned it would scarcely be a book that demands rereading and contemplation. Yet it is and it does. Its strengths are just those elements that are usually thought of being the Niven strong points. Again, it would be a mistake to assume that Larry did all of the interesting parts and Jerry did all of the dull parts, but the ideas and sections that are fascinating do have the Niven stamp.

Ringworld had "The Luck of Teela Brown." The Mote In God's Eye has "Crazy Eddie." It may be that Larry Niven has consciously gone into the business of inventing archetypes, or it may only be that he naturally thinks that way. The device (if that is the term) is certainly heavily exploited.

It is a very old but very effective device to pick a striking phrase or concept and use it as a recurring theme. It is a common trick of comedy; most comedians have a stock of characteristic lines by which they are known. One of the more outrageous examples of repetition in comedy was in Woody Allen's Love and Death, which has a philosophical discussion in the middle of a seduction scene. This discussion, which really is an exchange of existentialist epigrams, recurs word for word in the middle of a number of, ah, romantic scenes. The first time it occurs you are surprised. Thereafter you giggle each time it comes up; by the end of the movie it is an old friend.

Most series gain power by using the device of repetition. Interestingly enough it usually is the little details that are most effective. For example it is not Hercule Poirot, the detective, that sticks in our minds - it is his mustaches.

However repetition is not really the device being used here. What we have is a philosophical concept personified and converted into an archetype. What makes Crazy Eddie even more fascinating is that it is an alien archetype. For those who haven't read the book, some quote:

"When a city has grown so overlarge and crowded that it is in immediate danger of collapse ... when food and clean water flow into the city at a rate just sufficient to feed every mouth, and every hand must work constantly to keep it that way ... when all transportation is involved in moving vital supplies, and none is left over to move people out of the city should the need arise ... then it is that Crazy Eddie leads the movers of garbage out on strike for better working conditions."

"It was not part of his nature to wish for what could not be, but he hoped that the efforts to breed a more stable Mediator would succeed; it was difficult to work with creatures who might suddenly see an unreal universe and make judgements based on it. The pattern was always the same. First they wished for the impossible. Then they worked toward it, still knowing it to be impossible. Finally they acted as if the impossible could be achieved, and let that unreality influence every act."

The Moties' problem is one of the great problems of life - there are situations that are fundamentally unacceptable and fundamentally unavoidable, and what do you do about it. In the long run death provides a solution to the problems of life, but "final solution" is of no value to the living. For a species, for life itself, there is another long term solution - wait and endure, for all sets of conditions are transient, no situation really lasts forever. For life as a whole this is valid wisdom, and living beings have it built into their very biochemistry - live and endure, regardless.

While it is true that life is a series of frustrations, and it is true that death always comes at the end, it is also true that there are acceptable and unacceptable situations. One of the favorite experiment of experimental psychologists, for a while, was to put animals in unacceptable situations for a while and see what happened. A typical sort of thing was a situation in which the animal could only get food by exposing itself to an electric shock. The usual result was various sorts of insanity and neurosis.

One possible type of reaction to this sort of situation is withdrawal. For some types of life and in some situations that can be a sane reaction - tuck yourself in and hide yourself away until the bad things god away. In many situation it is and obvious mistake and therefore not sane, but that doesn't matter to life. All life demands is that you do something - if the sane answers don't work, try the insane ones, for you must do something, even if it is no more than hibernating.

Another answer, presumably the "sane" one, is fatalism. The food is there; you need it. The shock is there; it is unavoidable. Therefore go get the food and ignore the shock as best you can. The trouble with this reaction is that it is enormously difficult for very good reasons. Pain signals and avoidance syndromes are built into life for very good reasons. Electric shocks are bad for you; open wounds are bad for you; starvation is bad for you. It is good to avoid things that are bad for you. For you these bad things may be unavoidable; nevertheless life demands that you attempt to avoid them or suffer. Fatalism is never totally possible - it is something that life does not allow to the limit. To life as a whole, all problems do have answers, and all problems can be solved or avoided. That doesn't help you - your problems may be insoluble. But, as a living being, you must play by the rules of life, even if they demand the impossible.

The usual answer is an erratic neurosis. One puts off going for the food for as long as possible, and then makes a mad dash for it. This doesn't work. One invents ways of pretending that the shock won't be there. This doesn't work. One tries to find ways to adapt to the shock so that it is endurable. This doesn't work. If the animal has any intelligence it invents "magical" ways to control the appearance of the shock. These don't work. Nothing works.

Nonetheless it has to keep trying, and it does keep trying to avoid the shocks, even though nothing works. In the meantime it's behaviour pattern becomes neurotic, even outside the area having to do with getting food. This is not unreasonable; neurotic behaviour tends to spread from one area of life to all areas of life.

The Moties are in just such a box. They must breed. They must overbreed until overpopulation destroys their civilization and brings about another collapse. And there is no way out. The result is a necessary cultural and biological fatalism that is never quite totally accepted. Crazy Eddie always tries to find a way out of the trap and he never succeeds. Never.

To the Moties we are all Crazy Eddies. We insist that problems do all have solutions. Actually we also have the same problem. As intelligent beings we know that we are going to die some day. As living beings, this is unacceptable - death is never a totally acceptable solution to the problems of life, no matter how unavoidable. Religion is one of our Crazy Eddie solutions to this problem.

But for the rest, we feel that problems have solutions. This is not a universal belief, to be sure. There is a good deal of fatalism in the world, and probably always will be. Towards the end of the book, the Moties quote and old story from Herodotus:

"Once there was a thief who was to be executed. As he was taken away he made a bargain with the king: In one year he would teach the king's favorite horse to sing hymns."

"The other prisoners watched the thief singing to the horse and laughed. 'You will not succeed,' they told him. 'No one can.' To which the thief replied, 'I have a year, and who knows what will happen in that time. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And perhaps the horse will learn to sing.'"

One of the great fascinations of fiction is that introducing a concept like the Crazy Eddie concept is more effectively done in fiction than in prose. The reason is that when a concept is introduced in prose we discuss the bare bones of the concept; the ramifications are dealt with explicitly and in a non-existential fashion. In fiction the concept sits within life, so to speak. The ramifications are there automatically, because the concept is being treated existentially. Fiction, like life, is richer and more ambiguous than prose. It has been said (or it ought to have been said if it hasn't been) that it takes several good books to explain a really good book. By that standard The Mote In God's Eye is a good book. The Crazy Eddie concept and its treatment is good for much more analysis and is richer than this little essay can handle. It is a book one could write a book about.

It is one of the promises of Science Fiction that it offers a larger stage for the treatment of ideas than the restricted stage of mainstream fiction. One might hope for great philosophic richness. It is a promise that, for the most part, remains unredeemed. SF is usually much shallower, much less deep than its potential. Not always, but usually. It is a delight to read something that, in some measure, redeems that promise, and puts something on the stage besides wooden puppets.


This page was last updated February 1, 2006.

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