Not a review of…
The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Ah — ambition. That’s why I don’t like it.
My sister wanted to breed dogs. She doesn’t like the personalities of most dogs, though, and she’s allergic to dog hair. Her solution: the newdle. Or the poofoundland. Depends on your preference. Cross a poodle with a newfoundland and you might get the ideal dog for someone like my sister — i.e., someone who doesn’t seem suited to dogs. Hypoallergenic fur from a poodle on a great mop of a creature like a newfoundland. Sounds like a dream.
The trouble is the wandering complexity of genetics. My sister might just as easily get a dog with a newfoundland’s bear-rug pelt on a creature incapable of taking it easy no matter how much heroin you pump into it.
That…is the trouble with any collaboration. Especially when two breeds with recognizable images attempted to bring something into the world.
This is just such a risky attempt at cross-breeding. Yes, Niven and Pournelle collaborated a lot, so we can but hope they’ve figured it out. Both these cats have their own distinctiveness in spite of each other. Larry’s got big ideas and he’s a lazy storyteller. Jerry’s so damn good at logistics, but I’ve never heard ANY of his ideas, so what does that tell you? And he’ll put you to sleep with his religion of precise details.
I picked this book up with great fear that it would be an ineptly prosecuted exploration of uninspired ideas. Fortunately, they proved me wrong. Jerry’s strategery sufficiently complicated Larry’s crude storytelling ideas, and Larry’s big ideas injected a sense of grandness into Jerry’s dull imbalance between execution and imagination.
It was actually a pretty solid approach to storytelling, with one damned, deep, crushing flaw, that almost stayed hidden. I’ll tell it to you in a second.
The Mote in God’s Eye is the story of the human race making first contact with another sentient race for the first time. They took the really pretty cool approach of proposing it happens in about the year 3500, after humanity has built a large interstellar empire.
It’s a good approach. More realistic than many, and it’s interesting to read a story about meeting aliens at a point in our development when we have technological parity with the aliens. Creates different situations than, like, Independence Day does.
A lot of the drama hinges on communication errors. The culture of the aliens is so weird to the humans that most of the dialogue is about people trying to interpret the alien actions. Then the other half of the dialogue — to the credit of Larry and Jerry — is about the aliens having trouble understanding the humans.
Here’s the cool thing that happened to make this book pretty cool. Larry, the idea guy, and Jerry, the logistics guy, got together and came up with an alien culture. Which meant that it was as layered as any alien culture out that.
Super interesting. It was an education in writing alien culture.
Here’s the trouble. And I think it was a big one, and in retrospect I think I’ve caught onto something. The whole interaction with the aliens felt mechanical, mathematical, and not quite…alien.
And I think I know why.
And Larry and Jerry demonstrated why by how they wrote the only woman in the entire book.
She was the least realistic, least rounded, flattest, dullest, dumbest female character I have ever had to slog through a book to figure out there wasn’t anything there to figure out in the first place.
That tells you a thing or two about Larry’s and Jerry’s powers of empathy. Their inability to write a realistic woman, in a book full of men with decent stories and character quirks, tells you something about their ability to empathize with The Other.
Otherness is the quality their aliens lacked. The drama was understanding the aliens, and the aliens were puzzling. But they weren’t at all otherworldly.
Should you read it? Well, I didn’t hate it. I was pretty impressed with the complexity. It represents a massive swing-for-the-fence effort. As a piece of storytelling, it is ambitious. But ambition, by itself, isn’t always a winning strategy. There wasn’t as much follow-through as there could have been.
So yeah, read it if you like first contact stories.
More from me…