Though it routinely ends up on best of all time lists, somehow the 1974 science fiction novel The Mote in God’s Eye never actually seems to get read. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the work of masters and is in fact the greatest work of two of them, as a collaboration between greats Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.
Maybe it’s the title that keeps so many otherwise dedicated hard sci-fi aficionados away from it. The Mote in God’s Eye sounds like a joke or some sort of bad pun. Read the book and it makes sense, but just sitting there and sitting at the cover, it seems like someone’s bad attempt at a Terry Pratchet parody rather than a serious science fiction story.
But serious is exactly what it is. In fact it may be one of the best books ever written. At the least it does something no other work of science fiction has ever done: It gets aliens right.
Normally, in any sci-fi format, life from other planets is depicted in one of two ways. The first type is the monster. Ridley Scott’s Alien movie does that better than just about anything, presenting a completely alien creature which lusts for human blood. The second type is the intelligent alien. Intelligent aliens are always presented as if they’re just one step away from humanity. They may look different from us, but rarely are they too different. They may think differently from us, but not too different.
Usually the writer creating an alien creature bases them on some facet of human culture. Avatar’s Na’vi for instance, may be blue but we recognize their ideology and even to some degree understand it, since it’s a variation on Native American culture. Klingons may be violent and warlike, but they build their lives around concepts we understand like honor. Rarely is intelligent life from another planet depicted in any other way, and if we ever meet another thinking alien, we’re sure to discover we had it all wrong.
Mote does something few other science fiction works ever really do right, by presenting a completely alien, utterly intelligent life form. Rather than basing these creatures on some existing facet of human existence, Pournelle and Niven created a completely alien creature with an utterly alien lifecycle and a totally foreign way of living. From that they extrapolated how such a creature might think. As any real alien creature would, the Moties think in ways we can’t possibly begin to comprehend.
This isn’t some boorish examination of an alien culture though. Pournelle and Niven have taken this brilliant construct and injected it into a well told story. In a far off future man has conquered the galaxy, but failed to encounter any intelligent life. Thousands of years later, long after mankind has spread out into the galaxy, we make first contact. The Mote in God’s Eye charts that first contact and while it happens humanity makes the same mistake James Cameron made in Avatar, by assigning human ways of thinking to creatures which are absolutely not human. That mistake puts the entire human race in jeopardy and results in one of the most gripping science fiction stories ever told.
There’s a sequel too called The Gripping Hand and it’s every bit as good as the Mote. Most off all, Pournelle and Niven’s work is original. More than thirty years after its writing, even in an era littered with recycled, it’s never been duplicated. If you love science fiction or if you simply love originality, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Mote in God’s Eye.