I don’t remember the last time I got a chance to read for pleasure. I’m not complaining, because I love my life and I love my job. But it leaves me very little time for pleasure reading. So a few weeks ago I decided to dedicate a few minutes a day (yes, a few minutes) to reading fiction.
The next big question was which book to read. Here’s the problem: so many times in the past, I have looked forward to devouring that new book everyone was talking about, only to be disappointed by how uninspiring or cliched that book turned out to be. Well, a lot of us re-watch old movies and TV shows because we know we are guaranteed to enjoy the experience. So, given that I only had a few minutes (yes, minutes) to dedicate to this endeavour, I decided that I would re-read an old favourite novel.
This is, I will note, a departure from one of my longest held (though pointless) rules: to never read the same book twice. The logic of that rule was that there are far more deserving books in the world than I have time to read, so I am better served by exploring the new than by revisiting the old. But my new logic is that I need…. yes, need… my book-reading to be maximally pleasurable.
So I opted to re-read one of the favourite books from my extreme youth, Jerry Pournelle’s and Larry Niven’s The Mote In God’s Eye, first published in 1974.
I was around 12 or 13 when I first read the book. But it has lingered with me ever since. Back then, I would fly through books, so entranced with the narrative that I couldn’t wait to get to the next page. I read so fast that I often missed details and nuance. Thus, when re-reading this particular book three decades later, I was able to take my time and focus on each scene, idea and image.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Niven and Pournelle are awful writers.
I’m sorry if you’re a fan and are offended by this proclamation. I’ve read almost everything that Larry Niven has written, so I count myself among the fans. However, he is a hack, though a highly imaginative one. And Pournelle is even worse. Neither can write women except as tired stereotypes of weak, marriage-obsessed little girls, despite obvious better intentions. And both seem to have a laddish, simplistic fascination with military tropes and viewpoints.
Sentence fragments pollute their prose. And the authors clearly come from the Dan Brown school of writing, graduates of which drop pointless descriptors of characters for no particular reason. Interior dialogues pollute the narrative, laying bare the writers’ lack of diverse storytelling tools.
Then there’s the dialogue. It’s classic, laughable space opera. You’d expect much of it from the poorer episodes of Babylon 5. Common outbursts like, “God’s teeth!” and “I’ll drop that computer into a mass converter!” are supposed to reflect human sentiment and even flirtatious charm. It’s quite risible.
Okay, so we can accept that this is not Booker Prize-winning literature. But that’s not why the faithful read science fiction, especially not so-called hard science fiction. Niven and Pournelle include in an Appendix all the travails they went through to build their fictional universe, even boasting that to fully describe their fictional space drives and energy fields, they’d have to include their pages of differential equations.
Confession: meeting Larry Niven at a science fiction convention was one of the highlights of my teenage geek years. Becoming an actual scientist was one of the highlights of my adult years. In deference to those two points, I will refrain from issuing the belly laugh that the authors’ appendix warrants. See, the fake science in hard science fiction doesn’t require an actual mathematical proof or more than a journeyman understanding of core sciences; it just requires a good story and passable prose.
Fortunately, Mote has both.
If you’re not familiar with this famous book, it’s about human beings’ first contact with an alien civilization. That topic has been covered many times before. But what make this version special are the following points:
1. In Mote, the contact takes place in the distant future when humans have already colonized the galaxy and have founded a particular type of trans-stellar civilization, a feudal empire of sorts, based on Pournelle’s poorly known “Co-Dominion” stories.
2. The technology is precisely limited and important to the story. In particular, two of humanities’ (fictional) innovations –the Alderson space drive and the Langston energy field– are pivotal to the story. The aliens (“Moties”) are trapped in a region of space, which is why the humans had never before been in contact with them. To escape that region, they need both of these aforementioned technologies. Protecting the technologies provides an interesting plot driver.
3. The nature of first contact is creatively described. It begins with the detection of a space probe launched from the alien planet that must be intercepted by the humans. In a tour-de-force of hard science fiction, the characters deduce certain characteristics of the aliens, based solely on knowledge of the probe’s launch, and engage in an edge-of-the-seat retrieval of the probe before it plummets into a star.
4. The human expedition to the alien world is terribly exciting and well described. In fact, all of the aspects and angles –political, military, religious, technological, and emotional– of first contact are well explored.
5. Most glaringly, the detail to which Niven and Pournelle describe their aliens is impressive. They spend a great deal of time pondering the environment and circumstances that would have resulted in the alien physiology, and how alien psychology might be incompatible with our own thinking.
Where the story falters is in its inability to explain, or even acknowledge, the aliens’ similarities to us. Their biology is based on DNA. Why? Their brains have parietal lobes. Their reproduction is two-sexed, like ours, and involves sexual congress and internal gestation.
Clearly, Pournelle and Niven are versed in physics and engineering. But any passably educated student of biology would know that there are scores of ways to define a biological reproductive system. If an alien species just happened to be mammalian, well that’s a remarkable and profound coincidence. An alien ecology based on DNA has profound philosophical implications, and it is surprising and disappointing that a modern Grandmaster like Niven failed to capitalize on them.
I am being a stickler about this because the nature of hard science fiction invites such scrutiny. Niven and Pournelle go to extreme lengths to make sure the toys of their fictional universe are seated in real science, hence the inclusion of their detailed appendix. But the fictional science in this story is not just fictional engineering; it’s fictional biology.
While they do an excellent job describing the details of the Motie technologies in space, that care dissipates when on the planet itself. It is mentioned, for example, that the aliens pick up the humans in a “ground car”. But after pages of details about the space drives and cabin conditions of the human vessels, the reader is thirsting for a taste of the alien world: how many wheels does the “ground car” have? How is it powered? What do alien seats look like, given their strange external biology? Are there windows? How many doors, and how do they open?
It’s as if the writers were so eager to move forward the political intrigue part of the story, that at that point they abandoned their tack of previous chapters, which was to give impressive and fascinating detail, sometimes at the expense of progressing the narrative.
For a book written in the 70s, the physical science is remarkably prescient. It accurately describes what we would recognize today as smart phones with cloud computing. The sequel, The Gripping Hand, written 20 years later has an easier job sounding realistic because of the original’s reliable prescience. Indeed, possibly due to the criticisms I’ve noted here, The Gripping Hand includes a reference to panspermia, thus finally offering a rationale for why the alien biology resembles that of terrestrial forms.
The bottom line is this: if you hold your nose and tolerate the adolescent prose; if you forgive the basic errors in biological sciences; if you overlook some of the lazy plot elements, such as characters making assumptions that always end up being facts; then The Mote In God’s Eye is, as one reviewer aptly put it, a ripping good yarn.
Take a slow weekend, turn off your phone and your social media, pour yourself a big cup of tea, and immerse yourself in an excellent and immersive tale of alien encounters at the edge of known galaxy.