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Literature: The Mote in God's Eye
The Mote in God's Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, is a science fiction novel that was first published in 1974. The story is set in the distant future of Pournelle's CoDominium universe, and charts the First Contact between humankind and an alien species. The title of the novel is a wordplay on Luke 6:41-42 and Matthew 7:3-5. The Mote in God's Eye was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards in 1975.

The Mote in God's Eye might be one of the more realistic depictions of a first-contact story. The discovery of alien life is sudden and unexpected, and most of the book deals with the diplomatic/military/espionage group that is sent by the humans to meet the new species. A great deal of tension arises between the humans and "Moties" who have a very dim understanding of each other at first, and between the xenophiliac scientists and the xenophobic military personnel with the human expedition.

In essence, the story is one long, long conflict in which the humans are trying to decide whether the discovery of other life in the universe is a cause for fear or a cause for celebration.

A sequel, entitled The Gripping Hand (a.k.a. The Moat Around Murcheson's Eye in the UK, Australia etc.), was published in 1993. A third novel, Outies (written by Jerry Pournelle's daughter, Dr. Jennifer Pournelle) was published in 2010 and is set during and slightly after the events of The Gripping Hand.


Tropes that appear in this work include:

  • Absentminded Professor: Dr. Buckman in The Mote in God's Eye and The Gripping Hand. Not a terribly important character, but an excellent example.
  • Alternative Number System: The Moties have a total of 12 digits on their right hands and use base 12.
  • Ambiguous Gender: Asach Quinn from "Outies"; this is lampshaded at a desert settlement. Moties see Quinn as "complete", unlike one-sexed humans.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Subverted in Mote, in which Captain Blaine is a nobleman (heir-apparent to a Marquis), and is a decent guy. Word of God is that Mote is set in a time when the Empire is in a dynamic, expansionist phase, with the aristocrats generally more concerned with duties than privileges. By the time of Hand, there are references that may indicate that the reverse is gradually becoming true, and the Empire is starting to exhibit signs of decadence (at least on the capital world). Blaine himself is still a decent guy, though.
  • Badass Army: The Sauron Supermen and Motie Warrior class.
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: Moties have an asymmetrical anatomy, and their reproductive system differs greatly from most terran species. All Moties of all types are born male. After a while, they change genders and become female (except the Keepers). If they don't get pregnant and give birth, they die. If they do get pregnant and give birth, they become male again. This cycle repeats - no one's quite sure how old a Motie can get if they keep with the cycle.
  • Bizarre Alien Psychology: Inverted. Motie mediators assigned to human emissaries go mad trying to comprehend how they act.
  • Boarding Pod: After the Imperial battlecruiser MacArthur is taken over by Motie miniatures, the battleship Lenin's cutter is used to get a boarding party onto the MacArthur by ramming through its Langston Field and into the ship.
  • The Captain: Blaine in The Mote in God's Eye, Renner in The Gripping Hand.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Due to the Alderson Drive, it only takes the blink of an eye to travel between star systems. However, the trip is only possible along certain "tramways" ending near a star, and ships spend days or weeks travelling interplanetary distances getting from one endpoint to the other, or to the target planet.
  • Colony Drop: the Moties got this one covered by virtue of there being no fissionables left in their star system. Luckily, there were plenty of asteroids around, until they were moved further out in the system to prevent further use as bombardment tools.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive, subverted: Horace Bury funds a war in The Mote In God's Eye. But in The Gripping Hand it's retconned that he was only doing so because he wanted his planet to have religious freedom. He still has shades of being a greedy bastard, however, and even in Mote he's shown eventually developing goals aside from his own personal profit and power.
  • Cow Tools: The toolroom "IQ" test used on the Motie ambassador ship, to determine the technical abilities of the humans they were visiting.
    • Some of the humans think it's an IQ test, but Motie culture is different. Their initial interpretation of the results is that the engineer, who does pretty well on the tool test, is an idiot savant and not worth communicating with, since in their culture the Mediators (who do all the talking) are completely uninterested in such things. All the humans who "failed" the test get a dedicated fyunch(click) (think personal translator); the engineer doesn't get one until after the Moties learn enough English to find out humans don't specialize to the same extent, and it later develops that the engineer's fyunch(click) has been slowly going insane (by Motie standards) since the engineer keeps talking to her about technical things.
  • Data Pad: The humans have PDA-like pocket computers.
  • Decade Dissonance: The Mote in God's Eye features the INSS Lenin, a massive battleship with a reputation of being a nigh-invincible mobile Depopulation Bomb (see immediately below). In the sequel, The Gripping Hand, 25 years later, the main character tools around in an aircraft described as if it was found and restored from the Alaskan bush.
  • Depopulation Bomb: Admiral Kutuzov has a certain reputation for this one, given his involvement in quelling a budding rebelion in a rather terminal manner for the local populace.
  • Explosive Breeder: Every species of Motie - except the Mediators and Keepers (Mediators are sterile physically-female mules; Keepers are sterile males).
    • It's at one point explicitly stated that the only method of contraception available for Moties is infanticide.
  • Fantastic Racism: Horace Bury after a traumatizing encounter with the Moties caused him to very quickly go from thinking the Moties represented a lucrative commercial venture to being a threat to the entire human race that must be exterminated, due to the involvement of the moties in the destruction of the INSS MacArthur, and his realizing their explosive population growth potential once outside the resource restrictions of their home system.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Alderson Drive, which operates more like a wormhole system, but not quite.
  • For Science!: The apparent motivation of some of the more... enthusiastic... researchers aboard the MacArthur.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: The Engineer ("Brown") caste of Moties, and also the miniature, non-sentient "Watchmakers", who can understand, re-engineer, and optimize completely alien technologies in minutes.
  • General Ripper: Admiral Lavrenti "The Butcher" Kutuzov, you do not want to be on a rebellious colony when he is around. Subverted in that he is right, right, right! in every possible way, at least according to his supporters.
  • Heads or Tails: Twice:
    • While the midshipmen are trying not to be captured, Horst Staley proposes flipping a coin when deciding what to do so his Mediator Fyunch(click) can't predict his decisions.
    • When the human expedition prepares to leave the Mote system, the Moties send them a gift ship full of alien technology. The human leadership decides to randomly cut up the technology into pieces in case the Moties designed any of it for nefarious purposes. While Lady Sally is directing the procedure she flips a coin to decide how many times to cut — because of the fear that the Moties could have been smart enough to predict how the humans would try to destroy the devices.
  • Heel-Face Turn: There is no doubt that Horace Bury's priorities switch from What Benefits Bury Most to What Benefits Humanity Most, i.e. ensuring that the Moties NEVER escape quarantine.
  • Hired Guns: Motie armies are run by Masters who typically take up whatever cause seems most profitable.
  • Humans Are Insane: To the Moties, we are all "Crazy Eddie" - we refuse to accept that some problems just don't have solutions, and persist in trying to Take a Third Option.
  • Humans Are Special: Charlie predicts humanity will take over Motie civilization after the next collapse and the Keeper more or less confirms it.
  • Humans Through Alien Eyes: We are as strange to the Moties as they are to us, perhaps more so. They don't regard humanity with fear, exactly, but they are confused by our biology and culture. Motie diplomats are trained to think exactly like the person they are negotiating with. Diplomats who think too much like humans are regarded as having gone insane.
  • Hyperspace Lanes: Alderson points. The one in the Mote leads into a red supergiant that serves as a bottleneck to Motie expansion until a new Alderson path is opened in Hand, by the ignition of a new star.
  • I Resemble That Remark: The Scottish engineer, when the first officer complains about his accent.
    Jack Cargill: Will you stop talking like that? You talk just like everyone else when you get angry!
    Jock Sinclair: THAT'S A DAMNED LIE!
  • Immortal Procreation Clause: Inverted. If the Moties don't get pregnant and give birth, they die young, and horribly.
  • La Résistance: In The Gripping Hand, the "Medina Traders" are effectively the La Résistance against the much larger "Khanate". There's also passing mention of a potential Mormon uprising in human space, towards the beginning of the book.
  • Market-Based Title: "The Gripping Hand" is titled The Moat Around Murcheson's Eye in the United Kingdom and some other countries.
  • Mate or Die: the Moties (technically, theirs is "get pregnant or die")
  • Mobile-Suit Human: Some Watchmaker Moties try to pull this off with a spacesuit and a severed head. Bury spots them through the faceplate and has nightmares for decades as a result.
  • Nuclear Weapons Taboo:
    • The Moties don't have nukes, though not by choice, as their system has run out of fissionables. Not to worry though, they found something just as good as nukes.
    • Subverted in the sequel, in that when several thermonuclear devices are used by Bury, who brought them "just in case" in trying to contain the Moties who have recently gained a new means out of their system, they're quite shocked/impressed with its capabilities.
  • Only Smart People May Pass: The "museums" on Mote Prime have complicated locks requiring you to solve scientific puzzles to gain entry, to ensure that barbarians won't get in before they can comprehend the contents.
  • Patron Saint: St. Barbara, patron of those in dangerous occupations. One Navy ship has a statue of her with fans to ensure that the candles will continue to burn in free fall.
  • Promotion Not Punishment: Commander Blaine gets one of these at the beginning of the book for leading his marines in a coup de main against a rebellious planet's shield generator. If he had failed the admiral would have had no choice other than orbital bombardment, killing most of the population and dooming what remained to a slow death by starvation. In the end, Blaine's action was successful, so he was promoted and given command of a battlecruiser
  • Ragnarok-Proofing: Later additions to the structure of the Motie museums are quite durable. They have to be, as the purposes of the museums is to preserve technology after the all-too-common falls of civilization in the Mote system, in the hopes that getting a head start on rebuilding civilization. The subway leading out of one museum is said by a motie protesting its being damaged to be thousands of years old.
  • Solar Sail: The Empire first learns of the Moties from a solar sail vessel coming from their star.
  • Spare To The Throne: Commander Roderick Blaine was the second oldest son in a noble family, who wanted nothing more than a Navy career and the chance to become Grand Admiral someday. His older brother George was in line to inherit the estates and title when their father retired but was killed in battle, leaving Rod as the heir. He is also related to the Imperial family, not too far down the line of succession.
  • Starfish Aliens: The Moties are a species that has deliberately evolved into multiple castes, all of which look odd by Earth standards, mostly because they're asymmetrical. Moties are described as looking something like a bipedal dog with two small, limber arms on one side and one strong, thick arm on the other.
  • Stern Chase: The second half of The Gripping Hand consists of a series of trips in various directions by the protagonists, to escape being killed or to buy time until the cavalry can arrive.
    "If someone tells me that 'a stern chase is a long chase' one more time." Joyce said, "I'll scream."
  • Take a Third Option:
    • Humans always look for the Third Option - to the point where the fatalistic Moties, condemned by their biology to two bad choices, consider us all insane for not understanding and accepting what is and must always be. Their term for humans is "Crazy Eddie", after a character in their folklore who's all about the (often absurd) Third Option.
    • At the end of the first book: The Motie mediators serving as ambassadors to the Empire manage to come up with a third option in spite of their race's inherent fatalism. Unable to talk humanity into letting them out of their system and facing the annihilation of their race, they manage to come up with a third option: humanity blockades the Mote.
  • We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future:
    • The Runner, Farmer and Engineer castes on Mote Prime. Engineers in particular are pretty much treated like portable autopilots. Justified in that the Moties bomb themselves back to the Stone Age every five generations or so, are aware of the fact, and keep the old methods around as preparation for the next time. Their high breeding rates further discourage automation, as a job done by a machine is one not done by a Motie.
    • Also seen in the Imperial Space Navy, where Word of God is that warships have large crews that are primarily there for damage control in combat. When not in a battle, most of what the ratings do on duty is make-work that could be done automatically, but isn't so that they don't get bored. By contrast, a passage in the short story Reflex (which originally was an early chapter of Mote that was cut for length reasons) indicates that civilian ships make widespread use of automation and have much smaller crews, something supported by the scenes aboard the "yacht" / auxiliary warship Sinbad in Hand.
  • With Due Respect: The correct way to contradict a Senator is to say "That turns out not to be the case."

The Magic Goes AwayCreator/Larry Niven    
Doorways in the SandNebula AwardDhalgren
The DispossessedHugo AwardThe Inverted World
Morgaine CycleLiterature of the 1970sMotel of the Mysteries
CoDominiumScience Fiction LiteratureThe Cold Equations

alternative title(s): The Mote In Gods Eye; Ptitlepo9za2yw
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