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Literature / The Mote in God's Eye

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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 xenophilic scientists and the xenophobic military personnel with the human expedition.

Over the course of their interaction, the humans are trying to decide whether the discovery of other life in the universe is a cause for fear or 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 — he spends his life living in his own little bubble, blissfully ignorant and uncaring of the goings-on unrelated to his passion of astrophysics.
  • Aliens Never Invented the Wheel: The Moties never invented the Langston Field, which in combination with the red star at the other end of the only tramway out of their system has kept them trapped in their own system for millennia.
  • All Women Are Prudes: Mostly subverted. Sally, the only female member of the scientific expedition, horrifies the men by letting the Moties examine her (naked) body (because humanity's secrets don't include having two sexes, she says), and rolling her eyes at their embarrassment on seeing two alien animals change sex and Do It, which she finds scientifically important. But even she is a product of her culture: the Motie mediators take advantage of this by asking Sally about human reproduction, correctly guessing that she can be easily deflected from asking vitally important questions about Motie reproduction in return.
  • 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.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Come, I will conceal nothing from you". Renner (and Renner's fyunch(click!)) make a point of complete candor... perhaps because it puts other humans off-balance.
    • "I can't read your mind." Bury's fyunch(click!), continually trying to reassure him... and achieving just the opposite. (Especially since the first time it happens, Bury just happened to be worrying if his mind was being read. It was coincidence, but still....)
  • 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.
    • The Motie Masters, alternately, seem almost entirely motivated by self-interest.
  • 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 sex and become female (except the sterile Keepers and half-breed mediators). If they don't get pregnant and give birth, they die in a matter of weeks from hormonal imbalances. 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. Several Motie mediators assigned to human emissaries go mad trying to comprehend their behavior. The Mediator assigned to Captain Blaine is unable to comprehend the chain of command, and understand how one being can both give and responded to orders, while the mediator assigned to Chief Engineer Sinclair won't stop talking about engineering. The Motie rulers decide to stop assigning mediators to individual human authority figures because it's too hazardous to their mental health.
  • Blatant Lies: When Renner replays the recording showing the Motie probe to the Motie ambassadors it shows members of the Motie warrior caste, which the Moties had previously claimed were fictional demons, being ejected into space and destroyed by the light sail. At first Jock claims they must be statues of the Motie castes rather than real beings, but then Renner points out that one is clearly pregnant. Jock then tries to spin a story about the probe crew having been "demon worshipers". None of the humans buy it.
  • 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 traveling 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. Ancient excessive use of asteroids wiped out the species on the planet, which required recolonization. All the remaining asteroids and comets were moved into circular orbits to prevent further use as bombardment tools, a feat requiring staggering levels of fuel.
  • 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. 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 as a world-killer, given his past involvement in quelling a budding rebellion in a rather terminal manner for the local populace. It's not as if he's a murderer who enjoys the work, however. It's simply understood that since he's done it before, if the Empire orders him to wipe out the Motie planet, he WILL.
  • Dying Race: According to Whitbread's Motie, the Moties are this, culturally if not biologically. With every Cycle that passes, more of their home system's resources are used up in ways that cannot be easily repaired, and it becomes just that little bit harder for the next group of civilizations to climb their way up from barbarianism. Sooner or later, the damage will become so severe that they won't be able to rebuild civilization at all.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Horace Bury is not pleased with his first name, and devoted time, trouble and money to locating the Navy officer who suggested it to his father. Suffice it to say that the Navy officer does not enjoy the last laugh.
  • Enemy Mine: At the end of the first book, it is clear that human unity is greatly aided by the danger from the Moties.
  • Explosive Breeder: Every species of Motie - except the Mediators and Keepers (Mediators are sterile physically-female mules; Keepers are sterilized males). It's at one point explicitly stated that the only method of contraception available for them 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.
  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness: One of the questions that Chaplain Hardy concerns himself with is whether or not Moties have souls and can thus be opened to missionary activity.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Alderson Drive, which operates more like a wormhole system, but not quite. The fact that the drive only operates along specific "tramlines" between stars is central to the plot (and that of the sequel). Because the only tramline from the Motie system ends within the outer layers of a supergiant star no human has ever tried to travel to their system before, and the Moties have been trapped in their home system for their entire history.
  • FTL Travel Sickness: Starships travel between solar systems by using the Alderson Jump point that corresponds to the star they wish to go to. After the ship jumps and arrives at its destination, everyone on board suffers from confusion and disorientation for a short time. The effect also causes all operating automatic equipment, including computers, to activate randomly after a jump. Such equipment is therefore shut off pre-jump to prevent problems.
  • For Science!: The apparent motivation of some of the more... enthusiastic... researchers aboard the MacArthur. Some of the clues to the true nature of Motie civilization are missed as a result of Dr. Buckman being completely uninterested in anything that isn't a natural phenomena.
  • 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.
  • Homage: The fact that the chief engineer is Scottish is a clear homage to Star Trek: The Original Series. Word of God claims it was largely unintentional. They made the engineer Scottish because they had already worked out that the closest planets to the Mote would be Scottish in culture, they wanted a local to be one of the major characters, and Scots have a reputation for being good engineers. They were clearly aware of the homage, however.
  • Horde of Alien Locusts: If the Moties get off their homeworld, they would inevitably become this.
  • 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: Zig-zagged. In spite of having engineering skills inferior to those of the Motie engineering caste, humanity has developed Deflector Shields while the Moties have not, though several characters note that the discovery was mostly by chance. Just knowing that the Langston field exists is enough to let the Moties develop a similar field, and they immediately improve on it by developing a version that can expand to radiate away more energy and therefore last much longer than human-made shields. What really makes us special from the Motie perspective is that adult humans don't die of hormonal imbalances within a few weeks if we fail to reproduce.
  • 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!: Jock Sinclair, 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". Averted with the Mormon colony in the start of the book, who are quite concerned with how the Empire handles traitors. They go to ridiculous lengths to keep from appearing as adversaries to the Empire.
  • Living Museum Exhibit: The Moties let some humans visit their museum. Not only have they replicated entire habitats in the museum, but the museum also contains non-sapient Moties. It's hinted at as to what their purpose is, as they are called Meats.
  • 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.
  • Mundane Luxury: The Moties are incredibly envious of human women's access to contraceptives (or more accurately, of their ability to delay getting pregnant until a convenient time without dying of hormonal imbalances).
  • 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
  • Puny Humans: Moties are hyperspecialized, to the point that they are vastly superior to humans in their specialties. Warrior caste moties are superior soldiers and Engineer moties are superior engineers, etc. Several characters also note the inherent advantages of their asymmetrical design, noting that they have two arms for fine motor control in addition to another arm that is itself stronger than any human's.
  • Ragnarök 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.

  • Given the way the fact that the Empire of man is, well, an ‘’empire''; that the Imperial Navy is organized in a way very similar to the 19th Century British Navy (including being males only, starting very young); talking about sex ‘In the civilized portions of the Empire [is] left to books at present’; women (especially women of the aristocracy) are clearly second-class citizens (not even a single female scientist is brought on the exploration voyage); colonies are not independent but under direct Imperial rule; the government is ultimately run by the aristocracy and Emperor; it takes weeks or months by ship to get from planet to planet; it appears the book is Victorian England…Recycled IN SPACE!
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: When what had previously been two female miniature Moties begin enthusiastically mating in their holding pen, the crew abruptly cuts off the camera feed that had been showing their exploits ship-wide. Sally in frustration leaves her quarters and runs down to the holding room, only to realize with embarrassment what it looks like to have a "proper young lady" come running out-of-breath into a room to watch two animals mate.
  • Shout-Out: Human super soldiers are called "Sauron supermen," a reference to the villain in The Lord of the Rings.
  • Solar Sail: The Empire first learns of the Moties from a solar sail vessel coming from their star.
  • Space Sector: The action takes place in the Trans-Coalsack Sector, an administrative division of the Second Empire of Man.
  • 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 George 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.
  • Species Loyalty: Exhibited on both sides. The Moties quickly stop their current wars and present a (false) united front to humanity when they detect the human ships in their system. The humans unite in the effort to blockade the Mote when they realize the Moties are incapable of controlling their population growth.
  • 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.
    • Also in the first book, one Mediator shocks the others by killing her Fyunch(click). It is clear to the reader, however, that she realized that he faced a Sadistic Choice, and identified with him so thoroughly that she shared the dilemma and took this as the third option between suicide and risking the human race by capture.
  • 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 VIP is to say "That turns out not to be the case." Kevin Renner acknowledges the cleverness of what he should have done the first time it comes up, then uses it the second time to keep from causing an incident.

Alternative Title(s): The Gripping Hand