The Mote in God's Eye
Guest review by Amaryllis Graybill, age 18
The Mote In God's Eye is a "what if we met aliens" story. It deals with the possibilities of an advanced, space faring human civilization making their first contact with an alien race. Their first contact with the alien race is not with the race itself, but with their technology in the form of a single spaceship.
The alien ship carries one person from the motie planet. It has large solar sails that it uses to travel through space, but they also act as a self-defense system to prevent rocks from destroying the delicate sails or the alien ship. They reflect sunlight on their target like a huge magnifying glass. I think the alien ship is awesome.
In the story, the humans come upon this space ship in space. The alien ship fires upon their ship with its solar sail's reflected light beam, apparently unprovoked. After the event, the leading scientists of the human race debate amongst themselves as to why the alien ship fired upon their ship. The more optimistic of the scientists think that the human craft simply triggered the solar sail's defense mechanism. The pessimistic scientists agreed that this could be the case, but that this might not be the only function of the defense system--it may have been an attack. Others had various views on the response of the alien ship. One commonly held view was, 'They're intelligent! Communicate with them!' Another reaction was, 'They're intelligent! Kill them!' This group of people saw the attack as violent. They reasoned that any race advanced enough to send out an interstellar ship could have equipped it to distinguish between inert and living targets, so they cannot be a benevolent race to build a ship that would fire on a spacecraft.
The emperor of the humanity's interstellar empire holds neither view. He decides that, for the good of the human race, we must communicate with the aliens no matter what their nature. But, he decides to err on the side of caution He insists that a heavily armed battle cruiser attend a civilian science ship on the mission to the star from which the alien ship came. Only the civilian ship, commanded by a military officer, will be allowed direct contact with the aliens.
The only woman allowed on the voyage is a sociologist from a influential family. This is unusual in the human society described in the book, which is somewhat reactionary in its views as a result of recovering from a long period of internal war. This also plays into the story's plot, it's not a case of bigotry by the authors. Also on the ship to communicate with the aliens was a distinguished tradesman. He decided to participate in the voyage to seek out personal gain and profit, although he claimed that it was also in the interest of the human empire and race. In part it is because of a series of circumstances where the government wants to keep him under observation. He sees the alien technology as a grand opportunity for getting a commercial advantage over his competitors.
This book is an interesting expedition into the prospects contacting of an alien race, whether good or bad. Niven and Pournelle have fun with the various possibilities, playing with the different social structures, the subdivisions and separate tasks, and the differences in methods of communication between the human and alien race. The authors explore the different aspects of each race by using standard, simple motive characters.
The goal of The Mote In God"s Eye is not to explore the philosophical aspects of the human race, but to explore those of an alien race. To accomplish this, each of the characters are somewhat stereotyped. In the context they are placed in, the stereotyping works to good affect. There is the heroic man, the thoughtful and softhearted woman, the conniving and planning trader, and the hero's various counterparts in the hero's crew. Each of these character types are needed to thoroughly display the aspects of the alien race in such a way as to make them understandable to the human reader.To fulfill their mission, the characters have to have strong character types to determine whether the alien race is dangerous or not, how the aliens' bodies and mind's work, and what the aliens have that is worth while to the human race.
As the characters begin to piece the pieces of information that they gather from studying and talking with the aliens, the story builds to reveal the ultimate plot of the book. The two overarching questions haunt the reader as his mind switches from one point of view to another: Can the aliens be trusted? Or are they too dangerous to live? Only time will tell, as the story wends its way through several intricate plot twists to the final climax then to a very satisfying end of the story.