The Mote in God’s Eye (Moties #1) (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

themoteingodseye1

That’s because you helped write it, Bob.

A recent conversation in the Couch household:

“So, um, I’m reading this book…”

“As usual.”

“It’s about these far future humans who encounter unknown aliens in another system.”

“As usual.”

“So, these aliens… they’re kind of like humans, except they’re asymmetrical.”

“That’s weird.”

“Well, because they evolved outside of gravity or something like that, but anyway…”

“Obviously.”

“Well, yeah, but anyway, these aliens… they have a caste system…”

“A caste system? Shit… even in space.”

“Yeah…”

“…”

“…”

“Are the darker ones at the bottom?”

“…yep…”

“Hijole. They’re not going to make this into a movie are they?” (He thinks everything I read is going to be made into a movie.)

“Oh, no! Oh god no. At least, I hope not… But I didn’t even tell you the worst part.”

*stares*

“The, er, bottom castes are BasicallyBlueCollarWorkersWhoDoTheHardDirtyConstruction JobsAndThey’reCalledBrowniesAndTheyCallTheWhitesAboveThemMasters.”

*eye blinks*

“It was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards.”

“Puta madre. Those are some shit awards, then.”

“…yep…”

*****

themoteingodseye3Characterization is one area where Hard SF often fails due to its efforts to strengthen the enamel of genre constructs and systematize SF elements. Those annoying characters with their motivations and feelings and drama—if they’re too simple, they won’t interest readers, but if they’re too complex, they don’t foster the mechanized tone.

Hard SF, dammit, wants systems. Needs them.

Enter The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), the first of the Niven and Pournelle series Moties, which sounds like a slang term for pubic lice. An earnest attempt by the authors to tell a first-contact, space opera tale with Hard SF elements. The scope as grandiose as the face of God, the tale covers a lot of mechanical space, with its talk about Alderson drives and solar sails and Langston Field generators, but it also covers a lot of diplomatic space. Which brings us to the problem of character:

During a routine mission in the year 3017, Commander Roderick Blaine and his crew of the INSS MacArthur make first contact with aliens. These aliens, which the crew calls “Moties” after the system they inhabit, are asymmetrical, hermaphroditic, and technologically advanced, thanks to their strict caste system based on biological characteristics. But their specialized engineers aren’t aware of the existence of Langston fields, so they remain trapped in the Mote system with only one Alderson point that they cannot use. Commander Blaine isn’t sure if this is a bad thing.

Within Motie society are several occupational classes, all based on color and cognitive ability:

  • Engineers- called “The Browns” by Blaine’s crew. They can fix everything, but have limited language capabilities.
  • Watchmakers- termed “Brownies” by Blaine’s crew, which are little, nonverbal beings who escape captivity on the MacArthur and cannot be located for most of the story, although they seem to get into everything and cause all kinds of confusion. But keep them away from water or– wait, that’s Gremlins.
  • Mediators- a.k.a. “Brown and Whites,” who primarily communicate and behave as diplomats with their human contacts.
  • Warriors – the strangest looking of the society, bred specifically for battle. Their existence is concealed from the humans for most of the novel.
  • The Masters- which Blaine’s crew terms “The Whites.” But they never call them “The Whities.”

Systematizing an alien race in such a way conforms to the already established practices of stereotyped characterization in Hard SF. Less important than the elements of mechanical and celestial physics, characters move and speak like wooden dolls, most often conforming to the gender and ethnic stereotypes of the day. Some authors might even adopt simplistic pop psychology to explain motivations, but still, sometimes the machines have more personality (and page time) than the people.

But if you’re writing a sophisticated space opera within the boundaries of Hard SF, how do you fit nuanced diplomacy within the rigors of explainable science?

Answer: Ask Kim Stanley Robinson. (It probably involves the four temperaments, a couple of mood disorders, and a constitutional congress).

Niven and Pournelle arrived too soon for that. Here’s the recipe they used:

  1. Use a system that already exists, preferably one that people have seen.

In other words, copy Star Trek. Need more nuance, but don’t want to get all prosy? Ditch the cardboard ethnic stereotypes and adopt cardboard ethnic stereotypes from television. Larry and Jerry’s choice: Star Trek: The O.G. Base your Top Dog off of Captain Kirk and people will automatically imagine his soft-lit eyes and forceful, staccato tone. We’ve seen 79 episodes of this guy already, so no context or expatiation required. Plus, all standard James T. models come with a free Scottish engineer and a strong-until-she-swoons woman. You can wipe your hands of two more characters with this technique.

  1. Apply physics to biological developments as much as possible.

Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, these Motie folks first evolved outside of a gravity well, so limbs and spines are all kinds of wacky. (Yet, they’re bipedal like us. Odd.) And since the Motie body doesn’t have to devote its adaptations to gravity, their bodies are free to develop more functional physical forms, such as one large strong arm for construction work, two smaller arms on one side for nurturing young. Apparently, a lack of gravity leads to a more specialized workforce. WE DON’T NEED COLLEGE, WE JUST NEED TO GET RID OF GRAVITY!

  1. And then apply those biological developments to personality and cognition.

Those little dark guys that are part of the fix-it class don’t need to talk or think much to do their jobs. That’s an excellent character decision and not racist at all.

 

Of the negative reviews I’ve read, a tiny percentage barely hint at its racism. Instead, most socially-minded reviews complain about the female character. Yes, I said THE female character. Her name is Sally and she’s hilarious. She thinks funny things like, “but still she missed what she thought of as girl talk. Marriage and babies and housekeeping and scandals: they were part of civilized life” (p. 246).

Sally also likes to clown on the Moties. Check out the humdingers she tries on her Motie guide:

Motie: But you marry to raise children. Who raises children born without marriages?

Sally: There are charities.

AND

Motie: Pills? How do they work? Hormones?

Sally: That’s right.

Motie: But a proper woman doesn’t use them.

Sally: No. (p 487)

Sally is hilarious.

Sally’s not the only problem, though. Other systemic social problems leer from every corner of this meticulously ordered novel. While the Star Trek stuff is an obvious tribute (and possibly a good-natured jab at its poor science), Larry and Jerry failed to learn from Roddenberry’s struggles to develop his diverse cast. While many ethnic groups are present in Mote, all conform to generic stereotypes, from the isolated, paranoid Arabic crewman, to the Irish crewmates who believe the missing Motie Watchmakers are Gaelic faeries from olden times. (Don’t feed the Watchmakers! Wait, that’s Gremlins again.)

And, if you still don’t see the racist parallels, the Moties speak in clicks, like some of the tribes in southern Africa. But Larry and Jerry don’t bother to research the proper way to annotate those clicks. They just spell them out: “Fyunch(click).”

Fyunch(click) me.

It was pointed out to me after my Stand on Zanzibar post that I might be trying to rush history faster than it actually occurred. (Feminism a ‘70s thing and not a ‘60s thing? Balderdash! I thought.) But this is 1974, which seems a little late for an acclaimed SF novel to harbor such antiquated stereotypes. SF is supposed to be ahead of the progress game.

It is possible to read this book and not notice the inherent racism. “Brownie” only meant dessert for most of my life. That’s White privilege– the privilege to not have to think about this kind of stuff. The privilege to be insulated from the knowledge and concern about non-White disparagement. But boy, do some White people get all huffy if you dare suggest they might have overlooked other perspectives.

[UPDATE: Fritz Leiber JUST used “brownie” as an ethnic slur in The Wanderer (1964). Don’t tell me Larry and Jerry never read Leiber. This is so fyunch(click)ing racist now.]

 

Themoteingodseye2A perfect example of the need for diverse SF, because the whitewashed perspective, even when not coming from an unintentionally hurtful place, is so potentially ignorant, so potentially unthoughtful of how things might be interpreted. I can’t imagine a person of color wanting to finish this novel. I might not have noticed it myself if I didn’t share a household with a person who has been called “brownie” numerous times.

 

Heinlein guided. Heinlein recommended. Need I say more?

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42 thoughts on “The Mote in God’s Eye (Moties #1) (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

  1. Sounds like the Couch household (Couch-hold?) had a bad case of the Moties. 😦

    So, to further the Trek comparison, the watchmakers are just tribbles, right?

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Lol, couch-hold. Moties… what a dumb name.

      Tribbles are actual pets. The Watchmakers are Motie people, but biologically-determined, socially-enforced caste bred for specific jobs. And the human diplomats just go along with it like it’s not a big deal. And call them a disparaging racial slur to reinforce the separation. WHY NIVEN WHY?

      Liked by 1 person

      • From now on I’m going to use Moties as shorthand for any kind of vague affliction/annoyance. It sounds like “mopey cooties,” or something you really should talk to your optometrist about.

        I kinda doubt NivPourn intended it to be offensive, though it shows how endemic casual racism has been in US culture when nobody questions identifying a fictional species by, say, color or function… And nobody seems to have noticed it, 40 years after it was written…

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          No, this was definitely not intended to be offensive. It’s unobtrusive ethnic fun!

          But imagine trying to explain this story at the dinner table to your immigrant husband and in-laws.

          Like

      • Randolph says:

        Watchmakers are non-sapient. Helpful little mice…except when they turn into pests.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          I got the impression from the Mediators that the Watchmakers were a degenerate life form, meaning they started out more advanced. I also got the impression that the Watchmakers are not just helpful little mice, but highly intelligent, but bred to completely obedient.

          “I believe the Browns were the original form. When the Whites became dominant they bred the subspecies to their own uses. Controlled evolution again, you see.” It is added that some forms probably evolved by themselves, but that’s comes from the humans speculating about it, and the Motie mediators later give an entirely different idea of the kind of control the Whites have over the subservient populations.

          But even if we take the Watchmakers out of the equation, we still have a caste system with the Browns (darker, worker people, also bred to be nonverbal) on the bottom and the White masters at the top.

          And there is no narrative judgement on that very important detail. Although there is, oddly, narrative judgement about the meat-species, “another of our relatives, bred for meat in a shameful age, a long time ago…”

          And MY POINT IS this an embarrassing story to share with people when they ask you what you’re reading about. Much of the book made me cringe, oh woe betide my social sensitivities as they have gotten me nowhere in life.

          Like

  2. Tak Hallus says:

    (I shouldn’t be answering this, since I come from 14 years in the past, however…)

    If you read my column, you know I’m particularly sensitive to ill racial and gender characterization. Also, I’m not White (though I can “pass” for White, provided I don’t mention my religion).

    That said:

    1) The “Whites” are not portrayed sympathetically. Race relations can be depicted satirically without condoning the depicted culture (if, in fact, Niven/Pournelle were doing it intentionally). One might as well complain that the “N word” is used in Blazing Saddles, also from 1974.

    2) The Soldiers are red. Does that make them a Native American metaphor? Had they been yellow, would that have been a slight against Asians? Blue, a slight against Celts?

    3) The universe of the humans is scarier/uglier (race and gender-wise) than the, imaginatively worked out, Moties. On the other hand, the Co-Dominion was always a stupid, soap-opera-y universe.

    4) I don’t think Star Trek was necessarily the archetype for the characters. Star Trek borrowed heavily from earlier tropes. And, by the authors’ admission (at least Niven, who invented the Moties, not the Co-Dominion), the characters were intentionally cardboard. Indeed, the only developed characters are the fyunch(clicks). Whitbread and Staley? Really? 🙂

    5) Re: Motie evolution, as I recall, the Moties on the planet also are not bilaterally symmetrical… but they started out that way. Moties look weird because they wanted to look weird, not because physics made them that way.

    6) There are lots of problems with Mote, including the fact that the climax of the book occurs two thirds of the way through, and Pournelle’s contribution is the poorer half.

    7) The Arab was not a crewman. He also wasn’t a good character.. but he wasn’t a crewman.

    8) You might well have something with the Browns and the Whites (although I find it more of a satire of class distinction than of race distinction–the Engineers are very smart, and the Leaders are jerks). But the Brownies *are* Gremlins. Specifically, Brownies are evil Scottish Fairies–and the crew is largely from Celtic planets. It’s a real stretch to say that, when the crew calls the Watchmakers “Brownies,” their head is thinking disparaging thoughts of Black people.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Thanks for commenting, Tak. I was hoping for some feedback from fans of the novel:

      1. I agree that the Whites are not portrayed sympathetically. Neither are the other groups, which is why this didn’t work for me. I also didn’t read this as satire. If it is, this is no Blazing Saddles and Larry and Jerry are no Mel. Besides, I never sensed that social politics was their top priority with this novel. To me, it was just a convenient way to characterize an alien race.

      2. I honestly don’t remember the Warriors’ color. The narrative didn’t spend as much time on that part. Understand that I think the color assignments stem from ignorance, not racism.

      3. If you are referring to human universe of this novel, I thought the humans of this novel came off as cardboard bland with fifties-style social sensibilities. Not scary, not ugly, just a fuddy-duddy male perspective. I tend to appreciate the perspectives of other White male SF authors who offer fresh, innovative depictions of our ugly universe. If you are referring to our own universe, I think we can respond that way to any criticism of past SF in order to shut down the conversation.

      4. Star Trek was certainly the model for this captain and crew. Yes, Star Trek borrowed from earlier tropes, SF builds on its predecessors, but the captain and engineer are canned Star Trek. (Intentionally cardboard is my point– it is clear the authors didn’t want human complexity. Or alien complexity for that matter. The Fyunchclicking Fyunchclicks were stale, too.)

      5. I don’t remember that. I just remember the crew and Sally speculating on the possible evolutionary history of the Moties.

      6. There was a climax? (I’m kidding. I’m kidding. It was quite dull to me, though.)

      7. Sorry I got the occupation of the Arabic character incorrect. Was he a diplomat?

      8. I don’t the crew is thinking disparaging thoughts about people of color. I don’t think the crew is thinking anything. I think it’s weird that the characters don’t see the parallels. I think it’s weird that the authors don’t comment on the parallels. If this novel is intentionally about racism, it was done poorly and from an arrogant White perspective. But I think it comes from ignorance, not arrogance. I got that the Moties were all originally from the same people pool, and they were genetically-engineered for certain tasks. (And the Mote Brownies are not evil faeries. The Irish crew members make that assumption because, apparently, all Irish crewmen are superstitious. Haha so funny.)

      This felt less like a successful satire on ethnic relations and more like an onslaught of cheap, ethnic jokes. It would not hold up to modern sensibilities.

      In my part of the world, “brownie” is a slur used against Hispanics.

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      • Tak Hallus says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Megan.

        Horace Bury, the Arab, was a merchant.

        Re: “Brownies,” I think you’re missing the point. If anyone was going to be called “Brownies” the way you’re talking about, it’d be the brown-furred Engineers.

        They aren’t. The Moties that are called “Brownies” are specifically the little monkey-like, non-sentient creatures that act like evil little fairies. They do nice things for you, like fix your coffee pot, if you leave them food, but ultimately, they take over the ship and “fix” it into non-functionality. They are not actually members of the Mote race, but engineered relatives. It’d be as if we Uplifted monkeys to be electricians.

        I am not discounting all of your points–I think it’s an astute observation that Pourniven portrayed the darks on bottom and the whites on top and mulattos in the middle. At the same time, you’re conflating the Engineers and the Watchmakers and drawing a conclusion that isn’t well supported by the book itself.

        Re: the Engineer, certainly my father believed Sinclair was a Scotty rip-off. I’m not so sure. Was Brin’s Emerson D’anite also a Scotty rip-off? “All Engineers are Scotsmen, and all Scots are Engineers,” he said. I should ask David about it.

        In any event, I didn’t get Kirk from Blaine, and I read the book at a time when Star Trek was pretty much my entire world. 🙂

        Thanks for provoking an interesting conversation!

        Gideon

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Hi Tak, I was just about to respond to your thoughtful email. I’ve been busy and slow to respond to things that require long responses.

          Bottom line: I’m not missing the point and I’m not conflating anything. “Brownie” is a racial slur, more common at the time of this novel’s publication. It’s not cool to use that term on any character, particularly little brown critters who clean and fix things.

          My essential argument about the novel is that the authors are so enamored by the systematic style of Hard SF, they systematized their imaginary alien race, rather than develop a sophisticated, unique, rich culture (and this is post-LHOD– inexcusable!). And the system isn’t even unique; it is a parallel of our human social system, and, if intentional, it was clumsy and unexplored in that way. But, because the humor is based on a slew of bad ethnic jokes, I believe the parallel is unintentional and not a metaphorical comment on our world. Hence, my argument that this is not an intentionally racist novel, but a prime example of White ignorance (of which I am guilty and have been gently reminded by dear friends, family, and coworkers.)

          By today’s standards, we would say this novel is insensitive.

          Am I overreaching at this? No. It makes me sad that others don’t see it. No wonder these times are bedecked with racial riots in the streets.

          On Star Trek: I read elsewhere that Niven and Pournelle have denied that this is based on Star Trek, but it looks like they get asked that question quite often, so i’m not unique in that observation. You grew up on TOS Star Trek, I grew up on TNG. Kirk is an archetype in my POV and Blaine fits the mold. I also read that NivPourn stated the “all Scots are engineers” thing. Again with the stereotypes to replace creative characterization… it bores me.

          But anyone who reads my blog regularly would predict that the Niven/Pournelle combo would not work for me. In fact, I was blatantly warned off by a few people. But I’m not done! My next NivPourn torture experience will be Inferno (next year)! And I look forward to your comments on that one!

          Like

  3. wildbilbo says:

    Interesting – I’ll have to put this on the list just to see if I read the same things into it.
    Cheers
    KT

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I’ll be curious to find out what you think. I don’t think I’m being oversensitive in this case. Race is a daily conversation in my household, so it’s always in the forefront of my mind, but I read stuffy, whitewashed SF and give it a pass all the time. But this novel doesn’t pass the “explain the plot to a person of color” test. Which is what I was trying to illustrate.

      It is certainly an unfortunately example of why some people in my life consider SF to be a white peoples’ fancy.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Rabindranauth says:

    Sounds like an Ignore with Extreme Prejudice to me. The little of it that might be interesting won’t outweigh the large swaths that are going to give me migraines.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      If the lazy stereotyping wasn’t the most interesting thing about the novel, I would have written a different review. Without that, it’s pretty dry. The diplomatic intrigue is less than intriguing.

      Like

      • Rabindranauth says:

        That actually sucks. So many people like this book I was actually expelcting to have a decent read of it whenever I finally get to it.

        Like

  5. This is a series?!?! Ugh. Having seen what these two get up to in other collaborative books, I’m going to go with extreme ignorance leading to racism. Whether or not it was intentional is beside the point I think. Why do people always shout, “but they didn’t mean it?!” when trying to make racism ok? Sometimes, I think, that makes it even worse because it simultaneously screams “unacknolwledged and unexamined priviledge.” And authors are people who I expect to be able to see the world. See it and talk about it with more insight than other people. So to me to say an author did something like that by accident is basically the same thing as saying they are a bad author.

    All this makes it hard for me to believe that the Ringworld novels are really awesome. But apparently they are? And it is only the collaborations with P that involve Niven in this kind of thinking?

    “Answer: Ask Kim Stanley Robinson. (It probably involves the four temperaments, a couple of mood disorders, and a constitutional congress).” If only more authors did this. What Would KSR Do?

    Anyway, you have now cemeted my decision to never ever read any of their other collaborations ever again. Oh well. My to-read list is too long anyway.

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  6. fromcouchtomoon says:

    The relative quiet this post has received is a bit unsettling, which makes me wonder if I’ve stepped on the toes of a fan favorite. I am not an oversensitive reader, though.

    I was really expecting a huge response with lots of other examples of Niven & Pournelle insensitivities. Since posting this, I’ve read up on these two, and the Internet is peppered with such commentary, not just about their fiction, but about their personal viewpoints. These men are not the poster boys of open-minded, welcoming science fiction, or even open-minded, welcoming political thought.

    The comment above that claims this is satire– I’ve seen no other claim of this. Not even fans have described it as such.

    There is the Bechdel test for women in fiction. Perhaps there should be a POC test, which is what I was trying to illustrate in my opening: “Would you feel comfortable describing the characters to a non-White person.”

    I’ll be reading Ringworld at the end of this month. And I have other Niven & Pournelle collaborations on my list, so we will see how the saga continues…

    Like

    • I can’t believe you’re actually going to force yourself to read more P-N books. You are a rock. Still, I am curious, though glad you’re reading them so I can read a short post about them instead of reading the whole things. All awards winners then?

      I was wondering a bit about the silence as well. Although I was assuming there would be more loud YOU ARE WRONGs. Because if I recall correctly my commentary on Lucifer’s Hammer and the racism there was the first time I ever called trolls home to my website to tell me I’m a dumb asshole.

      Yeah, the claim of satire struck me as pretty far-fetched, and I haven’t even read the book. (aka going on my other experiences with their work and your commentary thus far)

      A Bechdel for PoC is a great idea. And I think you’ve hit on a good one for it. Of course then assholes will also be able to pass every book they want because they just won’t care. Part of me is curious to read more about these two and their beliefs and part of me knows that is just watching a car wreck.

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        The nice thing about being a small blog is that I don’t attract much of anything at all, including trolls. Plus, I’ve long since dropped enough flaming liberal bombs to disinterest most fly-by readers who don’t appreciate my point of view. It’s a public service for them and me. (This is the only place in my life where I get to do that.)

        The NivPourn books I will read are award nominees, but I don’t think they ever won anything. These guys don’t exactly unite SF readers enough to get enough votes to win anything, and they aren’t recognized by the more critical juried awards. But still, I am a persistent little pest when I wanna be. So the NivPourn readings will continue… not for a while though. 🙂

        Like

    • Joseph Nebus says:

      Well, Mote has got a fandom reputation as one of the great pieces of 1970s science fiction, particularly of the early military-SF kind and of the sort that gets called Hard SF because … well, because there’s a lot of tech talk, not because the science is actually hard. But the combination of first-contact stuff, a then-novel method of jumping around space, and a rather famous editorial pass by Robert Heinlein that by all accounts vastly improved the story gave it a tremendous reputation.

      That said I haven’t read it since I was a teenager.

      Like

  7. reading SFF says:

    I read some Niven/Pournelle in my teens, mainly because they were featured in my Dad’s enormous SF book collection. I do not remember that there were several types of Moties, so I probably did not notice the racism. I also did not notice the thing with the woman. The only thing about the book that I do remember is the unrestrictable breeding of the Moties, which had me thinking about what would happen on Earth today or in our life times as the Earth’s population would grow.

    I’ve not read Ringworld but I plan to read it one day. I wonder whether I am better at noticing such things now than 15 years ago. Maybe I should give Ringworld a try some time soon.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I need to read Ringworld, too. I think people tend to agree that Niven is less offensive when he’s on his own, and that’s been consistent with my experience so far. I don’t think anyone would notice the racism, other than people who are especially sensitive to seeing Whites on top on and Browns on bottom, all of the time. Talk about “Whites” and “Browns” is a daily conversation in my household (not even slightly exaggerating), so it’s a theme I’m bound to pick up on, while others may not notice it at all.

      I agree that the reproduction issue was primarily what Niven and Pournelle were trying to convey. It didn’t really affect me, perhaps because overpopulation is already a big topic in many SF novels by this time, and perhaps because, by the time of the major revelation, I just didn’t care and wanted it to be over.

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  8. Randolph says:

    One reviewer back when, on reading this, commented, “I’ve just seen a brand-new Stutz Bearcat,” which about sums it up. The human culture is a lot like late 20th century, early 21st century human culture, and therefore not at all plausible—they are after all as almost as far in time from us as we are from the Crusades. What made the book powerful was the sense of the whole species tragically doomed by its biology. They were much older than humanity and yet had not advanced beyond, roughly, the human 22nd century. (Biology-is-destiny stories were a big part of that period; James Tiptree wrote many of them.) N & P also devised a physics which gave space travel a naval feel, which was fun.

    This sense of doom is now part of our everyday intellectual furniture, sigh, and space navy stories are now cliched, so I suppose the story has aged badly. Perhaps in another generation it will regain some power.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Most of the criticism I’ve seen about this book is exactly that: the advanced human society isn’t all that advanced. It seemed to me that was intentional, an aesthetic that Niven and Pournelle were trying to achieve, so not something that bothered me.

      The thing is, the Moties are not doomed by their biology– the Whites control it. It is strange to me that the Moties are depicted as doomed when the Whites are able to exercise such great genetic engineering feats to create and enforce this caste system. They can do that, yet they cannot genetically engineer a solution to their reproduction problem.

      The story has aged badly. It is a seventies book that feels like it was written in the fifties.

      Can you imagine the public response if this was made into a movie, as is?

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      • Randolph says:

        It was dated even when it was published. The objection that the Motie rulers and leaders ought to have been able to solve their population problem was made at the time the book was published as well. One simply has to grant that the Whites failed at it, or the story is pointless. Given, so far, our own failures in that area, it seems not that implausible,

        What made the story work was the physical sweep of the story and the profound tragedy of the Moties. “Crazy Eddie” is a sardonic view of Western technological optimism, reflective of a sense that perhaps, just perhaps, humans are as much cursed by biology as Moties. (Niven always was big on biology-is-destiny story elements.) As we are now looking at a planetary disaster in which overpopulation plays a huge role, that view seems more and more justified.

        I think a movie might be rather popular, actually. The area that would be most problematic would be the human culture, which is incredibly white, male, and Victorian, except when it is medieval. (Pournelle is a fan of feudalism, and this comes through clearly in the book.) The characterization of Lady Sally would be more troublesome than the coats of the Moties. Still, American filmmaking is very white. Likely the public would accept it.

        One thing that authors’ conservatism blinds them to is just how stupid the 19th-century British Admirality was—the British won their empire on technical superiority and brutality, not military finesse. Another thing N+P conveniently miss about their actual historical model is that Victorian scientists and explorers were very much on-board with European imperialism: pacifism was not mostly their stance. N+P, probably mostly P, wanted to take some swipes at the critics of war, so scientists are made into fools.

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        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Sorry, Randolph. I got busy with things and have been slow to comment. I enjoy reading your insights to the novel, (I think I found your very interesting blog review about it), but it doesn’t mesh with my own perspective.

          “Physical sweep,” “sense of doom,” and “profound tragedy” are not words that define my experience with Mote. I can see that the authors were aiming for that, but it fell flat. I’ve read far more sweeping and tragic novels from the previous decades, and I’m a relative novice to vintage SF. Niven (and Heinlein) are fun to read for other reasons, but not for drama or affect or scope.

          And it doesn’t stand up to our current times. Biological determinism is exactly what up-and-coming generations of SF readers are revolting against. The times are a-changing and the message here isn’t relevant to new readers.

          American filmmaking is under fire for being too White. And American viewers are not White. American SF readers are not White. Which is back to my essential point: Whites on top + Browns on bottom + racial slur used to characterize the non-sapient, degenerate critters + little to no narrative commentary on that social structure = not acceptable to me.

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          • Randolph says:

            Like “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn, which renders the book inaccessible to many modern readers, even though the book is a damning condemnation of racism and slavery. There’s another racist trope in Mote, though, which more thoroughly damns the book: the Moties are fast-breeding smart aliens. The more I think about it, the less I believe Motie biology and culture. I suspect real Malthusian disasters look more like us.

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          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Aside from the most assiduous censors, I think most readers get what Twain was doing, and I think there has to be a greater level of current realism to achieve that end. NivPourn’s Moties are just too cartoony to be a good metaphorical device.

            Like you, I couldn’t buy the Moties, for the reasons you said others brought up at the time of publication. And yes, I think some of the most successful SF novels are based on our own impending disasters, for exactly that reason: they hit closer to home, therefore they are more compelling.

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  9. Jesse says:

    My quiet is related to the following formula:

    hard sf + white male armchair philosophizing + 70s mainstream genre + blase experience reading Ringworld = a book Jesse probably isn’t interested in spending hard-earned cash on; let’s let Megan work it over…

    Thanks for taking one for the team.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Always happy to suffer for the cause.

      It’s posts like these, and their ensuing discussions of minute details about fictional aliens, that make me realize what a lame hobby I have chosen for myself, and why I change the subject when people ask me what I do for fun.

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  10. As we have discussed, I am strangely averse to classic SF. You seem to indicate that you expect a more progressive attitude from ’70s SF, and, of course, you have the knowledge and experience to back that up. Is that an accurate read of your viewpoint? I’m surprised; I would expect any pre-’80s SF to be laden with what we would consider outdated perspectives.

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    • Hestia says:

      Many ’70s novels have problematic elements, but this one’s pretty bad, especially for being an award-winner. Honestly, you could find novels written in the 1870s that are more progressive on race and gender than this one 🙂

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        I try to judge these novels based on their publication decade, so I definitely agree with Hestia. And by the ’70s, even the ’60s obsession with hippie free love wears off and SF authors start to seriously tackle the most stagnant of social issues.

        Plus, keep in mind the dates of major Civil Rights events in the US. 1954, Brown v Board of Ed., 1964, US Civil Rights Act, women start wearing pants, the public school bussing debates of the ’70s… Those decades experienced an upheaval in social structure, and SF authors tend to be, if not at the forefront, then certainly paying attention and commenting on those things. Regardless of what the SPs say, I think most of us are attracted to SF because of its tendency to address the plight of the oppressed, and not just for space rocket pwew pwew.

        Even today’s most popular SF reflects our culture’s most passionately debated issues: gender, sexuality, race, immigration.

        We still see a great deal of tokenism in the post-war decades, but that’s a step up from the all-White worlds of ’30s and ’40s SF.

        And actually, just as we see in ’80s society, ’80s SF seems to veer away from the more hot button issues to become more shallow, more individualistic, and more homogenous. The ’60s and ’70s provide much more exciting SF in terms of social progressiveness, though, by today’s standards, not always conveyed in the most sensitive or politically correct way.

        But, as I told Hestia below, Niven seems to be about a decade behind his peers in terms of social maturity. This book is such a bad introduction to ’70s SF. Even its fans, as you see in the comments above, admit that Mote feels like a ’50s novel.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Hestia says:

    Gah. This book…just…just…no. I read this at least 20 years ago, and I remember commenting somewhere afterwards that it was “hilariously anachronistic, even for the time it was written.”

    I actually forgot about the ethnic caste system of the moties (though I remembered there was only the one woman, and she was ridiculous.) The racism I remembered related to the moties’ reproduction and the fears of what would happen in the long run…suspiciously akin to what some white racists fear.

    My hazy recollection of Ringworld is of equally cardboard characters and a story (such as it is) that just…fizzles. But probably a bit less noxious than MOTE, yes.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Exactly! And it’s not like White racists practice much birth control, either, so is it overpopulation they fear, or overpopulation of certain others? And I didn’t get the sense that Niven and Pournelle picked up on this little hypocrisy, but rather reinforced it.

      I’m reading Integral Trees right now, and I’m really enjoying it. I can tolerate Niven’s cardboard characters as long as he keeps his scientific cleverness cast on the setting and not the people. Plus, Integral Trees is an ’80s book, and it seems like Niven is always a decade behind his peers in terms of maturing social views.

      But I’m still wary. He could piss me off any moment now.

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  12. […] Heinlein-inspired Emergence (1984) and hated the stodgy, Hard SF, first contact classic, The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) by stuffy White dude duo Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. While most readers agree with me […]

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  13. […] The actual people-doing-stuff part of the plot is rather interesting enough, though lame when character motivations don’t necessarily match their backgrounds (Minya goes from traumatized, man-hating warrior to GiveItToMeNow in six days). In a short book, Niven can get away with jolty plots, gender ignorance, and psychological neglect when the world-building is just so cool. But if he substitutes world-building for diplomacy and adds 300 pages— no. […]

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  14. […] read either, I’ll let you guess which is which.) And people, I know you LOVE the Moties, but it’s lame and stiff and boring, and I don’t think readers-of-color would […]

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  15. psikeyhackr says:

    Can overpopulation combined with technology be more important than racism? Is this perceived racism why the Mote in Gods Eye much more highly rated? LOL I think it is better than Dune.

    Many of our real world problems today are about population and technology with the growth of consumerism? More consumers buy and throw away more junk.

    Jet planes would have been hard SF in 1900, now they contribute to Cli-Fi.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      See, the term “perceived racism” comes with its own loaded assumptions, lack of empathy, and disrespect. I would counter “perceived racism” with “perceived innocuousness.”

      No, I think people have chilled out nowadays about population growth and Malthusianism. Yes, lots of sf writers played with the ideas of population growth (Brunner did it better, btw) when it felt like an impending disaster (often with racist undertones because it was all about blaming certain countries), but now we see this is more about resource use, abuse, and allocation, and, as you bring up, a severe addiction to consumerism. I don’t think Moties addresses consumerism, but that’s beside the point. I found this book to be dated and boring and sexist and racist (due to ignorance– simply not taking the time think how it might impact different kinds of readers– not aggression).

      Like

  16. RubeRad says:

    A little freaky, I just reread Mote (after ~20years) during breaks on jury duty for a multi-day trial, the search warrant and arrest was 2015-05-13, maybe at the same time as some of the early comments on this post were happening!

    Very interesting thoughts, I have to say I never heard ‘Brownie’ used in a racial context. Most negative use of ‘brownie’ I have heard would have to be ‘someone’s bakin’ brownies!’ (i.e. who farted?)

    Anyways, I can see how the white>mixed>brown might have arisen from a subconscious institutionalized racism on the part of PourNiv, but I think it’s fairly benign. The color scheme itself is not critical to the plot. Imagining it had been somehow reversed, like minis were snow-white, engineers were tan, mediators were mottled brown, and masters were silky jet-black, just drop those colors in to flat replace the original colors, the story would work just the same. Some might say it would add a nice touch of anti-racism to show that power structures can work in the other direction. (Although some might also complain of paranoia about black power ‘this is how horrible it would be if whites were not in control’ — you can’t win)

    And about women, I think it’s pretty clear PourNiv are trying to portray Sally as a feminist, a strong woman breaking out of the restraints that society is putting on her — and that her strong characteristics are her positive characteristics; that any latent girly-ness in her is a negative/weak side of her. At worst, I think you can say that PourNiv did a lame job of creating a strong female character.

    Also you (or some of the commenters) touch on various stereotypes: scottish, russian, etc. I think the book makes clear that these are artificial, that various planets around the empire reached back to the cultures that had an influence in their founding/settling, and intentionally created an amplified (and probably necessarily hackneyed) version of that, in a desire to manufacture some kind of ‘cultural heritage’ to unite themselves as a tribe. Look specifically at the description of Kutuzov’s (sp?) artificial russian-ness.

    Horace Bury, yes he is arabic&muslim, and he is a shrewd businessman, but I don’t get the sense that he is shrewd because he’s arabic/muslim (and I don’t get a sense of ‘thieving’ that might be part of negative arabic stereotypical baggage — it’s not like the jewy watto from star wars ep1). And yes he’s isolated, because he’s a prisoner, (correctly) suspected of involvement in the rebellion of New Chicago (which is not as far as I recall portrayed as an arabic/muslim rebellion; his co-conspirator who eventually rats on him has an anglo name)

    Obviously, OBVIOUSLY, these Motie folks first evolved outside of a gravity well, so limbs and spines are all kinds of wacky. (Yet, they’re bipedal like us. Odd.)

    That’s not correct, they deal with this quite explicitly near the end of the book, when Rod et al on the Commission are finally working through the evidence and figuring out the Moties’ lies/motivations. The Moties did not originally evolve outside of gravity, but due to expanding to low-gravity asteroid environments, they bred themselves into the strong-left vs double-articulate-right asymmetry.

    And, if you still don’t see the racist parallels, the Moties speak in clicks, like some of the tribes in southern Africa. But Larry and Jerry don’t bother to research the proper way to annotate those clicks. They just spell them out: “Fyunch(click).”

    Clicks are just part of Motie language, maybe it would have been nice to explain like (!)=click and spell it Fyunch(!) or something (I don’t know the proper rendering of a click, sorry I’m so racist), but usually their language is described as whistling or chattering, very high pitched and very fast. I think more like R2-D2 than what I think of African languages.

    Re Cap’n Kirk, I don’t really see the parallels at all. Rod Blaine is an aristocrat who would rather be a naval officer, Kirk is a womanizer and a fighter, Rod is very conscientiously order-bound, Kirk is a rebel.

    I’ll give you Sinclair=Scottie though, I thought that was a little too-close-to-home — except it’s backed up by other scottish characters, and a whole planet full of scottish wannabes (see artificial cultural stereotypes above)

    Anyways, very interesting observations, I still love the book, and am now digging Gripping Hand again. (Not sure if I’ll ever bother with the third book by Pournelle’s daughter)

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