The Mote in God’s Eye
By Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Published by National Library Service the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Read by John Polk
I have read this book through several times over the past four decades. The first time was just after it was released and, not so strangely, it was considered a classic almost instantly. Well, why not? Two of the leading authors of the day were collaborating on a first contact story and other leading authors were bestowing high praise on the work and you know what? It was not just the usual fellow author’s bland recommendation for the book jacket.
I forget which pair of fantasy and/or SF writers used to scribble out such words of recommendation for each other, but I do recall that at least once the recommendation was something like “He’s done it again!” No, this was not like that. This book garnered heart-felt praise from some of the top writers of the day.
This was not a simple story about two ships meeting in space, but a clash of cultures and technologies between two entirely different species. It takes place when the Second “Empire of Man” (From Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history) is on the ascendance, but still meeting with resistance and rebellion especially in the outlying sectors. The men of the Empire have just managed to pull themselves out a dark age and are trying to rebuild Mankind’s sphere of influence into a peaceful and prosperous union.
I cannot say all is going well; there are problems and some of those problems are on the ship of Commander Lord Roderick Blaine, INSS MacArthur. They are supposed to be on their way back to the center of the Empire, after a stop on New Scotland, a world on the far side of the Coalsack Nebula when their plans are changed by the sighting of an alien vessel diving toward the sun of the New Caledonian system. Rod orders his ship to intercept the probe, but when they retrieve it and take it back to New Caledonia it turns out everyone on board is dead, but none of them are even remotely human, making them the first truly sentient aliens encountered by humans and Rod may have killed them.
In spite of that bad start Rod and his ship are assigned, along with another ship commanded by an Admiral Kutuzov to travel to the most likely system the probe might have come from. What they discover there might be the greatest threat to humanity mankind has ever met.
The people of that system (The Mote, so named because from the New Caledonia system it looks like a small bit of light at the edge of a much larger star, Murcheson’s Eye) are called Moties and have an advanced space-going technology. They are a specialized species with members who have been specially bred over the millennia to their jobs so anything a Motie does is superb. Indeed, they seem to do everything better and faster than humans can and the only thing that keeps them bottled up in their own system is the fact that they have not discovered two key technologies the humans have; faster-than-light travel and a force field called the Langston field. Later it turns out they have the first and as time goes on it seem likely that now they know it exists, they will develop the second too.
The question is, can humans dare to let the Moties out of their system and if they do, can the Moties be depended on to remain at peace with the human worlds?
I’ll admit that when I found this, I thought it was the Audible recording by L J Ganser, but I was in no way disappointed by Mister Polk’s reading! It was a professional, no-nonsense reading that had me listening from the start.
It would have been easy to use various funny voices for the Moties. Physically they are cartoonish in appearance, covered in fur and with a natural expression on their faces that looks like a gentle smile, and while the Mediator class (those Moties bred for communications and deal-making) has the ability to mimic any voice perfectly, it still might have been tempting for a reader to use cartoonish voices for them or especially the Master Moties. Fortunately, Mister Polk gave them the respect they deserved and make no attempt to make them sound like unusual and funny-sounding aliens.
So, in my opinion, the book remains a classic of science fiction and John Polk’s reading was excellent.