The Mote in God's Eye (Book Review)

Title: The Mote in God's Eye 
Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle  
Publisher: Pocket  
My Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5) 
Summary in a Sentence: The "Second Empire of Man" encounters aliens for the first time and they struggle towards the truth about this very alien race, in an excellent and gripping suspense novel that meticulously examines every aspect of First Contact and is devoid of the smut that characterises the vast majority of contemporary science fiction.

Good science fiction is often difficult to come by, especially if one looks at works written in the last decade. The genre has, sadly, in all to many instances, degenerated into little more than pornography in a futuristic setting. But one can still look back to the 70s and earlier and find many quality works, among them is The Mote in God's Eye, a masterpiece of science fiction writing in my opinion.

It tells the story of first contact between man and an extra-terrestrial alien race. This contact begins when a small probe propelled by a solar sail, arrives in the New Caledonia star system after a centuries-long trip from "the Mote", a small star that looks like a speck against the red eye of a red giant. The Imperial Navy Star Ship MacArthur under the command of Lord Roderick Blaine, heading to New Scotland for repairs after helping put down a rebellion, is the nearest ship and is sent to intercept. The lone crewmember of the alien ship dies of an apparent life-support system failure when Captain Blaine brings the ship aboard. The local viceroy decides to put together an expedition to the Mote to make contact with the race that sent this ship (although the Empire encompasses thousands of worlds, no sentient alien life had yet been discovered). Against the objections of pacifist scientists, the expedition consists of the MacArthur and an even bigger battleship under the command of a particularly ruthless Admiral Kutuzov who has orders to destroy MacArthur if there is any risk of the aliens capturing any Imperial technology (such as the Alderson Drive which allows for instantaneous travel between stars, and the Langston Field, a kind of forcefield). With MacArthur packed with a scientific team on top of her regular compliment, a Mohammedan businessman under house arrest on suspicion of treason, and Lady Fowler, a noble rescued from the revolt Captain Blaine helped quell (and who refuses to get off the ship), they embark for the Mote.

Unlike many novels of this genre, the authors consider every angle of first contact from economical, to political, to religious. They also consider all of these without the novel ever dragging and, interestingly, from the perpective of a Catholic empire that somewhat resembles the British Empire at it's height. I'm not sure why authors (who from their other works are clearly no friends of the Church) chose to do this, but it makes the story all that much more intriguing to the Catholic reader (and apparently to non-Catholics as well, as this is one of the more successful science fiction novels of all time and much preferred to its sequel, which I shall review later, which gives the reader a far less Catholic version of the Empire of Man).

The aliens are incredibly well done. They are totally alien without being so strange that the book is confusing or meaningless. They are so well developed that when a priestly character considers whether they might be ensoulled being or not, the Catholic reader can consider along with him. The mutual mistrust between the aliens (called "Moties" -- the novel makes the reasons for this nomenclature and the title of the novel clear) adds great suspence, for just as the human hold some things back, it's clear the Moties are holding something back (indeed, a terrible and potentially deadly -- to humanity -- secret).

The characters are for the most part well done. Although a few of them felt cliche, I still enjoyed them and didn't find this detracted from the novel (in fact, it was refreshing to read a book where every character didn't have to be "unique"). The book overall is excellently written and keeps the reader glued to the pages throughout.

Catholicism in the Novel

I want to return to the Empire of Man from this novel and its Catholic aspect because not only does it warm the cockles of my heart to see old-school Catholicism in a novel, it also tells us a lot about how non-Catholics percieved the changes wrought by Vatican II (especially when we compare the empire to its incarnation in the sequal). The Mote in God's Eye was first published in 1972 (Wikipedia is wrong on this point; I have a first edition copy which is copyrighted 1972), which means that it was most likely written during the late 1960s. The Novus Ordo Missae had not yet been released, Archbishop Lefebvre hadn't felt the necessity to form the S.S.P.X yet, the Pope had recently come out in favour of traditional teachings on contraception, and to outsiders the Church must have seemed to be pretty much the same as ever.

Although the word Catholic is never used in the novel, Catholicism is clearly the official religion of the Empire of Man. The MacArthur (the ship sent to the Moties' home world) is blessed by a Cardinal wielding an asperger before they leave on their trip, the ship carries a chaplain who is a celibate, Latin-speaking priest, and there is frequent mention of bishops and of "the Church" (upper case "c" is significant).

This Catholic Empire has some of the following peculiarities that also make the novel (inadvertently, no doubt) a source of some good moral examples:
  • Contraceptives are banned in the Empire. Lady Fowler explains to the Moties at one point how humans are always fertile (unlike the Moties) and that they can choose not to have sex if they don't want to get pregnant, but that contraceptives (which exist) are forbidden.
  • Slacks are not worn by women of the Empire -- Lady Fowler experiences the difficulties of wearing a skirt in zero gravity and is unhappy to be forced to wear some sort of "space bloomers" to maintain modesty aboardship.
  • Only men serve in the Imperial Navy; Lady Fowler is in fact the only woman on board MacArthur and even then the captain is not happy (even though he loves her and eventually marries her).
  • Chaperones: Lady Fowler is never alone with any man aboard the MacArthur and her quarters are kept strictly seperate and jealously guarded (if memory serves, she is given the cabin of a high-ranking officer to ensure privacy). The word chaperone is explicitly used, even.
  • "Prudery": The Officer of the Watch switches off the viewscreens when the Moties start mating so that no one will see the impure sight. The Moties are told about monogamy and that this is the only acceptable sexual relationship in the Empire. There are strong allusions to fornication being verboten, although I don't believe it is explicitly mentioned.
  • The Empire is a strict Monarchy, not a democracy with a figurehead. While the Emperor is not an absolute monarch, he is clearly the uncontested ruler of the Empire. It is also patriarchical; there are no female governors, senators, or the like mentioned.
  • There is no religious liberty. The Moslem Horace Bury often laments in the novel how his false religion does not enjoy the same rights as "the Church" and we see the "Church of Him" referred to as heretical and its followers shunned.
  • One of the most interesting scenes of the novel is when Father Hardy tries to determine whether the Moties are humans, animals, angels, or demons. Unfortunately, the authors leave him undecided and never give us a scene from Father's POV again in the novel, but his thought process reveals a very traditional one.

The Mote in God's Eye is not fluff reading, as a number of important topics are dealt with, although the religion aspects are certainly given much shorter shrift that I'd have liked (on the other hand, non-Catholics trying to deal with Catholic theology in any depth would have been a disaster, so the surface treatment given to religion may be a blessing). In sum, I highly recommend this novel to anyone who has even a passing interest in science fiction.


Sophia's Favorite said...

It's actually sorta funny that the Empire is patriarchal, since it was under the auspices of the Catholic Church that 11th-14th Century French and English women enjoyed a degree of freedom and equality not completely equaled again until, oh, the 1970s or so. E.g. owning property, practicing trades, filing lawsuits...and voting (town and city councils were electoral).

Ditto religious liberty—that Muslims and Jews couldn't be treated as heretics was universally recognized in all of Western Christendom (maybe the Empire is Orthodox?). Hostility toward Muslims and Jews was in response to hostility from them, and in the latter case almost always more national than religious.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Sophia's Favourite, good points, but I only agree in part. It is probable that Niven and Pournell misunderstood the true Catholic teaching on these topics. However ...

Re: Patriarchy/feminism -- what you are equating with patriarchism (inability to own property et al.) is not patriarchism but a Protestant exaggeration to the point of mysogyny. "Women's Lib" in the 60s and 70s was then a (over) reaction to this Protestant excess and has resulted in an excess in the other direction.

However, I would argue that Catholic societies were patriarchal, but it was a proper patriarchism where the complimentarity of the sexes was recognised and that this meant the men were in general the leaders.

Re: Religious Liberty -- you are of course correct, but there's a big difference between not treating Jews and Moslems as heretics and religious liberty. In Catholic countries truth and error were not given equal status, and that is exactly what Horace Bury was complaining about. He was not complaining about his co-religionists being burnt at the stake.

Consider Pius IX in Quanta Cura condemned the following propositions: "... the best condition of human society is that wherein no duty is recognized by the Government of correcting, by enacted penalties, the violators of the Catholic Religion, except when the maintenance of the public peace requires it ... the liberty of conscience and of worship is the peculiar (or inalienable) right of every man ... [This right] must be proclaimed and guaranteed bylaw in every properly constituted society."

Likewise Leo XIII in Immortale Dei condemns the following opinion: "[The State] is bound to grant equal right to every creed, so that public order may not be disturbed by any particular form of religious belief. And it is a part of thistheory that all questions that concern religion are to be referred to private judgment;that every one is to be free to follow whatever religion he prefers ..."

Sophia's Favorite said...

The over-patriarchy predates the Reformation; it goes back to the Renaissance, which basically brought back Roman mores as far as was consonant with Christian morals (i.e. they weren't just leaving daughters to the wolves anymore, but daughters were once again reduced to the status of non-adult wards).

On the other hand, yes, Catholic societies at their best were "patriarchal", since humans are an instinctively male-dominated species, but that was also at least in part because Western Christendom was a militocracy. Even then, reigning noblewomen exercised the same power as their male counterparts, and even commanded troops in battle, for instance in the Second Crusade. Abbesses actually wielded, if anything, more power than abbots and bishops; convents were some of the major power-centers of Medieval Europe.

Finally, I do not consider religious liberty to mean "giving truth and error equal status". Obviously the state in a country constituted as Catholic has the right to suppress heresies, since the faith must be preserved from error—but its rights over non-Christians do only extend to "the maintenance of the public peace". It is moral for Catholics to suppress Aztec or Mayan human sacrifice; it is not moral for them to suppress Hopi kachina societies. Even in the case of heresy, false teachings may only be forcibly suppressed if the teachings are a threat to public peace, e.g. the Cathars denying all contract and holding childbearing to be immoral.

"Error", in short, "has no rights, but men do."

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

I agree with you regarding the Renaissance, however, I would still maintain that the Protestants really brought this stuff to fruition and it was entrenched in their beliefs.

I must disagree that the Catholic state's rights over non-Catholics only extends to the maintenance of public peace. In fact, the quote above from Quanta Cura expressly condemns such a proposition. Furthermore, Bl. Pius IX condemned the following proposition: "Hence it has been wisely decided by law, in some Catholic countries, that persons coming to reside therein shall enjoy the public exercise of their own peculiar worship." -- Allocution "Acerbissimum," Sept. 27, 1852. Clearly indicating that the Catholic state has the power/duty to prevent the PUBLIC exercise of false worship even when it does not harm the public peace.

Men do, indeed, have rights, but as you say error does not -- and thus PUBLIC acts of false worship which do not infringe public peace must be limited as well by the state.

I also refer you to paragraphs 14, 15, and 16 of Pope Gregory XVI's 15 August 1832 encyclical Mirari Vos which speaks along these same lines.

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