The Gripping Hand (Book Review)

Title: The Gripping Hand  
Author: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle  
Publisher: Pocket  
My Rating: 2 stars
Summary in a Sentence: The substandard sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye where the next generation of the Empire attempts to finally solve the "Motie Problem" when a new Alderson point creates newfound access to the Empire from the Mote.

Nota bene: Since I do not recommend anyone waste their time with this sequel to the masterful Mote in God's Eye, I provide a number of spoilers without qualm in this review. Do not read this review if you intend to read The Mote in God's Eye until after you have read it ... I still recommend you read this review when you get a chance, however, as it sheds some further light on the first work and on contemporary Catholicism.

While last month I had nothing but praise for the first book of this series, it feels as if different authors wrote The Gripping Hand - or perhaps they just rushed through in slipshod manner a manuscript that the publisher was clamoring for, given the success of the first. The result was a substandard book; one that they should not have written. It only tarnishes the legacy of the first.

After 25 years of blockading the Alderson Point to the Mote, the Empire must again face a real threat from the Moties as the formation of a protostar in the vicinity moves the existing Alderson point -- allowing the Moties to bypass the blockade (which was near to collapse anyway). A tiny force is cobbled together and sent to the new point, arriving moments before the first Moties arrive. The group consists of Horace Bury (one of the few people who appreciates the threat the Moties pose), the children of Lord and Lady Blaine, as well as a small customs ship. The rest of the novel is a convoluted tale of alliances, diplomacy, trade, and space combat between the many, many factions of Motie civilization.

The Empire of Man is far less interesting than it was in the first book, save for the comparisons that may be made between the changes in the real-world Catholic Church and those of this fictional empire over a 25-year period. More importantly, the novel lacks the suspense that The Mote in God's Eye had, and the characters are not nearly as loveable. The recurring characters from the first novel have lost the grittiness they had - rather than being real people, they now feel more like cutouts embodying liberal ideals. The new characters, most of them being spoilt rich teenagers, are "rebels without a cause". Far less interesting than the dutiful but scared sailors of the first novel.

Also, most of this book takes place among the Moties. The alienness of the Moties was interesting when we viewed them from the imperial cruiser MacArthur and through her crew. It makes for a less interesting novel to be living among these totally alien and totally amoral creatures. Finally, the book doesn't seem to flow the way The Mote in God's Eye did, and as a result it felt a chore to get through some sections.

Catholicism in the Sequel

Perhaps more than the first novel, The Gripping Hand gives us a lot of insight into how non-Catholics perceived the changes in the Catholic Church after Vatican II. This sequel was published in 1994 and was therefore written in the early '90s most likely. At this point in time the Timebombs of the Vatican II Council had all been deployed. The Novus Ordo MissÊ was thoroughly entrenched, Assisi I had been perpetrated, vocations were then a shadow of what they were in the late 60s, &c. Even to outsiders, the Church had clearly changed at this point in both appearance, approach to the world and worship, and even in teachings (percieved).

I don't think it is mere coincidence, then, that the Empire of Man that we see in this sequel novel that takes place 25 years after The Mote in God's Eye, is also greatly changed. Overall, it is much more touchy-feely, not the virile military machine that it was before. We also see that:
  • First and foremost, the big solution to the Moties' problems is contraception. The humans develop a method of helping them contracept in order to control their explosive population growth. There is no mention of contraceptives still being frowned upon, and in fact Rod Blaine and Lady Fowler (now Sallie Blaine) have only two children in 25 years of marriage (one is ~24, the other 18).
  • Sexual liberation: Glenda-Ruth Blaine, 18-year-old daughter of Captain Blaine and Lady Fowler, travels unsupervised with her boyfriend in his yaght. It is explicitly stated that they fornicate and she uses some futuristic version of the Pill to avoid pregnancy. They have some inane fight at one point in the novel about her not giving him sex or him not being very good in bed, I forget which ... in any event, it's a far cry from Rod Blaine's solicitousness for Lady Fowler's reputation in The Mote in God's Eye.
  • The Empire is now "flabby and bureaucratized", as one reviewer put it, not the strong monarchy that it was before. There are hints that the Emperor is more of a British-style figurehead now, rather than the sole ruler of before. They are unable to respond to the Motie threat as a result, whereas before they had a heavy battlecruiser and a cruiser heading into the Mote within weeks in the first book after a small probe arrives, they can barely muster a few small customs vessels in response to a potential full-scale invasion.
  • There is no mention of any clergy playing any role whatsoever, versus the clear influence that "the Church" held in the first novel.
  • There are hints that there is now religious freedom as we are introduced to a Mormon planet and it is mentioned that things are better for Levant (Bury's Moslem homeworld). In fact, if one read The Gripping Hand without having read The Mote In God's Eye, first, you would have no clue that there was a state religion.
Interestingly, one of the prominent complaints in the Amazon.com reviews, is how different (and inexplicably so) the Empire of Man is a mere 25 years after the first novel. I think people liked the old-style confessional stat.

It seems to me that "The Empire of Man" in the second novel is basically a Novus Ordo version of its former self. Most of the differences to be found in a comparison of Catholic states pre- and post-Vatican II can be found in the Empire between the two books. Maybe they had another pastoral council in the 31st century that The Gripping Hand doesn't mention? It probably wasn't mentioned because the non-Catholics Niven and Pournelle did not understand why the real-world Catholic Church underwent such cataclysmic changes ... or maybe they didn't consciously notice the changes but just subconsciously wrote them into their novel.

Overall, this just isn't that good of a book. It's okay, and better than a lot of what passes for "great" science fiction today, but still not worth the effort. Enjoy the original, skip the sequel.


Sophia's Favorite said...

Have a care, now: the actual Vatican II and what people did with Vatican II are more different than the US constitution and the interpretation of it found in Roe v. Wade. The Novus Ordo, for instance, could've been an excellent idea (having the liturgy in the contemporary vernacular was a reform most of the Orthodox had already made decades earlier, with no ill effects)—if the liturgists hadn't deliberately set out to mistranslate it in service to their agendas.

The real problem wasn't Vatican II; the Church couldn't have disintegrated that fast from a few cosmetic changes if everything else had been healthy. But vast swaths of the Catholic world were simply Catholic the way the English were Anglican or the Germans Lutheran, or the way people in the 1950s believed in "family values"—which is to say, purely conventionally, without a lick of real belief or intellectual engagement.

As for the book, yeah, I find the only good Niven is the Known Space stories (set prior to Ringworld Engineers), and those stories about the teleporter booths collected in "A Hole in Space". I actually never even read Mote in God's Eye, which seems to be the exception to the above rule. Just the fact it involved Jerry Pournelle, and the other time I'd seen him and Niven collaborate had been Lucifer's Hammer—which is like a leftist wrote a parody of a right-winger's post-apocalypse, only it was written by actual right-wingers—was enough to scare me off.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Sophia’s Favourite,

That is why I was careful to note that this was my take on a non-Catholic’s view from outside. Prior to Vatican II, it’s true, that there was a façade in place -- but that facade made the Church appear more virile to outsiders than it really was.

When you write “... vast swaths of the Catholic world were simply Catholic the way the English were Anglican or the Germans Lutheran, or the way people in the 1950s believed in "family values"—which is to say, purely conventionally, without a lick of real belief or intellectual engagement.” I am in 100% agreement.

However, I cannot agree that Vatican II wasn’t an important part of the puzzle. Rather, this lack of real believe or intellectual engagement was the reason Catholics didn’t revolt against the changes instituted after Vatican II and march on Rome in a “Pilgrimage of Grace”-style protest. It’s why they accepted the changes lock, stock, and barrel.

It was not the American Constitution being “reinterpreted” by judges 200 years later, it was interpreted and implemented by the legislators themselves and amounted to a lot more than merely cosmetic changes. Lumen Gentium’s redefinition of the Church as merely being where the Church of Christ “subsists” was a significant departure that has totally changed the way the churchmen interact with non-Catholics. And it was confirmed by JP2 in Ut Unum Sint that the Church of Christ is also in “seperated churches” and further confirmed by Dignitatis Humanae contrary to that document’s reputation. The Assisi meetings would not be possible without Lumen Gentium, I would submit. Gaudium et Spes essentially put an end to confessional states. Dignitatis Humanae enshrined religious freedom, stating that men are to be “immune from coercion” of any sort.

Also look at how the various religious orders implemented Vatican II when they all re-wrote their constitutions. The result is absolute devastation of the religious life. In terms of other concrete, non-cosmetic changes, the 1982 Code of Canon Law codified the laxity practiced by the laity by essentially eradicating the laws regarding fasting and abstinence, allows the administration of penance, anointing of the sick, and even holy communion to non-Catholics who manifest “Catholic faith” (gravely fobidden under the 1917 Code of Canon Law). I can but make the barest of scratches on the surface in this comm box -- for a fulsome review of the changes, I recommend Romano Amero’s Iota Unum.

Nicholas D.C. Wansbutter said...

Concerning the Novus Ordo Missae, the fact that it’s in the vernacular is the very least of its problems. Ironically, Sacrosanctum Concilium §36 stated “... the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” and that concerning the vernacular, only that “the limits of its employment may be extended.”

The real problem with the Novus Ordo Missae, as enunciated by Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci is that it represents “both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXIII of the Council of Trent.”  (A Brief Critical Study of the Novus Ordo Missae, Sept. 25, 1969). Keeping in mind that this critique was directed at the Novus Ordo Missae celebrated according to the 1969 juxta typica edition with the celebrant saying most (if not all) of the prayers in Latin, facing the tabernacle (i.e., ad orientam), wearing traditional Mass vestments, with a male altar server, and Gregorian chant, etc.  In other words, the Novus Ordo in and of itself absent any abuses, is a Protestant(ized) rite. It certainly bears very little difference to the Anglican/Episcopalian ceremonies I knew as a child.

But again, the comments box on my blog is not the best place to discuss this. If you want to continue the discussion via email, feel free to contact me at NWansbutterEsq@gmail.com

Back to books -- I do recommend A Mote in God’s Eye. I also did not enjoy Lucifer’s Hammer, although another collaboration with Pournelle, The Legacy of Heorot, I remember being pretty good although it was close to 20 years ago that I read it.

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