5.22.2019

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye



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 immorality 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.

5.17.2019

MARS RESCUE

By Anna Blackwell (January 2019, age 11)

Captain Wellhelm watched as his ship slowly reached the surface of the rocky planet Mars. The captain had been sent by the Council of Space Exploration to find the missing ship African Panda. So far the Council had the theory that the ship had crashed on Mars.

"We are now opening the boarding ramp, sir."

Captain Wellhelm spun his chair to the side. "Mister Lars, you have the bridge. I'll take Science Officer Sara and Mister Pat and Mister Steves."

The captain felt a wave of nervousness sweep over him as he descended down the ramp. Time flew by. There was still no sign of any life forms, until ...

"Sir, I am picking up something," said Mister Pat.

"Life forms?" said the captain, relieved.

"Hmmm ... no it ... let's see ... a sand storm."

"How far?"

"Range one point two kilometres."

"Buzzards!" said the captain.

They turned back but things got bad. Wind began to pick up speed.

"Sir!" said Mister Pat. "We'll never make it to the ship in time."

"Rats, that's the last thing we need," said the Captain.

"Sir, I see wreckage over there, maybe we can shelter in it," said Science Officer Sara.

"Good eye," the Captain said. Miss Sara always had backup plans for everything.

The door to the wreckage was stuck half open, but that did not stop Mister Steves. They got inside in the nick of time. They got the door closed just as the storm hit.

"Saved," said Mister Pat.

"That was too close," said Miss Sara.

"Sir ..."

"Yes, Mister Steves?"

"We aren't alone."

Suddenly they heard the sound of something moving.

"Quick, draw your blasters," said the Captain.

The noise came again.

"I'll check it out," said Mister Steves.

Miss Sara began to shiver as Mister Steves disappeared into the shadows. All was quiet until suddenly, like a clap of thunder, Mister Steves leapt out shouting,

"I got him, I got him!"

Muffled screams came from his victim. Captain Wellhelm and Mister Pat rushed over. To their surprise, instead of a Martian, it was a young Chinese boy.

"Let go of him, Mister Steves."

The Security Officer, Steves, let the boy go. Miss Sara ran over.

"Don't worry, you're safe. Now calm down and tell us what happened here."

Soon the boy explained that his name was Chang and he had been kidnapped from his family to work in the secret mines on Mars. One day when a major sand storm was coming he managed to run away and hide in the ruins of the dead space ship. By a miracle it was not blown away. Since that day he had remained trapped on Mars.

"Well, we get it all now," said Steves. "But kidnapping, that is illegal, those who did so will be hanged!"

"There'll be no need for that, Mister Steves," said the Captain. "The criminals must have died in the storm otherwise we would have found them by now.

When the storm ended they all headed back for the ship, but before they reached it ...

"Sir, some creatures are coming this way!" said Mister Pat, alarmed.

"Cartendons," said Chang.

Captain Wellhelm didn't bother to ask what they were for they sounded bad enough. Soon everyone was running as fast as they could but soon the sound of the creatures was quite near. The Captain could feel their hot breath on his neck. No matter how hard they ran the beasts seemed to be getting closer and closer. As they were overcome by the beasts, a ship out of the distance firing red-hot lasers. It was Captain Wellhelm's ship the Destrier coming to their aid.

"We're saved," cheered Miss Sara.

Once again the Captain's ship saved his life. Chang was soon delivered back to his family. But the criminal gang's bosses were still out there for Captain Wellhelm and his crew to catch. But that is another story.

5.15.2019

Role Playing Games


I remember when I was growing up that role playing games, especially "Dungeons & Dragons" had a bad reputation, especially among religiously-minded people. This was no doubt due at least in part to the much publicized murder of Lieth von Stein by his drug addict step-son and friends -- and the TV docudramas that focused on the fact these punks played Dungeons & Dragons. Also, Protestant polemicists like Jack Chick spread tracts claiming that the game encouraged sorcery and the veneration of demons. Of course, Jack Chick also calls the Catholic Eucharist "The Death Cookie", says that the Catholic Church not only founded Communism but also Nazism, and claims the Vatican has a computer databank of every single Protestant in the world for use in future prosecutions.

I have always been of the view, however, that D&D or any other role playing game is only as good (or bad) as the Game Master (the person who runs the game) and, to an extent, the players. Since it is a game with few set parameters and the game master makes up the story and charactrers for the game, he does have the power to insert bad or depraved scenarios but also good ones and to teach good lessons.

I've described RPGs to my children as something like a "choose your own adventure" book, but with almost unlimited options instead of just one or two per page, since you have a live narrator in the GM reacting to your choices in real time. So again, like any author, the GM has the ability to make a good or bad story.

With all that in mind, I've been looking for a game that the family could play together, since the girls are not interested in the war games that are the tabletop miniature games like Flames of War and Star Wars: Legion. We decided to give Role Playing Games a try since there is so much you can do with them that is not combat related. You can easily do games with no combat at all (but there will be some in ours to placate the boys). I decided to pick up the gaming system by Fantasy Flight Games called "GENESYS" because it is a "generic" role playing game suited to stories in any setting from fantasy to modern/realistic to hard science fiction to space fantasy. I'll talk more about the setting we are going to start with and the roles that each will be playing in the coming weeks. Albert has offered to write some game session summaries too.

5.08.2019

Boardgame Review: The Kids of Carcasonne


Name: The Kids of Carcassonne
Game Designer: Marco Teubner
Publisher: Hans im Glück
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Summary: Based on the adult board game "Carcasonne", this excellent simplified version is easy enough for young children to grasp, yet interesting enough to keep the attention of parents or older siblings; an excellent introduction to board games for young ones.

I believe it is good to get children involved in such games at an early age and "The Kids of Carcasonne" is a wonderful game to that end. The box says that the game is for ages 4+. The Blackwell children at three years old were able to play, but at four clearly grasped the concepts better and played with some strategy versus just matching up the tiles.

The game is based on the highly popular adult board game "Carcasonne". It consists of several "landscape tiles" with images of roads, buildings, and rivers on them, and children wearing the player colours running on the roads. Each player has a collection of coloured playing pieces that look like small people carved in wood. The players in turn draw a landscape tile and place it; in normal/adult Carcasonne, these the roads will not always or easily match with another piece but in this simplified version each tile has a road exiting each of the four sides meaning that they always match.



Amongst other features, the tiles show children in the player colors on the roads. Whenever a road is "finished", every player places one of his pieces on each appropriate picture. Roads are finished when they are closed at each end by a building or dead-end. The first player who manages to place all of his pieces wins the game.



There are four colours (red, blue, green, and yellow) so you can only play with four people, which is not ideal for large Catholic families in one sense, but on the other hand, keeps it simple which is important for young children. Also, playing time is only about 15-20 minutes so children can easily rotate who plays and do several games in an hour. As mentioned in the summary, unlike some other childrens' board games I've tried, this one is actually interesting for adults to play which is important when teaching the children how to play and also to give you another reason to spend time with your children.

"The Kids of Carcasonne" is fairly fast-paced, making it a good fit for young minds that haven't developed a long attention span yet. It is entertaining and an excellent way to spent 20 minutes to an hour with your children. It is somewhat competitive and one of them will win the game, but it is not too competitive since all the tiles match up eliminating the intensity of the adult version. It also has a pleasant mediæval theme and children like looking at the castles and the little children in mediæval garb chasing sheep and chickens about. I highly recommend it to any parent with young children around 4-5 years of age. Older children will probably enjoy it as well, but desire more complexity ere long.

This board game is not available at the "big" stores like Wal-Mart or Toys 'R' Us, but is readily available on the internet or at local specialty games stores.

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