The Mote in God s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I have always considered The Mote in God’s Eye a seminal book about initial contact between humans and another sentient, advanced species.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, both true masters of hard science fiction, collaborated on this book in 1974. I read it in high school – so sometime shortly after it was written. I remembered it clearly as cutting edge stuff. In one scene that has popped into my mind on multiple occasions throughout the years, the humans react with horror to the speeding vehicles used by the Moties for individual ground transportation. I was glad to know my ever-unreliable neurons hadn’t messed with my memory when I found it on pages 252-253 of the new copy I bought recently:

Tall, ugly buildings loomed above them to shoulder out the sky. The black streets were wide but very crowded, and the Moties drove like maniacs. Tiny vehicles passed each other in intricate curved paths with centimeters of clearance. The traffic was not quite silent. There was a steady low hum that might have been all the hundreds of motors sounding together, and sometimes a stream of high-pitched gibberish that might have been cursing.

Once the humans were able to stop wincing away from each potential collision…

Motie, found on Rocket Ship Pajamas

Motie (source)

 

The first time I read that passage, many years ago, I imagined the reaction of an 18th century sophisticate to riding in a modern New York taxicab or merging onto an urban freeway at rush hour. I thought about how a Cro-Magnon might respond to riding in a car down a quiet street in a small town. What if the Cro-Magnon was on a motorcycle?

Thirty-something years later, as someone who writes speculative fiction – sure, merely as a hobby, but, hey, a girl’s going to dream – I noticed this classic story didn’t seem so cutting edge any more. I realized that a book written during my own lifetime, a book that blew me away when I first read it, has become dated.

I’ve noticed this a time or two before. Robert Heinlein’s books about Lazarus Long, for example, are very dated in some of their sexist, chauvinistic attitudes, even though the stories and the science are not. Heinlein makes multiple references to the pleasing shape of his female characters’ anatomy, but never to the sexual attributes of male characters. The worst offenders of these books were written near the end of Heinlein’s long, prolific career. Oddly, the character noticing the anatomy didn’t rub me wrong, perhaps because we all are capable of noticing pleasing physical characteristics of the opposite sex; the author himself struck me as a dirty old man. (I know, I know. I have no basis other than my gut for even saying that. And I revere Heinlein as one of the everlasting gods of the genre. Really, I do.)

Something similar struck me on a number of occasions while rereading The Mote in God’s Eye. For instance, when Sally explains human birth control methods to a Motie, she says that “nice girls” don’t use birth control. She explains that they simply abstain from sexual relations if they don’t want to become pregnant. Her words shock the Motie, but not for the same reason they shocked me.

Even of those I know who are relatively prudish, I doubt very many, at least the people I know, would actually think that “nice girls don’t take birth control.”  Nope, not even my devoutly Catholic best friend. (Of course, to hear the abstinence-only sex education crowd talk, that’s all it takes for birth control. I submit that those folks are completely unrealistic, and statistics belie their position. But that is a topic for another day.)

I guess I’ve become accustomed to the progressive social portrayal of the future that modern speculative fiction tends toward. Except for futuristic dystopias such as The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, which feature government-imposed sexual repression, sexuality’s treatment in speculative fiction over the last half century seems fairly universal – all sex, all the time, anything goes. Certainly that was the case by the mid-70’s.

The sexual revolution was in full swing in 1974. Attitudes and social mores toward sex heaved and groaned in those years. Roe v. Wade had been decided the year before. The Equal Rights Amendment had passed both houses of Congress two years before, the same year that the Joy of Sex, which was still in the top five bestsellers in 1974, became a sensation.  Birth control was in wide use, and the Summer of Love was almost a decade in the past. In 1961 – thirteen years before the Mote sun gleamed in the middle of the Coalsack, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land paved the way for these attitudes when Valentine Michael Smith created a new religion incorporating free love.  By 1974, co-ed college dorms commonly dotted campuses across the nation. Penicillin cured everything but herpes and hepatitis; no one had heard of AIDS or HIV.  Hair was six years into its run on Broadway, complete with full nudity.

The attitudes that dated The Mote in God’s Eye extended to the personnel on the two ships that visit the Mote world. With the exception of Sally and the perpetually pregnant Moties, every single character in the book is male. But, there’s more. I remember this book as one of the truly inspirational ones in my adolescent library, packed with action and tension. Reading it this week, it hasn’t felt the same. At first, I couldn’t figure out why the book just didn’t hold my attention the way I remembered it doing 30-something years ago. Now, less than a hundred pages from the end, I think I may have figured it out.

Olivetti Typewriter


Poster issued by Olivetti Typewriter Co. featuring the Olivetti Lexicon 80 typewriter, Marcello Nizzoli, about 1953. Museum no. CIRC.634-1965
Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum
(source)

The book needs red ink. Had Niven and Pournelle not banged out this novel on an Olivetti typewriter, if they had used a word processor, they probably would have tightened their prose and eliminated things like lists, awkward scene transitions, jerky dialogue, and other things we can now avoid by revising a million times without rewriting the whole darn thing page by tortured page. Editing just isn’t what it used to be, for which we probably should be grateful. Otherwise our eyes might still cross, reading post-Victorian verbosity.

And then there’s the passive voice. The book doesn’t read like a scientific treatise, but still, a lot of the descriptions employ the verb “to be.” Characters interact actively, but they tend to observe their surroundings in a list. I wonder if I noticed this only because I’ve been writing more myself, and try to use E-Prime unless it just sounds silly. I wonder if I notice it because I have critiqued the work of other writers in recent months.

I hope critiquing hasn’t led to this. I like reading what other people write, making suggestions for improvement, and getting good feedback from them on my own work. If critiquing means the joy of reading suffers, then I’ll have a big hole in my life.

But now, now I have a book to finish. And even if it isn’t as good as I remember, it’s still good.