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The Mote in God’s Eye – 35 Years Later

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.

 

I Write

I write.

I sit at a table and I reach for a pad of paper and a pen. I sit at a computer and automatically click to open the word processing program. My empty fingers itch for an good fountain pen or even an antique dip pen and a bottle of ink.

I write.

Sometimes I’m funny. Sometimes I’m serious. I may be disgusted, irreverent, playful, reflective, or melancholy. I can be imaginative or philosophical. I teach. I lecture. I question. I explain. I research. I investigate.

I write.

I have pretty leather-bound journals scattered all over my life, and all of them have writing in them. I write my dreams, my thoughts, my observations. I write my memories to save for my son. I write the news, to save for posterity – if there ever is posterity. I write love notes to whomever I feel love for at the moment. I write letters in those journals – letters to old high school teachers, to friends from the past and present, to family, to grandchildren not yet born. They will never be sent or read by anyone, but I write them anyway.

I write.

No subject is sacred. I have strong opinions. My opinions can be changed by compelling evidence and cogent arguments, but my positions are stated clearly and occasionally even with footnotes. I don’t reach my strong opinions in a vacuum. I want links, supporting evidence, and documentation to support a position.

I write.

The dreams I live at night are vivid. They form the basis for my short stories. I have lots of them. I doubt I will publish very many of them to this blog. They are beyond science fiction and fantasy, sometimes.

I love to write.

So, I write.

I have rules about my writing, and I trust when there is debate in the comments to my blog, others respect these guidelines.

I write to communicate ideas.

But, I can’t abide rudeness. Points can be made without resorting to name-calling, taunting, or other grade-school behaviors. Threats, harassment, and general nastiness never persuaded anyone of anything other than the rudeness of the person threatening, harassing, or being generally nasty. I am literally and figuratively unable to hear someone who uses these techniques to communicate.

I write to persuade.

Pundits, politicians, bloggers, and others who have an “Us vs. Them” mentality when it comes to making their points lose credibility with me in a hurry. I love politics and I love discussing politics. Good political arguments must be as well documented as scientific arguments. It must appeal to logic and reason, not emotion and fear.

I write for respect.

Name calling, stereotyping, finger-pointing, and blaming an opposing political party or some other person irritate me beyond reason. They are as irritating as a fly or mosquito. Their buzz and their whine are not words but an annoyance to be swatted away without much of a thought as to their purpose. I do not respect those who engage in such behavior. I will never do it myself. Respect is critical to real communication.

I write to make a point.

As a lawyer I have to make arguments that make sense to the judge and jury, opposing counsel, and my clients, so I strive to be careful in crafting my arguments. I encourage feisty, vigorous debate, but the arguments should always be backed up with facts and wherever possible with citations. I can be persuaded, but only with facts and a coherent argument.

I write as a craft.

Proper grammar, punctuation, spelling are essential. This is not to say I don’t make mistakes, but I correct them the moment I see them. It’s difficult to proofread one’s own work, and as hard as I try there will be things I don’t catch. Technically good writing is the bare minimum of what I expect of myself. I wish it was as important to others. I am fond of saying that my dream date would be with a guy who would drive me around and carry the bucket of red paint for me to dip my brush into so that I might correct the misplaced apostrophes on all the signs in public places. Does such a piratical Prince Charming exist? And will he carry a ladder tall enough for billboards?

I write to write well.

Style makes good writing great. I want to write with a style that stays with my reader. I want to write with a style that makes my point in a way that inspires reflection. I want to write with a style that inspires a belly-laugh. I want to write with a style that is readable and fun, readable and educational, readable and poignant.

I write because I have to write.

It’s me. My compulsion to write will never go away. It is as much a part of me as the knuckles on my fingers and the gray wisps in my hair. Even if I hide my compulsion to write it is still there, pushing me, moving my fingers unconsciously toward the pen, to pick it up.

I write.

The Wall, Part 2

The small band of brown ones, led by the tall young man and woman, huddle close together for comfort. They have allowed the adopted strangers to lead them to this strange place, with its wall too high and its gate too narrow. They have allowed the adopted strangers to persuade them that life would be better here. All they sense now is hostility, barely disguised beneath the curiosity the strangers have for their adopted ones.

The adopted sister speaks next. She speaks in the strangers’ odd sibilant tongue. She directs her words to the older female stranger, the one in red. The woman in red takes a hesitant step toward the sister, then two. Then the sister steps forward, but not before taking a child from the arms of its brown mother. She meets the woman with the child in her arms.

“They are not so different,” the sister says to her old mother. “This child sucks its thumb, dreams of growing up, and plays just as I did.”

Before the mother has a chance to answer, the stranger man speaks again. “Where are the adults? Have you stolen their children to bring the wrath of the elders down on us and our city?”

The sister laughs. “The others are small people. The adults are here. When they captured us, we did not know that they meant us no harm. In fact, they did not intend to capture us at all.”

“Then why did you not return home?” blurts her mother.

“That is a story best told over a meal,” the brother chides gently. He directs his remark to his mother, not to the man whose out-thrust chin demands answers. He knows that his reminder that he and his sister have been denied their mother’s table for three years should prompt the woman in red to act. He is right.

“Yes, come. Have them all come.” His mother speaks quickly, as though she is afraid she may change her mind if she is given time to think about her decision.

Curious strangers wander hesitantly toward the small band of brown ones. They stare, but keep a wary distance even as they pace the mother, brother and sister. The hostile man, muttering to himself, keeps up a few paces to the right of the troupe. Apparently he has invited himself to share the bread and stew at the mother’s table, too. Clearly he wants to know the story the brother and sister have to tell.

* * *

The mother’s home has a large gathering room, which is fortunate. The brother and sister have directed the odd little brown creatures to sit in a semi-circle on the thickrug covering the floor. The mother calls to her neighbor to please bring more bowls. The neighbor, who has come to see if she can help, ducks out quickly to comply.

It is the first day of the week, the day the mother traditionally makes her hearty stew and bakes her bread. It will take a week’s worth of bread to feed all these creatures, but the mother does not think of that. She only hopes she has enough. If she does not she will call upon her neighbor again.

The silence that descends is awkward. This mother has imagined her children’s homecoming so many times, but never has she imagined that it would take place in an uncomfortable quiet, broken only by the shuffling of brown feet and the shifting of ragged garments.

The mother ladles the stew and her neighbor, who has returned with a stack of bowls, breaks off pieces of the dense bread. The sister delivers each bowl to one of the brown creatures, murmuring something to them as she hands them the stew and bread. Taking her own bowl, she drops to the floor, cross-legged, next to her brother. The neighbor gives the mother the last bowl and steps back. The mother sits on the cushion facing her lost children.

She soaks the bread in the stew, but does not take a bite. The brown creatures and her children all look at her, expectantly. She notices that none of them have begun eating. Hastily, she brings the wet bread to her lips. Her children mimic her, then the creatures begin eating. The mother is amazed. The creatures seem to have understood that it was polite to wait until the hostess took the first bite before eating. She glances back at her children. Her son is smiling as he chews a bit of stew-soaked bread. Her daughter daintily sips the warm broth and meets her mothers eyes over the rim of her bowl. Silent amusement sparkles in her expression, and the mother looks away, startled. She has no appetite. She has too many questions.

Adjusting the red fabric of her garment, the mother sets her bowl on the floor in front of her cushion. “Will you tell me….?” she begins to ask, hesitant, not sure what, exactly, she wants to know first.

The boy, the younger of her children, speaks first. “There was a misunderstanding,” he begins, but is cut off by his sister.

“We lost ourselves,” she says quickly. “And while we were lost, these friends,” she gestures toward the brown creatures, “took us in. They did not want to, but we really gave them no choice. We were afraid.”

Her brother starts to speak, then thinks the better of it. He takes another bite of stew-soaked bread and chews, looking at his sister thoughtfully.

The outspoken man from the gate speaks up. He is just inside the door, as if he believes the brown creatures and these wild children carry a foul odor with them. His sneer is evident in his tone. “Why did you bring our enemies here?” he demands. “Have you joined them? Need we destroy you with them?”

“Keiji!” a voice from deeper within the house is sharp with admonition.

The angry man’s head jerks toward the voice from within, and his arms cross one another over his chest. He sticks his jaw out defiantly as an ancient woman appears in the doorway to the common room. Her arms are crossed in an echo of his.

“My daughter offers peace and food to these people, yet you come into her home to threaten them?”

“They are enemies!”

“It does not matter if they are from the stars or from under a rotting log. Minna has opened her home to them.”

“These creatures are evil, Ciannait, and you know it! You, of all people, know it!”

“I know nothing of the sort,” the old woman snorts. As she walks further into the gathering room, her spine is straight and she holds herself tall. “I know that Minna has guests, and I know you are being extremely unpleasant.”

The man glares at the old woman. “A band of enemies has invaded our town and as headman here I am demanding answers!”

The brown creatures are wide-eyed at the heated exchange between the angry man and the old woman. Understanding none of it they are not alarmed, merely curious. They look to the brother and sister, who have stopped eating and have leaned their heads together to whisper.

The sister rises gracefully from her floor cushion. “We will give you answers, Keiji. But first, our friends are hungry. We have traveled a long way and we are tired. And Foy and I owe the first answers to our mother.” She speaks gently, respectfully, but her words fall like heavy weights in the room.

Her brother, acting unaffected by the strong words of the elders, takes another mouthful of stew-soaked bread and chews it slowly. He turns and smiles encouragingly at the brown creatures, who also resume eating.

Clearly Keiji is at a loss for words for a moment. Then he attacks the sister with his hard words. “You owe this entire city an explanation. You disappear for three years only to return in the company of those who have been our enemies for generations! As headman I believe those answers should come now!” His left hand is on his hip and he shakes an enraged finger at the sister, who smiles sweetly at him, then turns to the ancient woman.

“Grandmama, are there two more bowls? Perhaps you and the headman should join us.”

The old lady winks at the sister in approval. Yes, child, I believe there are two more bowls. Thank you, dear,” she nods to the neighbor, who has handed her a bowl and a hunk of the dense brown bread.

“I don’t need food,” growls the headman. “I need to know what is going on.”

“You will, Keiji. Did you not hear the child invite you to stay?” The old woman’s tone is sharp, exasperated. “Now, please, sit.”

Minna brings another cushion and places it near the brother and sister. Kieji takes his seat, but waves away the bowl he is offered. He scowls at the sister, waiting for her to begin.

The sister takes her time, soaking the bread, sipping from the rim of the bowl, and saying nothing. “Your stew is even better than I remembered, Mam,” she smiles sat her mother.

“Yes!” agrees her brother enthusiastically. “We have missed it! And we have missed you and Grandmamma, too.” His nod and smile is directed at both women.

“We want to hear about you,” says the grandmother. “We believe it is a miracle that you are home with us again.”

“No miracle,” says the brother, his mouth full. “A mistake, but no miracle.”

“You said that at the gate,” Minna says to her son. “How could it be a mistake? Why have you been gone so long, and why, now do you return with your … companions?”

The brother begins to answer, but the sister clears her throat. The sound hushes him, and he settles back, waiting for her.

“The mistake is that we thought we had been captured. In reality, we had startled them as much as they had startled us.”

“Captured!” exclaims the headman. “So you were kidnapped by these vile creatures?”

“She said nothing of the sort, Keiji, if you will clean out your ears and listen!” snapped the Grandmother.

“I heard what she said. She said they captured them.”

“No, Keiji. We were not captured. In truth, they had no idea why we followed them back to their camp. But we did not understand that at the time.” The sister speaks slowly, as if to a young child.

“Then what did happen?” the head man is impatient.

“Foy and I were playing just outside the gate that day, and we wandered farther into the valley than we should have. What we learned later was that the group of Tynan who found us were scouting for food and for caves for shelter. They were planning to move their camp and were looking for a likely place. They had wandered farther into the valley than they should have, too.”

“Scouting for ways to attack the city, most likely,” snorts the head man.

“Not true,” the brother speaks up again, sounding rather cheerful, even amused.

“They could not understand why we followed them,” agreed the sister.

“You weren’t forced to go with them?” Minna is not eating, but listening intently.

“Then why did you go?” This is the neighbor speaking. She covers her mouth quickly, embarrassed that she has spoken out when this is clearly a family and political matter.

The brother turns to his mother’s neighbor and smiles. “We went because we thought we had been captured.”

“Bah! This makes no sense!” declared the headman. “Either you were captured or you weren’t. Which was it?” He has jumped to his feet again in frustration.

“It makes perfect sense,” retorted the grandmother. “The children thought they had been captured, so they went along with these others. They were mistaken. Is that right?” she nods toward her grandchildren, who nod back in return.

“Yes,” says the brother. “They did not mean for us to follow them, and they led us on a very long, roundabout trip back to their camp because they kept hoping we would get tired of following them and go back where we came from.”

“What makes you think that?” the headman growls.

“They told us so,” shrugs the boy. His sister nods.

“Told you so! That’s ridiculous!” the head man stomps to and from in frustration.

“No,” offers the sister with a wry smile. “Once we learned their language they did not mind telling us how silly they thought we were.”

“Language!” scoffs Keiji.

“That’s true,” laughs the brother, ignoring the headman’s outburst. “We have been teased about it ever since.”

“You mean to say that you learned how to communicate with these beasts?” Keiji is incredulous.

The brother and sister exchange a look. The brother rolls his eyes.

“Yes, Keiji. We learned their language.” The sister again speaks slowly and gently, as if to a child.

“Once you learned of the mistake, why did you not come home?” asks Minna.

“It took us a long time to understand how they communicate, and then to learn how ourselves. By the time we had the communication skills to understand and ask about going home, the camp had moved too far away. A large enough group could not be spared to escort us back. There was too much work to be done,” explained the sister.

“And the camps moved with the seasons, farther and farther away, and it was not until this cycle of seasons that we began moving closer again.” adds her brother. “But we knew we were close enough to travel back when we found a doll with a dress made of Fia’s weaving. “ He nods to his mother’s neighbor and beckons her to him. From under his tunic he brings out a small figurine wrapped in a soft, woven blanket. The neighbor gasps.

“It is yours, isn’t it, Fia?” the sister asks, and wordlessly the neighbor nods.

“Do you recognize the doll?” asks the grandmother.

Fia nods again. She has an indescribable look on her face, part awe, part fear. “It belongs to Bian, the daughter of Jarrah and Irem.” The mother and grandmother sigh, almost as one.

The brother nods. “I remember little Bian. One of the dogs must have stolen the doll and dropped it. But it was found two days’ walk from here.”

“Two days!”Fia exclaims.

“When was it found?” Keiji demands.

“Four days ago,” answers the brother. I spotted it when I was out with a group…” he trails off after a warning look from his sister.

Minna catches her breath and doesn’t notice the signal between her children. “Bian disappeared six days ago!”

Keiji is agitated, but not hostile like before. “Can you find the place again where you found this doll?” he demands. “And is it possible these creatures have her?”

“Have Bian?” the sister shakes her head. “We would know if Bian or any other child were found by the Tynan.” She turns to face the brown creatures, makes gestures and odd noises which are answered by the strange little creatures, then turns back to Keiji. “No child has been found. But they will look. The camp is only a half day’s walk from that spot, and if she is there the Tynan will do their best to locate her.”

Fia speaks, now, “I will run to get Irem!” and she is gone.

The sister again turns to the brown creatures. Again she makes the gestures, the odd sounds. After a brief exchange with three of them, she turns back to Keiji. “They have sent their scouts to look for signs of Bian. They will let us know.”

“They have sent their scouts already?” asks the grandmother. “How?”

“Ah,” smiles the sister. That, too, is part of the story we have to tell.”

9:43 p.m.

Writer's BlockEven Crosby, Stills
and Nash fail to release
the lazy suction pull-
ing her into listless boredom.
Smoothing a stubborn crease

in her shirt, she drains a final
cup of coffee and reaches
for the telephone; no
answer.  She thinks, waits,
examines her nails.  Each is

reflecting her ragged mood:
bitten, broken, yearning
to be filed.  She wonders, should
she go? Then switches on
the television, turning

channels, and off again.
Her pen begins to write
and like before, the inane
monotone appears, not
giving the shallow night

another purpose but sitting,
waiting, impatiently waiting
for words to come, fighting
the sour block in her brain,
vainly and restlessly waiting.

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