Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Book Review: The Mote in God’s Eye

This book belongs on the short list of great science fiction: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Frank Herbert’s Dune, Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End.  (I include Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld, and John Varley’s Steel Beech as well even though those authors don’t quite achieve grandmaster status.)  It is well paced, full of good ideas, characters, and dramatic tension.  But most importantly for lovers of vintage games, this book is probably one of the most significant literary antecedents of the Traveller universe:

  • The human empire in the novel is divided up into sectors… each which has its own sector fleet.
  • The Trans-Coalsack sector evokes the same feeling that the Spinward Marches does in Traveller does with its “behind the claw” style remoteness.
  • The book discusses gas giant refuelling and demonstrates a ship stopping for fuel at a gas giant’s moon.
  • There are barons, marquis and other noble types… and one naval officer gets knighted in the course of the book.
  • The alien in the book is the prototype for the Droyne in Traveller….
  • Each time that a world is introduced in the book, the basic stellar and system data is presented… much like the gloss presented on the first page of almost any Traveller Double Adventure.

The differences are equally intriguing:

  • Ships jump instantaneously from points on the edges of the solar systems… creating an unusual web of jump-paths.  (However… it can sometimes be quicker to make several jumps to come out to the other side of a star system than it would to travel across the star system directly.
  • There is no anti-gravity, so high G burns are difficult for the crew.
  • The pre-space Earth empire is the USA/USSR derived Co-Dominion.  (If the book was written in the 80’s it would have been the Japanese… or the Chinese if written later than that.)
  • Islam and Christianity are very much alive and influential in the futuristic empire.  This is pleasantly anachronistic… as is the distinctly un-Traveller-like separation of women’s roles that is depicted.  (Traveller tended to leave religion out of the picture and steadfastly make women completely equal as far as game mechanics were concerned.)
  • The first Empire is technologically superior to the current empire… so even though the setting has a “Long Night” style breakdown and succession war period between them, the overall history is more like that of the Battletech universe with its shattered universe and long forgotten Star League era golden age.
  • The world of Sauron (heh heh) develops deadly cybernetic supermen.  The wars with these guys get a few more references than the clone wars got in the original Star Wars movie.  It is reminiscent of the hints about the Butlerian Jihad from the Dune stories….

Wow….  A truly great book.  I don’t expect this to ever be made into a movie, though.  We are much too cynical a people to endure something like this on screen.  It’s full of men that believe in their culture,  their society… and that are willing to do what it takes to perpetuate it without apologizing about it constantly.  Any director that tried to take this on would (depending on who was president at the time) either turn it into a Doctor Strangelove style farce or else give the lead characters the metro-Aragorn treatment by making them require additional fretting and breast beating before they do what needs to be done….  In that sense, 1973 was a perfect time for this masterpiece to be written.  Science fiction had developed past the earlier 200 page novel stage, but had not yet descended into the pointless series and trilogy stage.  As such, its 500+ pages are long enough yield an engrossing, deep experience without stringing you along through useless cliffhangers.  It doesn’t hurt that the world of New Scotland is full of people that wear kilts, either.

I’d like to make a role playing game for this setting, but Marc Miller has beaten me to it….

"MacArthur, a General Class Battlecruiser, began to emerge. She can enter atmosphere, but rarely does so, except when long independent assignments force her to seek fuel on her own. She can do this in either of two ways: go to a supply source, or fly into the hydrogen-rich at­mosphere of a gas giant and scoop. There were scoops on the model, as it happens."

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10 responses to “Book Review: The Mote in God’s Eye

  1. Runeslinger September 20, 2011 at 8:41 pm

    That book has been on my ‘to read’ list for a few too many decades. Thanks for the push to seek it out and read it.

  2. Joachim Boaz September 20, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Is it your favorite of Niven’s?

  3. Redhead September 20, 2011 at 9:31 pm

    I read this years ago, when I was probably too young to appreciate it. Another one to add back to the reading pile. Sigh. I am never gonna get everything read than I wanna read!

  4. Joachim Boaz September 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    yeah, me too — I read this when I was too young to appreciate it.

  5. jeffro September 20, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    @Runeslinger — A Battletech fan really ought to read this…!

    @Boaz– This is my first Niven book, so yes. Maybe he’s like Coltrane… “the last giant.”

    @Redhead– When I reread Dune as an adult, I could see so much more in it than before. I was pretty much a blank slate as far as religion and politics were back when I was in school.

    It looks like I’m immediately rereading this upon finishing. I can’t remember doing that before….

    • Runeslinger September 20, 2011 at 10:46 pm

      I will go hunting in the bookstores this very weekend! Don’t miss the Ringworld series if you can still find it. That was my introduction to Niven.

      • Bill September 26, 2011 at 6:49 am

        A real classic. While there is a sequel, in my opinion, it isn’t as good as the original book.

        Much of Niven’s stuff is loosely woven around the Co-Dominion, and really it helps to read all his stuff, including the books Prince of Sparta, Go Tell the Spartans, The Mercenary (and Prince of Mercenaries).

        Then there is Ringoworld, which is another classic.

      • Brett Evill October 30, 2011 at 5:00 pm

        @ Bill: Actually, it is Pournelle’s work that it woven around the CoDominium, with works such as “West of Honor” and “Prince of Sparta”.

    • Joachim Boaz September 26, 2011 at 11:42 am

      Well, as others have pointed out, if you want Niven’s best read Ringworld (the sequels are cringe worthy). He’s not the best at characters and his ideas, although grand, are often empty….

      • Brett Evill October 30, 2011 at 5:15 pm

        For the best of Niven’s novels I would suggest “Protector”, which is not short of ideas and has the characters done better than most. But I think he is probably at his best with short stories: “Inconstant Moon” and “The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton” are good collections.

        For another story in the setting of “The Mote in God’s Eye” I suggest Pournelle’s “King David’s Spaceship” as being superior to the sequel “The Gripping Hand” (a.k.a. “The Moat Around Murcheson’s Eye”). Pournelle’s daughter J.R. Pournelle has written a novel called “Moties” set after “The Gripping Hand”. I haven’t read that yet.

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