Okay, so I read The Gripping Hand right away after finishing Mote. While it wasn’t particularly good, neither was it quite as bad as some of the other follow-ups to science fiction classics.
* The opening segment is practically a stand-along short story that gives us more information about the Firefly-like Outties. Apparently the technology for terraforming worlds is pretty much lost at the time of these novels, so folks out there lead a pretty hardscrabble life in places as the atmosphere becomes steadily less breathable.
* We get additional insight into the Moties… especially the strange offworld civilization. (Before starting the book, I had remarked that I’d taken an interest in Arabic culture simply because it was so alien– far more alien than most space-aliens in fiction. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was in fact a major theme of the book… and a fairly well implemented one at that.) The key components of this were well established in Mote as far as I could tell– this all seemed to logically follow what was set up before, especially when it was surprising.
* The two characters that were raised by mediators are great at reading people and “playing” them. However… things go badly for them as the relationship takes on a life of its own. This in and of itself is a good idea. But to have a female character sleep with someone just to spare him from a lifetime of bitterness against women… that is completely useless from a dramatic standpoint. I neither respect nor empathize with either character and consequently could care less about what happens to them.
* Renner kicks off the book with one “main squeeze”, ditches her before the big adventure, and then ends up with some other woman at the end. This subplot is so poorly developed that I wasn’t even sure who he ended up with at the end even though I reread the key paragraphs a couple of times.
* The Sauron supermen were kind of a cute gimmick in the background of the first novel. We get to see one up close in a useless subplot here. Again, the authors do nothing to make me like the characters before they start messing with them. This portion of the book could have been cut out altogether.
* The space battle was epic, but… boring. I’d spent most of Mote and half of Gripping Hand terrified that the Moties would get out, but by the time the shooting started, it seemed like the humans held all the ace cards. Ultimately, they were mildly worried that they were going to run out of ammo before the cavalry finally showed up…. There was no ah-ha moment where some character pulled out some awesome move in the last moment.
So ultimately, the novel is mediocre more from poor execution than anything else. The groundwork was in place for this to be good, unlike in the sequels to Star Wars or The Matrix. The authors aren’t trying to be cute or prove anything or be pretentious like Orson Scott Card seemed to be doing with Speaker for the Dead. They just failed to make any of the characters particularly likable while piling on two or three subplots too many.
I think the book would have been much more successful had it contained three or four short stories covering some adventures of Renner and Horace on a variety of worlds. This should have been followed with a hefty novella covering the Motie breakout, the negotiations, and the space battle. If they had done this (and if they had stuck to a single well developed romance during all of this) then they would have had a real winner. Even so, the close up look at Outties, New Ireland, and the Motie outsystem made the book worth my time.
Note that the model for the Matt Jeffries designed Lief Erikson (which as the inspiration for the MacArthur in Mote) is available here.
King David’s Spaceship is the next item on my to-read list for this setting. It is reprinted as part of Fires of Freedom.