21 February 2017

Book Review: The Mote in God's Eye and The Gripping Hand

A fan build model kit of the INSS MacArthur in the possession of Jerry Pournelle
This winter at the instigation of Ronald Stepp on my prior post, I read both The Mote in God's Eye and The Gripping Hand. While The Gripping Hand post dates the publication of Traveller by over a decade, Mote can be considered a forebearer, as it was written shortly before the release of Classic Traveller in 1977. Beowulf Shaeffer from Niven's Known Space stories was profiled in Supplement 1 from 1978, so I think it may be a good influence. The Mote in God's Eye is the first part, and The Gripping Hand is the after the break.

Fundamentally, Mote is a book about events, and not people. The Second Empire has arisen, and in the process of establishing it's rule. A daring action leads the dashing noble officer Roderick Blaine into command of the battle cruiser MacArthur. Heavily damaged in this pacification action, it is sent back home, with two important passengers, Lady Sandra young woman from a prominent family conducting field research, and Horace Bury, a merchant suspected of starting a revolt. It is the only starship on the scene as an unknown solar sail spacecraft appears, and disables the unknown ship. Finding out it's from a non Terrestrial race, and this is the first time chance for a First Contact, the MacArthur and its passengers are reassigned, to the first first contact with an alien intelligence.

And what an alien intelligence the Moties turn out to be. A biologically casted species, who must reproduce or die, they are an excellent foil to humanity. They understand the technology of Alderston Drive for interstellar travel, but do not have the Langston Shield that allows human ships to take more damage and even enter the photosphere of a star. Neither party really understands each other is hiding something, like the Imperial Battleship Lenin at the only Alderson point that leaves the system, or the Motie Warrior Caste. The Humanity is just as alien to the Moties psychologically, especially when the MacArthur's engineer meets them. Humanity's lack of specialization drives some of the Moties mad, as well as our reproductive biology. Locked into their star system, the Moties are in an eternal Malthusian Trap.

The characters are not particularly memorable, as they fill roles in the story, and are archetypes for the most part. The big character development moment is for Bury seeing a dead man's space suit filled with Watchmaker Moties causes him to radically change his position, from resentful of the Empire, to knowing it is the only force that defend humanity from the aliens. The final resolution involves a blockade being established at the request of one of the Motie mediators once the truth of the Moties is known. The book ends with Bury getting blackmailed into becoming an agent of the Empire with an officer, Kevin Renner formerly of the MacArthur, reactivated from getting out as his minder.

With the permission of Rob Caswell. Original image here
Twenty-five years later, Renner and Bury have been ensuring stability and the expansion of the Empire. In hearing the unusual idiom "The Gripping Hand", it starts the action. It turns out the mostly Mormon world they are visiting has a governor who was one of the spacers from the MacArthur expedition, and there has been clandestine trade with an unabsorbed world. This drives Bury into a panic, which is not good for an old man who goes through space to the Imperial Capital and then to the area around the Eye. Upon examining information from the original expedition, hey realize that a new way out of the Mote system may occur very soon rather than when they were told (see, sneaky Moties), and seek prevent expansionist Motie Leaders from invading the Empire. The ending has a Deus-ex-machina in the form of a contraceptive parasite, allowing for peaceful coexistence.

What good ideas can this offer a Traveller Referee or a science fiction author? 

Well, the nature of the Imperial Navy is a good one. The officer corps has two elements. There's the sons of nobility, who can move quickly in the ranks, but if they fail, they fail hard. Blaine is pretty much told that if he had lost his gambit, he would have caused more death in the opening. He's also a young man sent to high positions quickly, while some of his officer subordinates like Jock the Chief Engineer, and Kevin Renner are older men, but still in line for command.

Another is the nature of the Imperium, especially in the days of Cleon and Artemsus. Vibrant, expansionist, and willing to use the velvet glove as much as the mailed fist. Vice-Admiral Kutuzov, commanding the Lenin, is assigned because he is a man who will do his duty, even if it means sterilizing a world. It is a good reminder that empires are not built by nice men. The leadership does what must be done to save humanity when dealing with the Moties. However, working to peacefully bring worlds and regions in is just as good, if not better, as it means there is much less bloodshed and more good will.

A third is religion. A difficult subject in games, the presence of faith is important in Niven and Pournelle's empire. The Chaplain is a major character, because he's also a linguist as well as a priest. The sights of the beyond inspire reverence, and even a new religion; in this case the Church of Him. And finally, we come to why Bury was funding a revolution in Mote, it was to ensure that Islam would continue to be practiced, out of a fear the Church, vaguely Catholic, would unfairly dominate it. I think that faith, as a touchy subject, should be avoided in someways, but can add an interesting dimension. It is another factor that can push or pull characters. A man leaving a theocracy can still have links to the belief system.

Finally make your aliens different. Biology, psychology, all ways to vary them radically from the norm. I am not much of a fan of the Official Traveller Universe's Vargr and Aslan, as they are far too much 'humans in rubber suits' aliens. I like the Hivers as an idea much more. Some of the best ideas come from something really out there, like the Moties. If your'e going to have aliens, make them As Weird As Possible, not just people in funny suits.

More about the model used to design the MacArthur:
Project Rho.
Frank Henriquez

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