The Mote in God's Eye

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The Mote in God's Eye
The Mote In God's Eye - original hardcover edition.jpg
First edition (hardcover)
Author Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
Country United States
Language English
Series CoDominium
Genre Science fiction
Publisher Simon and Schuster
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 537 pp
ISBN 0-671-21833-6
OCLC 934734
LC Class PZ4.N734 Mo PS3564.I9
Preceded by King David's Spaceship
Followed by The Gripping Hand, 1993

The Mote in God's Eye is a science fiction novel by American writers Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, first published in 1974. The story is set in the distant future of Pournelle's CoDominium universe, and charts the first contact between humanity and an alien species. The title of the novel is a wordplay on the Biblical "The Mote and the Beam" parable and names a star as seen from a newly settled planet. The Mote in God's Eye was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards in 1975.[1] Robert A. Heinlein, who gave the authors extensive advice on the novel,[2] described the story as "possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read."

Plot summary[edit]

In the year AD 3017, humanity is recovering slowly from an interstellar civil war that tore apart the first Empire of Man. A new Empire has arisen and is busy establishing control over the remnants of its predecessor, by force if required. Roderick Blaine is given command of an Imperial battlecruiser, INSS MacArthur, along with secret orders to take Horace Hussein Bury, a powerful interstellar merchant, to the Imperial capital, Sparta. Another passenger is Lady Sandra Bright "Sally" Fowler, the niece of an Imperial senator.

New Caledonia is the capital of the Trans-Coalsack sector, located on the opposite side of the Coalsack Nebula from Earth. Also in the sector is a red supergiant star known as Murcheson's Eye. Associated with it is a yellow Sun-like star. From New Caledonia, the yellow star appears in front of the Eye. Since some see the Eye and the Coalsack as the face of a hooded man, perhaps even the face of God, the yellow star is known as the Mote in God's Eye.

Blaine receives a message saying that an alien spacecraft has been detected, and that MacArthur is ordered to intercept it. Human ships use the Alderson Drive, which allows them to move instantaneously between points in specific star systems ("Alderson points"). The alien craft, by contrast, is propelled by a solar sail, taking 150 years to cross between stars at sublight speed. MacArthur approaches the craft, which attacks it using the light sail. MacArthur removes the light sail and takes the small remaining probe aboard. On arrival at the planet New Scotland, its single occupant is found to be dead.

The alien is bizarrely asymmetric, with two delicate arms on one side of its body and a single, much larger and stronger arm on the other. Although it is bipedal and has a head and face similar to those of humans, its anatomy is entirely different. It has no flexible spine and the face is capable of little expression. It is the first apparently intelligent alien race that humans have come into contact with. The ship itself is composed of alloys with remarkable properties and custom-built devices, no two alike, that perform multiple unrelated tasks simultaneously.

MacArthur and the battleship Lenin are sent to the star from which the alien ship came, the Mote. MacArthur carries civilian research teams intended to meet with and investigate the inhabitants of the system, or "Moties" as they are quickly nicknamed, while Lenin is there to ensure the security of humanity's technology and secrets, avoiding all contact with the aliens. The Mote has only one Alderson point leading to it, and to reach it the ships must actually enter the outer layers of Murcheson's Eye, the red supergiant. The warships can do this because of their protective Langston Fields. MacArthur successfully makes contact with the Moties. They have advanced technology (in some areas superior to that of the First Empire), but seem friendly and willing to share it. Although they also possess the Alderson Drive, they consider it useless—the "Crazy Eddie" Drive—as it makes their ships disappear; they have no knowledge of the Langston Field. The Moties deduce that humans use the drive because MacArthur and Lenin appear at the "Crazy Eddie Point," the local Alderson point.

The Moties are an old species, native to a planet of the Mote that the humans call Mote Prime, that has evolved into many specialized sub-species. The first to board MacArthur is an "Engineer", a brown-furred form with amazing technical abilities but limited speech. It brings along a pair of tiny Motie "Watchmakers" as assistants. Some days later, an official delegation of Motie "Mediators" arrives, brown and white forms like the dead pilot of the probe ship, who have astounding communication and negotiation skills but very limited ability with tools. A contact party of humans, including Sally Fowler, accompanies them to the surface of Mote Prime. Each Mediator adopts a particular human in this group, becoming his or her Fyunch(click), studying their subject and learning how to think like them, even to the point of being able to exactly imitate their voice and mannerisms.

Back on MacArthur, the Watchmakers have escaped, and although it was assumed they had died, they have actually been breeding furiously. Despite several attempts to rid MacArthur of the infestation, the Watchmakers, unknown to the human crew, continued quietly redesigning MacArthur and rebuilding it for greater living space. When they are discovered, a battle for control of the ship erupts. The crew is eventually forced to abandon ship. The contact party is also recalled without explanation and told to rendezvous directly with Lenin, which destroys MacArthur to prevent the capture of human technology. These events reveal the existence of a Watchmaker-improved Langston Field which expands as it absorbs energy, increasing its surface area and dissipating heat faster.

During the evacuation, three MacArthur midshipmen escape from the ship in lifeboats. They land in an unpopulated area of Mote Prime where they find a fortified museum. It provides evidence of a very long and violent history, though the Moties had carefully portrayed themselves to the Expedition members as completely peaceful. Following this discovery, the midshipmen are reunited with one of their Fyunch(click) Mediator escorts, who reveals the self-destructive character underlying Motie society. The Motie civilization is driven to conflict because of overpopulation: they must continually reproduce or die.

The Moties are sequential hermaphrodites, changing sex over and over again during the course of their lives. However, if a Motie remains female for too long without becoming pregnant, the hormone imbalance will kill her. Attempts at population control through chemicals or infanticide have always failed for the Moties, because those who breed uncontrollably eventually swamp those Moties who comply. Once the population pressure rises high enough, massive wars inevitably result.

Humans have encountered eight of the larger Motie sub-species, not including hybrids such as the Mediators: Masters, Engineers, Doctors, Porters, Farmers, Runners, Watchmakers and Meats, but the Masters concealed the existence of another type - the Warriors. Bred specifically for combat, they are innately superior in ability to any human soldier and capable of using any type of weapon.

Each war typically ends in the complete destruction of the current civilization on Mote Prime. A faster rise to civilization leads to a longer period between collapses. The museums exist to accelerate this process after a collapse. The cycles of civilization, war, and collapse have apparently been repeating for hundreds of thousands of years. In some cases, Mote Prime was completely sterilized and then repopulated by those living in hollowed-out asteroids within the system. The current asymmetrical form is probably a mutation resulting from nuclear weaponry prior to a collapse. The Moties have become fatalistically resigned to the never-ending cycles. Only a mythical character called "Crazy Eddie" believes there is a way to change this, and any Motie who comes to believe a solution is possible is labeled as a "Crazy Eddie" and deemed insane.

The current civilization is organized as a type of industrial feudalism, where coalitions of related Masters govern the planet. Colonizing other planets is proposed as one solution to the cycles. Conflict erupts on Mote Prime between two groups of Masters considering this idea.

The smaller group recognizes that expansion to other planets would eventually bring them into conflict with humans for their planets, especially since humans cannot compete with Moties, technologically, biologically, or even numerically. Motie victory would be inevitable, but eventually futile as the population continues to expand exponentially. The more powerful coalition of Masters sees this temporary solution as more appealing than the impending collapse. Both groups send envoys to the human worlds with instructions to negotiate for the majority position. To conceal the danger to human civilization, the three midshipmen who reached Mote Prime are not permitted to return to Lenin and are killed while resisting capture.

The Lenin returns home, taking with it the three Motie ambassadors. The Motie delegation contains two Mediators called Charlie and Jock, and a Keeper (a sterile Master), known as Ivan. Their mission is to open the galaxy to their ships while concealing the inevitable drive to war of any Motie civilization.

Back on New Caledonia, an Imperial Commission is on the verge of granting colonies to the Moties, not realizing the danger they represent. MacArthur’s sailing master, Kevin Renner, assembles various clues gathered during the expedition. In particular, a series of images taken by MacArthur's cameras as it was attacked by the Motie probe ship reveal the existence of the Motie Warrior caste. Combined with the knowledge of their rapid population growth, this information forces the commission to decide against permitting the Moties to leave their home system.

Because the Moties have seen the Langston Field, it is only a matter of time before they can duplicate it, enabling them to establish colonies independently. It seems the only option is to send the Fleet to disarm or eradicate the entire Motie species. However, the Mediator Charlie, who represents the minority view from Mote Prime, persuades the Commission to establish a permanent blockade of the system's only Alderson point, forcing the Moties to continue with the seemingly endless cycles, until such time as the humans can find a cure for their birth rate, something sane Moties think impossible.


  • Commander Roderick "Rod" Blaine: A navy officer, member of an aristocratic family, commanding the Imperial battlecruiser, INSS MacArthur.
  • Lady Sandra "Sally" Bright Fowler: An anthropologist and the niece of an Imperial senator.
  • His Excellency, Horace Hussein Chamoun al Shamlan Bury: Magnate, Chairman of the Board of Imperial Autonetics, and influential member of the Imperial Traders Association.
  • Nabil: Bury's servant.
  • Jack Cargill: First Lieutenant on board the MacArthur.
  • Jock Sinclair: the Chief Engineer on board the MacArthur.
  • Jonathon Whitbread: Midshipman on board the MacArthur.
  • Horst Staley: Midshipman on board the MacArthur.
  • Gavin Potter: Midshipman on board the MacArthur.
  • Kevin Renner: Sailing Master of MacArthur.
  • Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov: Commander of the mission to the Mote, aboard the flagship Lenin.


Theodore Sturgeon, describing Mote as "one of the most engrossing tales I have encountered in years," reported that "the overall pace of the book [and] the sheer solid story of it" excuse whatever flaws might remain, particularly an unexplained key feature in the imagined alien society.[3] Portsmouth Times reviewer Terry McLaughlin found the novel "a superior tale, told without the pseudo-psychology background that seems to mar many a new science fiction novel."[4]

Brian W. Aldiss and Wingrove reported that while the imagined aliens were "fascinating creations," the "style and characterization [emphasize] the weaknesses of both Niven and Pournelle."[5]

Awards and nominations[edit]


Pournelle and Niven followed up with the sequel The Gripping Hand and in 2010 Pournelle's daughter, Jennifer, published an authorized sequel entitled "Outies."


  1. ^ a b c d "1975 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-20. 
  2. ^ "Letter to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle about 'The Mote in God's Eye'", The Virginia Edition
  3. ^ "Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1974, pp.121-22
  4. ^ "At the Library", Portsmouth Times, November 12, 1974, p.20
  5. ^ Aldiss & Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree, Victor Gollancz, 1986, p.655n43

External links[edit]

  • Links to Maps of part of the Domain of Man and the Mote solar system: [1]