Science Fiction

Science Fiction: Niven and Pournelle


The evolution of science fiction, like that of life, can take strange turns. Its history has been one of mutation, adaptive radiation, hybridization—and sometimes bastardization. And there are throwbacks.…

One hardly knows what to call one recent turn, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called The Mote in God's Eye. But one of the side-effects of this unlikely collaboration is a crash course in the development of SF over the last 30 years.

It was about that long ago that Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series, accidentally invented the Galactic Empire—an empire of titled nobility and feudal social structure, populated (for some unaccountable reason) solely by Homo sapiens, without an alien in sight.

Asimov's interest was in Toynbee's theory of challenge and response in history, and his epic drew on Roman and medieval parallels—but with the key additional element of "psychohistory," a science of social dynamics that enabled his "Foundations" to shorten the dark age following the collapse of one empire and guide the birth of the next.

Perhaps because it appealed to the nostalgia for Ruritania, the Galactic Empire soon became a staple—and eventually the bane—of science fiction. A.E. Van Vogt, H. Beam Piper, Poul Anderson and a host of others were soon creating galactic empires right and left, no matter how much they were lambasted by critics for transplanting feudalism into the future.

Of course, it's not necessarily unrealistic to project authoritarianism into the future—current trends are ominous enough. And one could even draw parallels between the power structures of feudal society and political machines. But parallels are only parallels—history never exactly repeats, especially in customs and terminology. The Latin "imperator" didn't always refer to a monarch, while today we already have imperial powers attached to the title of "chairman."

That is why, for example, Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind with its utopian mystique and its presidium-like council of chiefs overseeing a bureaucracy of commissioners, subcommissioners, magnates and the like, is more convincing than the galactic empire Anderson has inherited from his early works of the 1950's with its emperors, dukes, counts and court ceremonies.

Not that Anderson hasn't written some excellent novels with this background, such as The People of the Wind and his underrated The Rebel Worlds. But writers newer to the SF scene tend to avoid the cliches of historical cycles, even while continuing to work the underlying themes—in Ursula LeGuin's future, the nonmonarchial but still oppressive League of All Worlds represents the "imperial" phase.

As for Niven, he has never treated history as a cyclical phenomenon at all. His Known Space series was one of straight-line development, from a viewpoint that could be called either "conservative" or "liberal," depending on how you look at it—world government and population control at home, expansion into space and alien contact abroad and, most important, human history becoming part of an already ongoing galactic history.

Niven's hallmarks are his inventiveness with alien beings and cultures (Puppeteers, kzinti, handersnatchi, and monks), cultural dislocations arising from new technology ("organlegging" becomes a crime as the demand for transplants increases), bizarre worlds (Jinx is like an Easter egg, with airless poles and a soupy ocean around the equator), and ultimate engineering wonders (Ringworld).

Pournelle's works, by contrast, read as if the man had never had an original idea in his life. He has not only revived the galactic empire in science fiction—he believes in it. Niven may be conservatively skeptical of libertarianism ("Cloak of Anarchy"), but he's a humane writer without any real axes to grind. Pournelle takes seriously the virtues of militarism and imperialism as, in some conditions at least, the only hope for humanity.

His empire not only has its emperor and dukes and other nobles, but planets like New Scotland where, after a thousand years, the inhabitants still retain their Scotch brogue—and a state religion close enough to Episcopalianism that the difference scarcely matters.


In the year 3017, the Second Empire of Man is struggling to reassert its dominion over human worlds after the disastrous Secession Wars that destroyed the first empire. The hero of The Mote in God's Eye has, at the beginning of the novel, just helped put down the revolt of New Chicago in defense of an imperial hegemony that has never been challenged by alien contact—until now.

The title of the novel is ironic, and Sanford Z. Meschkow, one of the leading Niven authorities in the country, has suggested it holds a clue to the origin of the collaboration. Both men and aliens, in this epic of first contact, suffer from cycles of cultural death and rebirth—though to say more would give away its best surprises—and since Niven doesn't believe in cyclical galactic empires, he brought in Pournelle, who does.

That's speculation, of course. What can't be doubted is that the collaboration is like a modern automobile engine and chassis with a Model T body over them. But if readers can get past the early chapters of military discipline, court etiquette and neo-Victorian love interest, they'll discover some of Niven's best work in the "core" of the novel.

Men have known faster-than-light travel for centuries, and have expanded across hundreds of light years—so they are astounded when a probe appears from a star within their empire that they have never explored: a manned sailship that has made its way slowly over 35 light-years by light pressure alone. But when Lord Roderick Blaine accidentally kills the alien pilot while trying to intercept its craft, the fat is really in the fire.

The home star of the alien is a yellow-green dwarf directly in front of a red giant as seen from New Scotland—so it has always been called the Mote in God's Eye by New Scotch locals, and the aliens naturally become known as Moties.

Motie biology and culture are pure Niven, although Pournelle's influence may have curbed some of Niven's usual extravagances (like the "bolonium" from which his Ringworld was constructed). Moties have evolved into a number of specialized types, have a technology based on constant adaptation and multiple usage of hand-crafted devices rather than mass production of interchangeable units—and share a secret that could make them a threat to the very existence of mankind.

The human expedition sent to the Mote has its secrets to keep too—those of the faster-than-light drive and the force field that could be turned to military advantage by a potential enemy. Yet, like the Moties, they hope for peaceful contact, for some way of minimizing the risks that are bound to occur to each of them.

Intrigue and mutual deception are the order of the day as Man and Motie meet for the first time near the Mote and its single habitable planet. Trade and discussion are carefully controlled by security-conscious Lord Blaine and his commander, and xenophobic Admiral Kutuzov—but disaster strikes Blaine's ship, and he can't even be sure if it is an intentional attack.

Disturbing discoveries are made. Why should Mote Prime have craters like Mars? Why do abandoned Motie outposts in the asteroids seem so ancient? Why did the alien engineer brought aboard Blaine's ship sicken and die—and why are the Moties evasive about that and other matters, especially if they are as peaceful and benevolent as they seem?

Moties, for their part, can't understand the humans' lack of specialization—Blaine giving orders one moment, taking them the next—or their seemingly clumsy technology. Nor can they believe the human assumption of change and free will is sane—among the Moties, whoever questions the inevitability of their cycles is considered insane—the "Crazy Eddie" syndrome.

Added to Niven's imaginativeness in developing the world of the Moties is the tension of the overall plot: will the humans learn their secret in time? And if they do, have they any choice short of exterminating the Moties to protect themselves? But, in spite of considerable rewriting to minimize stylistic differences, Niven's attitude contrasts with Pournelle's.

To Niven, the predicament of the Moties is a tragedy. To Pournelle it is simply a threat. Other subtle differences appear too—Pournelle's empire keeps women in an inferior role, and Lady Sandra Fowler, an anthropologist as well as Blaine's love interest, seems an upstart. But in Niven's portion of the novel, where she is in charge of direct contacts with the Moties, she is treated more sympathetically. Even Niven's service heroes, such as Kevin Renner, come across better than Pournelle's—such as Jock Sinclair, a New Scotch ship's engineer who comes on like a fugitive from Star Trek.

Niven's imagination raises The Mote in God's Eye to great heights in two central sections of the novel, where he apparently did most of the original writing. Pournelle doubtless wrote most of the first, and at least half the last. Reading them with this in mind sets off the contrast between two writers—and two generations of thinking in science fiction.

John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.