Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
The Mote in God's Eye / Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Monday, 11 December 2006
What if when we break “out there,” we will find out that we really are alone?

In the “Empire of Man” stories by Jerry Pournelle, this is exactly what happens. The human empire, out amongst the stars thanks to the Alderson Drive, does find life in various planets, even complex animal life, but no intelligent life. In other words, there is nobody for us to talk with.

Then, suddenly, in 3017 AD, the Moties are discovered, as a single slower-than-light ship arrives, after over a century of travel, from their system — The Mote — to the New Caledonia system. Will they be friendly? Will they be nice? Clearly, they have no faster-than-light travel, but perhaps they do have other technologies or cultural riches that can benefit mankind?

INSS MacArthur, commanded by aristocrat Rod Blaine, is sent to intercept the ship. But things don’t end up all too well:

(From the book) Long after Sally left, Rod was still studying the report. When he was finished, three facts stuck in his mind:
The Motie was an intelligent toolmaker.
It had traveled across thirty-five light years to find human civilization.
And Rod Blaine had killed it.

A military and scientific team is hastily assembled and sent to the Mote system. The Moties are discovered as intelligent, friendly, and talkative; their technology, in particular, is far more advanced than humankind’s. It is purely by chance that they were not able to leave their system so far: they did discover the physics that led to the development of the Alderson Drive (which they call the Crazy Eddie drive). But none of the ships they’ve sent through the Alderson Point (err, Crazy Eddie point) in their system ever returned. The humans know that this happens because the Point in the Mote system leads directly into the edge of a nearby star; no human ship could have made the trip without the protective Langston Field, but the Moties apparently never discovered that field.

Now, do we greet them and tell them all about it? After all, they do seem like such a peaceful, lovable race...

Except that they hold a terrible secret.

The Mote in God’s Eye was Niven and Pournelle’s first collaboration, and a wildly successful one. Although each of the authors has his own unique style, they make out an excellent pair (as also evident in later books, such as Lucifer’s Hammer). No previous familiarity with Pournelle’s Empire of Man universe is assumed in this book, which in fact outshines any other work that takes place in the same universe.

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Tal Cohen writes:
(Spoiler) Motie Biology
I didn't include this in the main review, because it's a spoiler, but:

On the one hand, given that genes are selfish, a biology of multiply-or-die seems much more reasonable and likely to survive than our own, where proliferation is done mostly for fun.

On the other hand, even Darwin realized that survival-of-the-fittest happens because life increases in exponential numbers, here on Earth. So stronger mechanisms are not really needed.

The gripping hand is that fast proliferation is likely to be a common thing among interstellar life (if it exists). Ergo, even given a practically unlimited number of planets, and friendly intentions, aliens can be a great risk purely due to their biology.

Other than that, the biology presented by Niven and Pournelle had some big holes in it -- in particular the Watchmakers. Tiny brains, supposedly un-intelligent, and can improve on technologies they've never met before? That's just too much, and doesn't fit in the otherwise hard-core book.
[66] Posted on Monday, 11 December 2006 at 12:15 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Kalaong writes:
Motie Biology
The term for that is 'Idiot Savant'.
[108] Posted on Monday, 12 February 2007 at 18:51 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tal Cohen writes in reply to Kalaong:
Motie Biology
I assume you refer to the ''watchmakers'' as idiot savants. But to be able to improve on technical concepts (at the level in which they did so in the story!) there should be, I believe, a minimal brain size... These creatures are supposedly rat-sized; the intelligent counterparts have (again, supposedly) human-sized heads, and ergo human-sized brains. Since they are ''related'', I doubt the watchmaker brains are biologically different.
[109] Posted on Thursday, 15 February 2007 at 8:45 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Thomas Gentry writes in reply to Tal Cohen:
Motie Biology
So, I know I'm late to the discussion but, Watchmakers are described as being(Paraphrase) one-third the height of the Engineer. That makes the Watchmakers just over a foot tall given that the Engineer was described as being just over a meter tall.
[353] Posted on Sunday, 16 November 2008 at 9:03 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Yakir Ari writes:
Hi Tal
Hi Tal.
Funny to stumble upon this page.
For several reasons that might be.
First, the way I got here was by searching a bit to read about Object Evolution, your talk at IBM this week. (I'm from Dalit's group, at Tel Aviv, and thought the subject is really interesting, I will probably miss the talk due to the fact I am here just parts of the week).
The second, is that I've just met Larry Niven, last week. He spoke about this and that for several hours. This was one of the most interesting talks I have heard by I writer, on his writing. It had a lot of insight, and made you really want to jump and write a sci-fi novel as well. Anyhow, I'll take your recommendation for this one, since I haven't read it, and come back to tell you what I thought about it.

It would be great if you could point me to some more reading about object evolution, to my personal mail, or to ariy@il.ibm.com

Cheers, bye.
[295] Posted on Sunday, 23 March 2008 at 12:04 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tal Cohen writes in reply to Yakir Ari:

Hello Yakir,

Here is the original paper on Object Evolution. It's also Chapter 6 of my PhD dissertation.

I hope and believe you'll enjoy The Mote.
[296] Posted on Monday, 24 March 2008 at 6:36 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Gabriel Hanna writes:
Watchmakers and evolution
Beaver's don't ''know'' how to build dams. When they hear running water, they have have an irrestible urge to chop down a tree and throw on their dam. When they stop hearing running water, the urge goes away. The result is a beaver dam.

Maybe you know how to solve differential equations, but I know you can't do it fast enough to catch a ball thrown at you. Yet you catch them. Apes can throw and catch things and they don't know anything about ballistics.

Watchmakers and Engineers are like that.
[394] Posted on Tuesday, 02 June 2009 at 5:41 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

Tal Cohen writes in reply to Gabriel Hanna:
Watchmakers and evolution
Somehow, I don't see evolution evolving small-brained creatures that can instinctively improve electronic devices.
[395] Posted on Tuesday, 02 June 2009 at 8:40 GMT [Reply to this] [Permalink]

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