Sci-Fi Storm

Review: Niven/Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand

by on May.24, 2002, under Books

I just recently read both The Mote in God’s Eye, followed by the sequel The Gripping Hand, written some 18 years later. For my first foray into a non-Known Space Niven work, I was very impressed with the former, a little less so with the latter. Read More for more details – but beware of spoilers.


My attraction to certain novels (and other SF media) seems to gravitate to stories with well-thought our backgrounds, fleshed out universes, etc. Niven’s Known Space fits in that category. My exposure to non-Known Space Niven was limited to those stories found in collections like N-Space, where they were mixed with Known Space stories.

This, my first real non-Known Space novel, co-written with Jerry Pournelle, takes place in what is known as the CoDominium universe, mapped out for 1000+ years into the future. Man has moved out among the stars, thanks to the Alderson Drive, which allows ships to move along the “flux lines” between most stars, and the Langston Field, which is able to absorb tremendous amounts of energy and dissipate it. Along the way, the Empire of Man is founded with an aristocratic government (including feudal titles), and several wars have resulted in the loss of a large amount of knowledge.

At the time of Mote, the Second Empire of Man is recovering from devastating Secession Wars, and ships and Langston Fields have become scarce. On the other side of the Coal Sack, while the navy fights battles against rebels and pirates, a new potential threat is discovered – an alien space ship is approaching from a course from the “Mote”, a small star near a much larger one called Murcheson’s Eye. No one has ever visited the Mote before, as the theoretical Alderson Point to jump to it would exist within the photosphere of Murcheson’s Eye itself. The ship is approaching New Caledonia via normal space – a solar sail craft launched over a hundred years earlier by a massive laser that for a time made the Mote brighter than the Eye. Now man’s first encounter with an alien species approaches, and Captain Roderick Blaine is sent to intercept – only to result in an incident where the alien pilot is killed.

A new mission is formed to go to the Mote itself, and when the ships MacArthur and Lenin arrive, the find a race with a very specialized division of castes – Masters who rule, Mediators who negotiate (and learn extremely fast), Engineers who design and build, and Watchmakers (also called Brownies), who help build.

Everything is build-to-task, and if it is not needed at the time it is made into something else. They are the ultimate recyclers, as their ancient civilization has exhausted most of the natural resources of their solar system.

The Moties learn very fast from the humans as they negotiate for trade agreements. But the humans start to realize something is amiss – the Moties are hiding a dark secret about themselves and their past. Then things start to go wrong…

Mote definitely is one of the best all time SF novels. Well thought out science, vivid imagery, all the stuff that makes me love a story. The ending, however, left me wanting more. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait 18 years for the sequel, as those who read it when it was first published did.

Hand picks up some 25 years later, where the Empire is still operating a blockade at the Eye to the only Alderson Point leading to the Mote. The Moties have discovered the Langston Field, which would allow them to survive for a time in the photosphere of the Eye – if only the Empire Navy didn’t shoot them down. However, questions on the cost, necessity, and possible corruption of the Blockade Fleet have arisen. At the same time, people start to remember a fatal flaw in the blockade – it assumes that the Alderson Point is fixed in space. Usually it is, but another star is forming in the Coal Sack sooner than expected, and it could change the position of the Alderson Point – and even add more.

Thus, a race to determine the situation in and around the Mote ensues, trying to prevent the Moties from escaping, and unleashing their secret on the Empire….

Hand was a worthy sequel story-wise, but often times I was left confused. The Moties in Hand are not from Mote Prime, but from asteroid and moon civilzations, and are very fractured – each “family” has different domains of control and they are all competing to control more – and are changing sides more than a dice on a craps table. Some of the imagery didn’t seem as concrete – I had trouble picturing the large space battles among the Moties, possibly because of issues picturing things like light-speed lag and such. Which Motie belongs to which group also became confusing, so it was hard to follow the points of view.

Anyways, they were still and enjoyable read, and I find myself hoping for more stories set in this universe.



2 Comments for this entry

  • fiziko

    Other stories

    These books were set in a Universe Pournelle had been writing in for some time. Other stories in this Universe are published under Pournelle’s name only.

    I’ve read most of the Niven and Pournelle collaborations, and I’d have to say “The Gripping Hand” was my least favourite of the bunch. My favourite was “Oath of Fealty,” which I strongly recommend. It’s the only subtle distopia I’ve ever read.

  • rlrr

    Read Mote, Skip Hand

    The Mote in God’s Eye is definately worth reading. The Gripping Hand, on the other hand (groan!) is crap.