First Contact Goes Awry: The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

Even before the stories were called “science fiction,” authors have speculated on and theorized about contact with alien beings. In 1974, two of the era’s most popular science fiction authors, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, decided to team up and produce the ultimate first contact novel, a tale they called A Mote in God’s Eye. Their different approaches to storytelling ended up meshing quite well; not only did they produce a landmark novel, they started a best-selling collaboration that lasted for decades. The book was praised by Robert Heinlein as “[t]he best novel about human beings making first contact with intelligent but utterly non-human aliens I have ever seen, and possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” Today, I’ll look at that original novel, one of my favorite novels of all time, and also its 1993 sequel, The Gripping Hand, which—while some feel that it’s not as strong as the original book—brings the tale to a satisfying conclusion.

Throughout human history, initial periods of contact between different cultures have often been disruptive, and even disastrous, particular for the weaker or less aggressive culture. This sense of jeopardy was palpable in the seminal 1945 story by Murray Leinster, “First Contact,” which gave a name to what has essentially become an entire sub-genre of science fiction (I reviewed that story, and others by Leinster, here). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has an excellent article on the theme of First Contact here.

While the Niven/Pournelle collaboration was successful in capturing the excitement and tension of a first contact scenario, the writing process itself was not easy. In N-Space, his 1990 collection, Niven wrote of the challenges of writing The Mote in God’s Eye, which took years. Niven mentioned that Heinlein, wanting the tale to fully live up to the praise he’d given their efforts, recommended a number of changes to the book, and even copy-edited the final draft. And in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind (1991), Niven discussed writing The Gripping Hand. He had not been satisfied with the ending of the first book, and had long tinkered with ideas for a sequel. The sequel was delayed by the periods of writer’s block that Pournelle suffered from later in his career, but thankfully, he eventually had a burst of creativity that allowed them to finish.

The final products of this collaboration display a remarkable synergy, with each author bringing his unique strengths to the collaboration. The reactionary obsession with order of Pournelle’s Empire of Man was pitted effectively against the chaotic strangeness of Niven’s alien “Moties.” The authors’ collaborations always result in a variety of interesting characters, and I enjoy guessing which author created which character (imagining that the old military guys whose dire warnings are often ignored originate with Pournelle, and the inquisitive types with a disregard for rules originate with Niven, for example). And of course both authors can always be counted on to write gripping tales of adventure.

The critical and fan response to The Mote in God’s Eye was overwhelmingly positive. Some readers have complained that Pournelle’s Empire of Man setting feels reactionary, and indeed, his all-male military and imperial government seems even more quaint today than it did four decades ago. But the craftsmanship, creativity, and attention to detail that the authors brought to the book were widely praised. Reactions to The Gripping Hand were more mixed—perhaps not surprising when you consider the high bar set by the first book. But, taken together, the two novels present us with a remarkable tale, full of adventure and excitement, which grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and doesn’t let go until the final page is turned.


About the Authors

Larry Niven (born 1938) is a noted author of science fiction who specializes in finding fictional inspirations on the boundaries of scientific discovery, and creating unique alien worlds and beings. You can find my review of his novel Ringworld here.

Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017) was an author who focused on both science fiction and fact, whose solo work often featured military adventures. You can find my review of his novel The Mercenary here, and my review of his novel A Spaceship for the King here.

Separately, both Niven and Pournelle had significant writing careers. But for a few decades, working as a team, they were one of the hottest commodities in the science fiction field, with their books frequently appearing on best-seller lists, including The Mote in God’s Eye in 1974, Lucifer’s Hammer in 1977, Footfall in 1985, and (with Stephen Barnes) The Legacy of Heorot and Beowulf’s Children in 1987 and 1995. They returned to the world of the Mote with The Gripping Hand in 1993.


The Empire of Man

The “Mote” books were notable for the significant and detailed work that went into building the universe, and, fortunately for those who are interested in the craft of writing, that process was well documented. At the time the first book was written, Pournelle was writing a science column called “A Step Farther Out” for Galaxy magazine, and in the January 1976 issue, he and Niven published a non-fiction article on “Building The Mote in God’s Eye.” This essay was reprinted in a collection of Pournelle’s columns, also entitled A Step Farther Out, and in Niven’s aforementioned fiction and non-fiction collection, N-Space.

The books were set in Pournelle’s “Empire of Man” future history, which is informed by his belief that history is cyclical, with periods of consolidation and destruction, and that empires are one of the forms of government that will reoccur. Mankind, apparently the only intelligent life in the cosmos, first spread to the stars under the leadership of the “CoDominium,” a corrupt alliance of the United States and the Soviet Union, which collapsed, engulfing the colonies in interstellar war. Out of this chaos emerged the First Empire. A rival coalition of worlds, led by the planet Sauron, which practiced genetic engineering, was defeated after leaving the First Empire in tatters, and now the Second Empire is intent on preventing future wars by uniting human worlds under a single, central government.

There are major two technological innovations that have shaped human civilization. The first is the Alderson Drive, which allows ships to travel instantaneously between star systems that have “tramlines,” or links that exist between certain stars. Some stars have no tramlines, while others have many, and stellar events, such as novas, can disrupt these links. Human civilization is built around these tramlines; systems without them, and the vast spaces between stars, remain largely unexplored. The second major piece of technology is the Langston Field, which creates a sphere that can absorb energy, and can be used to protect both cities on planets and ships in space. The fields, when fired upon, can partially collapse, or burn through, or collapse completely, destroying everything within them.

One area where Niven and Pournelle were prescient in predicting a future development their contemporaries largely overlooked was in equipping their humans with pocket computers, and showing how having a wealth of information at their fingertips would change future decision making.

The Imperial government bears no small resemblance to Imperial Britain, right down to its titles and its state religion. The practices and organization of the all-male Imperial Navy are copied, almost intact, from the days of Lord Nelson and British domination of the seas. It is this human society, hierarchal and obsessed with order, that makes contact with the aliens of the “Mote.”

The alien beings, or “Moties,” are largely drawn from the vivid imagination of Larry Niven, whose “Known Space” stories are populated with all manner of distinctly non-human beings. They are strikingly asymmetrical, with two small right arms used for detail work, and a huge left arm—the “gripping hand,” whose muscles are anchored to the top of the head—used for heavy lifting. Existing behind the Coal Sack, in a system not easily reached by the Alderson Drive, the Moties had been previously undetected by humans. The authors do not give much information on the aliens in their Galaxy article—understandably, since unraveling the secret of their society and nature is at the core of the book.

The Mote in God’s Eye was edited for length, with one discarded segment—a battle scene that would have opened the novel—later appearing as the short story “Reflex” in Pournelle’s first There Will Be War anthology. 


The Mote in God’s Eye

Newly promoted Captain Blaine of Imperial Space Naval Ship MacArthur has distinguished himself in pacifying the rebel world of New Chicago. Now he has been ordered to take his ship to the world of New Scotland for repairs, and then travel on to the Imperial capital on Sparta. He has two important passengers on board. One is Sandra Fowler, an anthropology student whose father is an influential Senator. The other is His Excellency Horace Bury, a trade official suspected of supporting the recent rebellion. Upon arrival in the New Scotland system, Blaine is tasked with intercepting an interstellar vessel, powered by a lightsail, which has entered the system. The ship is unlike anything humans have ever constructed, and it’s clear that this may be a first contact situation. MacArthur is fired upon by a laser, and severs the ship from its sail, unfortunately killing its inhabitant, an alien being.

It turns out that the laser was an automated meteor defense, and not a deliberate attack. The ship originated from a star near the Coal Sack, the “Mote,” whose only tramline passes through the outer shell of a nearby red supergiant star. The Imperial government, eager to prevent further misunderstandings, wants to launch a mission as soon as possible. MacArthur, with a contingent of scientists aboard, will make contact, while the battleship Lenin, commanded by the ruthless Vice Admiral Kutuzov, will stand by and observe. Lenin has orders to take any measures, including destroying MacArthur, to protect the secrets of the Alderson Drive and Langston Field, the cornerstones of Imperial military power. Sandra Fowler insists on being part of the scientific contingent, and Bury comes along as a trade representative.

MacArthur, upon arriving in the Mote system, immediately finds a Motie in a small spaceship who is strangely uncommunicative, but inclined to tinker with every device it encounters. It also has small companions, at first thought to be children, but then seen more as semi-intelligent helpers. The tinkering explains the fact that there were no interchangeable parts on the Motie probe; every piece of technology was custom-built. The humans are contacted by other Moties, and soon realize that there are many specialized subspecies, including the Engineers and Watchmakers they have already met, and also leaders including Mediators, Masters, Keepers, and a whole host of other aliens whose attributes are shaped by the tasks they perform.

The Moties invite a human contingent to their planet, which we follow largely through the viewpoint of MacArthur’s clever and irreverent quasi-civilian “Sailing Master,” Kevin Renner. The contingent also includes a group of young midshipmen, who soon become pawns in a deadly game. The scientists are fascinated by the Moties, and Bury is intrigued by their technological abilities and opportunities for trade. But the Moties are far from united, and their society is a mix of fiercely competing factions. Moreover, they hide a chaotic secret that will horrify the order-obsessed Imperials when it is uncovered. There are plenty of adventures, as well as tragedy and destruction awaiting the humans, and not all will make it out alive. The tale ends with an uneasy blockade of the Mote system, which echoes the Cold War stalemate that gripped our world at the time the book was written, where every day that Armageddon was postponed was seen as a small victory.


The Gripping Hand

A generation has passed, not only since the events of the first book, but also in the real world. The sequel is less steeped in Cold War pessimism than the original. It also introduces more female characters (although this step toward inclusion also highlights the fact that Niven and Pournelle are sometimes not at their best when portraying women). Horace Bury has been utterly transformed by his encounter with the Moties: Once a fierce opponent of the Empire, he now sees it as mankind’s best hope against the Motie threat, and with Kevin Renner, works as an Imperial intelligence agent. They travel to a colony world where a Motie expression, “On one hand…on the other hand…on the gripping hand…” has become common, and fear it is evidence that someone has found a way to break the blockade. Although the expression turns out to have come from a more mundane source, they find illegal trade being perpetrated, using an intermittent tramline caused by a nearby variable star. Bury remembers a proto-star that they had been observing during the Mote expedition and begins to fear that a new tramline appearing in the Mote system could bring all their efforts to naught; he and Kevin decide to investigate and visit the blockade.

We again meet former Captain and now Lord Blaine and his wife Sandra, who have outgrown their young adventurous natures, and now dedicate themselves to preserving the status quo while finding a solution to the Motie problem. We also meet their children, Glenda Ruth and Kevin, who have followed in their parents’ footsteps as a biologist and a military officer, respectively. Both of the children were raised with considerable exposure to a Motie mediator brought back by the first expedition, which has given them not only a unique perspective on the aliens, but a preternatural ability to manipulate their fellow humans.

The Blaines have sponsored an institute that has found a possible biological solution to the chaotic nature of Motie society. The Empire decides to send an expedition to the Mote, which arrives just as a new Alderson tramline appears, triggered by changes in the proto-star. Bury, Kevin, and the young Lieutenant Blaine board Bury’s yacht, Glenda Ruth boards a rich boyfriend’s yacht, and together with two Imperial warships, they are all that stands between success and failure, and soon become embroiled in a tense competition between Motie factions with both good and bad intentions toward the human race. There are negotiations, misunderstandings, and some of the most exciting space navy engagements I have ever encountered. The outcome of their struggle lies in the balance right up until the very end, and the tale finishes on a more hopeful note than the first book.


Final Thoughts

The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand are among my all-time favorite books, and I doubt I’m alone in that opinion. They are packed with action and adventure, and each story moves at a rapid pace that keeps the reader engaged—but they are also books that make you think, and have generated quite a bit of discussion over the years. And it’s now your turn to chime in: What are your thoughts on this unique pair of books? Were you as captivated by the stories and their setting as I was?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.


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