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 is the nickname of a star. The Mote in God's Eye was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards in 1975.
The Mote in God's Eye (originally titled Motelight) is set in Pournelle's CoDominium universe, where a union of the United States and the Soviet Union produced a world government and a number of colonies in other star systems, followed by nuclear war on Earth and the rise of the First Empire based on the planet Sparta several centuries before the events of the novel. There is a reference to these events in Pournelle's novel King David's Spaceship.
The human characters live under a regime of Imperial Aristocracy, held together by an interstellar Navy modeled on 19th century British lines, with all-male crews, a highly competent officer corps grown from midshipmen recruited in their teens and trained on the job, and well-armed and organized Marines to carry out ground missions. Those who prove themselves worthy can be promoted to the aristocracy, as in the case of Dr. Anthony Horvath who is granted the title of "Baron" towards the end of the novel. The aristocracy themselves tend more towards duty than privilege. Organized religion is prominent in life, with the Emperor patronizing what appears to be Catholicism while other cultures, such as St. Ekaterina with its Russian roots, have their own religions. There is a scene in which a Cardinal blesses the mission of the expedition to the Mote while on board MacArthur. An upstart religion, the "Church of Him", which was founded when the Mote became intensely bright in what was regarded as the Face of God, is shown in decline, its founder having committed suicide when the light from the Mote went out.
In the year AD 3017, humanity is slowly recovering from an interstellar civil war that tore apart the first Empire of Man. The Second Empire is busy establishing control over the remnants of its predecessor, by force if necessary. After a rebellion on the planet New Chicago is quashed, Captain Bruno Cziller of the Imperial battlecruiser INSS MacArthur remains behind as Chief of Staff to the new governor, while Commander Roderick Blaine is given temporary command of the ship, along with secret orders to take Horace Hussein Bury, a powerful interstellar merchant suspected of instigating the revolt, to the Imperial capital, Sparta. Another passenger is Lady Sandra Bright "Sally" Fowler, the niece of an Imperial senator and a traumatized former prisoner of the rebels.
New Caledonia is the capital of the Trans-Coalsack sector, 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, which from New Caledonia appears in front of the Eye. Since some see the Eye and the Coalsack as the face of God, the yellow star is known as the Mote in God's Eye.
Human ships use the Alderson Drive, which allows them to travel instantaneously between "Alderson points" in specific star systems. Approaching New Caledonia, MacArthur is ordered to investigate when an alien spacecraft, propelled by a solar sail, is detected. After the spacecraft fires upon MacArthur, Blaine has its main capsule detached from the sail and taken aboard. Its sole occupant, a brown and white furred creature, is found dead.
After much debate, MacArthur and the battleship Lenin are sent to the star from which the alien ship came, the Mote. MacArthur carries civilian researchers to make first contact with the aliens, or "Moties" as they are quickly nicknamed. Admiral Kutuzov, aboard Lenin, has strict orders to avoid all contact with the aliens and ensure that human technology does not fall into their hands. The Moties seem friendly and have advanced technology that they are willing to trade, much to Bury's delight. Although they also possess the Alderson Drive, none of their ships have ever returned. This is because, unknown to the Moties, the Mote's only Alderson exit point lies within the outer layers of the star Murcheson's Eye. Human warships can survive there for a limited time because of their protective Langston Fields, which the Moties do not have.
The Moties are an old species, native to a planet that the humans label Mote Prime, that has evolved into many specialized subspecies. The first taken aboard MacArthur is an "Engineer", possessing amazing technical abilities, but limited speech and free will. It brings along a pair of tiny "Watchmakers" as helpers. Some days later, a delegation of "Mediators" (like the dead pilot of the probe ship) arrive. Their specialty is communication and negotiation. The Mediators invite the humans to send a party to Mote Prime. After some debate, the invitation is accepted. Each person in this group acquires a "Fyunch(click)", a Mediator who studies their subject and tries to learn how to think like them.
Back on MacArthur, the Watchmakers escape, and although it is assumed they have died, they have actually been breeding furiously out of sight. Undetected by the crew, they modify parts of MacArthur to suit their needs. When they are discovered, several attempts to rid MacArthur of the infestation fail, and a battle for control of the ship erupts. The crew is eventually forced to abandon ship after suffering casualties. The party on Mote Prime is quickly recalled without explanation and told to rendezvous with Lenin. Once MacArthur is evacuated, Lenin fires on her to prevent the potential capture of human technology. This reveals that the Watchmakers have improved MacArthur's Langston Field. Nevertheless, MacArthur is destroyed.
During the evacuation, MacArthur midshipmen Staley, Whitbread and Potter are cut off and forced to escape in Watchmaker-modified lifeboats. The lifeboats automatically land in an sparsely populated area of Mote Prime. There the midshipmen find a fortified museum. It provides evidence of a very long and violent history, though the Moties had carefully portrayed themselves as completely peaceful. Following this discovery, the midshipmen are tracked down by Whitbread's Mediator Fyunch(click), who reveals that Moties (other than the short-lived, sterile Mediators) must become pregnant periodically or die. This inevitably results in overpopulation ... and civilization-ending wars. The Masters, whom the Mediators obey, have also concealed the existence of one Motie subspecies from the humans: Warriors more deadly than any human, even Sauron supersoldiers.
The museums exist to help restore civilization after a collapse. The "Cycles" of civilization, war, and collapse have gone on for hundreds of thousands of years, leaving the Moties fatalistically resigned to their destiny. 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 a "Crazy Eddie" and deemed insane.
The current civilization utilizes a type of industrial feudalism, with coalitions of Masters governing the planet. One faction, led by "King Peter", wanted to reveal the truth to the humans, but was overruled. Colonization of other planets would inexorably bring about conflict with humans, as the inevitable Motie population explosion would force them to seek to take over human worlds. Nonetheless, the more powerful coalition sees this temporary solution as preferable to the impending collapse. Both factions send Warriors after the midshipmen, one to capture them, the other to rescue them. The stronger group's Warriors trap the midshipmen, but the trio refuse to surrender and die as a result.
Unaware of the midshipmen's fate, Lenin leaves the Mote system, taking with it three ambassadors, a sterile Master and two Mediators, whose mission is to open the galaxy to their species while concealing their terrible secrets.
An Imperial Commission is on the verge of granting colonies to the Moties, but MacArthur Sailing Master/Lieutenant Kevin Renner figures out the truth just in time. Ironically, it is the passengers on the original probe, ejected into space and burned up by solar radiation, that give the game away. Not only is there a Warrior among the group, but several are visibly pregnant, demolishing any argument about them being statues or religious icons.
The decision is made to gather a battle fleet to either disarm or try to annihilate the Moties. The ambassadors are faced with the extinction of their species, knowing that the Masters would never submit. However, a Mediator comes up with a third option: a blockade of the system's only Alderson exit point. This plan is adopted, over the strenuous opposition of Bury, who views the Moties as the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.
Moties are described as bipeds, about 1.3 meters tall, covered with fur whose color depends on the subspecies. Their most obvious feature is the asymmetric arrangement of arms, with two dexterous right arms and one heavily muscled left arm whose musculature attaches to the head, so that Moties have no left ear to match the large, membrane-like right ear. The backbone is jointed rather than flexible and the entire upper body swivels to turn the head. The face is simple and incapable of expression. Gestures replace facial expression.
Master Moties have all white fur, described as silky. Engineers have brown fur, while Mediators have patchy fur in brown and white. They are sterile hybrids of Masters and Engineers. Siblings tend to have identical patterns of patches. Masters are obeyed by all other Moties, though Mediators have some independence to negotiate between Masters. Other Motie subspecies include Warriors, optimized for hand-to-hand combat and weapon usage, Doctors with extra dexterity, and semi-sentient Farmers who raise crops. The Watchmaker species is related to Moties but is about one-third the size and has four arms in a symmetrical arrangement.
Moties alternate between sexes as part of their reproductive cycle, except for Mediators who cannot reproduce but have shorter lives. Mediators are referred to as females throughout the novel. Master Moties may become sterile males with hormone treatment, at which point they can become "Keepers", preserving common resources that should not be fought over.
The Moties frequently refer to the mythical character they call "Crazy Eddie" when talking to humans. There are many Crazy Eddie stories, but all revolve around the inevitability of repeated cycles of collapse of Motie civilization and the pointlessness of trying to prevent them. The Alderson Drive that allows human ships to travel between star systems is called the Crazy Eddie Drive, because although it is founded in sound science and has been reinvented many times by Motie civilizations, ships that attempt to use it disappear and are never seen again. The Moties do not know that the ships they send appear inside the hot photosphere of Murcheson's Eye. Human ships are protected by the energy-absorbing Langston Field. The point in space where the Alderson Drive operates is known to the Moties as the Crazy Eddie Point. This is the title of the second part of the novel. The other parts are titled "The Crazy Eddie Probe", "Meet Crazy Eddie", and "Crazy Eddie's Answer". From the Moties point of view, humans are Crazy Eddie. Several Moties, including Rod Blaine's Fyunch(click), become Crazy Eddie after exposure to human attitudes.
Robert A. Heinlein, while giving the authors extensive advice on a draft manuscript, described it as "a very important novel, possibly the best contact-with-aliens story ever written". Theodore Sturgeon, describing The Mote in God's Eye 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. 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."
Pournelle and Niven followed up with the sequel The Gripping Hand and in 2010 Pournelle's daughter, Jennifer, published an authorized sequel entitled Outies.
60,000 words were cut from the novel before publication. The short story "Reflex" was instead published in 1983 in the first There Will Be War collection, edited by Pournelle and John F. Carr. It details an early phase of the battle for New Chicago, told from the rebels' point of view. MacArthur, with Captain Cziller in command and Blaine as Exec, engages and defeats a rebel ship, but because of the technology, particularly the Langston Field, the ship is still deadly and surrender is a complex matter. Midshipman Horst Staley is sent to board and disable the ship while carrying a suicide bomb to prevent interference. He makes a mistake, allowing the "political officer" aboard the ship to snatch away the bomb, but the crew who are sick of the revolt overpower the officer. This preys on his mind during the events of the main novel. The rebel ship was taken over as the prize ship Defiant, commanded by Blaine during the final battle.
"Motelight" was also originally written as part of the novel, but was never published except as part of the non-fiction piece "Building 'The Mote in God's Eye'" that appeared in Pournelle's collection "A Step Farther Out". It describes how two astronomers on New Scotland try to continue their work during the war with New Ireland, and are thus the first to see the sudden brightening of the Mote due to the laser launch system being activated. The rest of the population are hiding under the Langston Fields protecting their cities from bombardment, until one day the field fails and they see the Coal Sack with a glowing green Eye. The story also mentions "Howard Grote Littlemead", who believes that the bright Mote really is the Eye of God, and founds the Church of Him. It is in one of the churches that Potter shows Renner and Staley a holographic picture of the Coal Sack showing the intense green glow of the Mote.
Larry Niven also wrote a poem "In Memoriam : Howard Grote Littlemead" that was published much later.