I put The Mote in God's Eye (TMIGE) on my wish list at Amazon because I read in a variety of places that it was one of the few books that "got aliens right." In other words, too many aliens suffer from the Star Trek syndrome of being just like humanity, only with different ears/eyes/noses. Often, a real world culture is pasted onto the alien world, as if alien worlds can only sustain one type of culture (in comparison to Earth, which has thousands of different cultures). So I had high hopes for TMIGE.
What's surprising for a civilization in 3016 is how similar it is to our modern culture. Humanity has spread out across the stars and already suffered its own Dark Ages of a sort. The modern age is not as great as the one before it, and various planets are slowly being brought back into Empire of Man, by force if necessary. This new Empire of Man has all the trappings of feudalism, complete with noble titles and land (planet?) holdings.
And yet, the ships run by Navy protocol. The captain calls his second "Number One." The ship has a force field to protect it from attacks (the Langston Field) and a warp drive (the Alderson Drive). It even has an engineer who talks with a Scottish accent. Wait a minute, this sounds familiar…
That's because I just described Star Trek, which debuted in 1966. TMIGE was published in 1975.
The similarities aside, TMIGE has a recurring question throughout the book: is it the nature of civilized societies to collapse into barbarism in a never-ending cycle? And in the rebuilding, is the society better for it?
The answer arrives in the form of aliens from the Mote (a distant red sun). These aliens have three arms (one large hand and two smaller ones connected at the elbow), no nose, slightly smiling lips, one big ear, and no neck. With three arms, you can imagine these aliens (called Moties) have a very different perspective from humans.
Once a probe with a Motie in it is discovered, the Empire of Man decides to pay the Motie home world a visit. Improbably, a treacherous rich merchant (Horace Hussein Bury) is on board, along with a noblewoman (Sally Fowler) who happens to like the captain (Roderick Blaine). Blaine's ship is the INSS MacArthur and it his responsibility to make first contact. Shadowing alongside the MacArthur is the INSS Lenin, piloted by Admiral Kutuzov. He has a different mission: to blow the MacArthur should it fall into alien hands.
This sets up an interesting, tense filled journey, as scientists attempt to befriend the Moties and soldiers watch them with hands on their pistols. The Moties themselves as perfect mimics, sounding and acting like the humans they're "assigned to." Which gets the authors off the hook, as they talk just like the other characters.
And if there's a weakness, it's in the characters. Very few of them have a description. And there are so many crewmembers, scientists, and royalty (some with similar names) that it's tough to keep track of who is who. Conversely, the characters that do have fleshed out personalities are larger-than-life parodies of cultures: Bury is a greedy Middle Eastern, Sally is all naïve nobility, Kutuzov is a dour Russian. Which is odd, because in all cases the characters seem transplanted right from our era into a thousand years in the future…almost like actors playing their usual bit parts in a science fiction play.
The book also suffers from prejudices of the 70s. The only woman on the ship is a bit of a dolt and, for all her griping about independence, gets in the way most of the time. The Russians drink too much, are very grim, and utterly ruthless. And the Scots…well, they're pretty much Scotty from Star Trek.
The Moties have their own problems. Probably the biggest is this: the Motie "threat" revolves around a specific aspect of their biology. And yet the Empire of Man has created genetic super soldiers and solved baldness (somewhere in the Star Trek universe, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is cursing himself right now). And yet humans see the Moties as a terrifying threat. It just doesn't hold up under inspection.
Still, despite occasionally straining credibility, The Mote in God's Eye is an excellent example of an alien culture. Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle explore everything from the aliens' biology to their art, from their architecture to their social mores. It's a must read for anyone who likes their aliens alien.