Writers tend to advise the aspiring to read beyond their interests. Wannabe Jedis and pretenders to the Iron Throne, they’re looking in your direction. Don’t just read science fiction and fantasy. Read literary fiction, read history, biographies, poetry. Let your reading run the gamut. I’ve taken that advice, and having done so I can now identify exactly what I want from a book, and it has nothing to do with genre. It has everything to do with characters that pulse and change like crystalline neon, prose that dances a tarantella of gleaming steel, an authorial perspective as unique as a snowflake fingerprint, and above all a narrative panache that defies you to put down the book. A story that crackles like a brushfire will carry me over all shortcomings.
Despair not, sci-fi/fantasy readers. You’ll find a corker in THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE. Written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, published in 1974, the novel is not perfect. The characters are defined and variegated and proactive, but with few exceptions they’re not the most complex dramatis personae. The prose gets the job done, but that’s it, workmanlike and lacking poetry. The perspective is intelligent and compassionate, but it’s nothing you won’t find in incalculable other books. But the story and its telling, they dare you to stop reading. It’s two in the morning, you’re going to be useless at work tomorrow, but you don’t care. You have to turn the page.
We rave about the books that refuse to be put down, that push our world further aside until they’re lost beyond our periphery, and all we have is the world of the novel in our hands. THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE should be studied in writing classes because it does this with more graceful force than most books I’ve read. Niven and Pournelle grab us before it even begins in earnest. Following the dedication is a cast of characters, then a highlighted chronology of the next thousand of our years. Beginning with the Apollo 11 moon landing and culminating in 3017 with “First Contact,” the timeline introduces us to the key points of historical backstory. Free of context terms like the CoDominium, the First and Second Empires of Man, and the Secession Wars jumpstart our imaginations and lure us into a universe we’re now keen to explore. We’re then dropped into a moment of exceptional urgency, during which we meet our main characters at the height of crisis and see, as we do with people, what they’re really made of. “Shit,” we think, “if this is how it starts, where are we going?”
Where we’re going is to the historic moment of mankind’s first encounter with intelligent alien life. There are plenty of stories about his moment, and plenty of great ones, but few are as addictive and absorbing as THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE. From the moment the alien spacecraft is discovered, Niven and Pournelle slowly crank the narrative vice tighter and tighter. Each development in the story raises more questions, increasing the scope of the conflict and heightening the stakes. That they do so slowly is paramount. Don’t misunderstand. The book is not a slow read at all, nor is it a particularly epic tale. At 550 pages it looks like it should be, but Niven and Pournelle use that space to build suspense across not just the whole book but in a series of set pieces that carry their own ballast of tension. Each of those sequences carries the weight of the entire world because the writers have done such an impressive job of establishing the significance of the smaller daubs of paint within the bigger picture. It’s during these peaks of suspense that Niven and Pournelle’s writing is at its best. Lesser writers can build tension but often don’t know when to release it. Readers instinctively feel for when the gun should go off, and if the writer is taking too long to pull the trigger, we tend to scan, skip over words, and race to the climax. But Niven and Pournelle are better than that. They keep us right where we want ourselves at all times, and then, at a critical point in the story, they give us more than we bargained for and change the whole timbre of the suspense.
From the moment we first meet the Moties, the aliens, we’re thinking, “Okay, what’s the deal? What’s going on with them?” Then we find out, but we find out by taking a punch to the gut, a kick in the head, and a knife in the back. This is the moment where, to fall back on a cliché, everything changes, or I should say everything that matters changes. We now feel differently for our main characters, for the Moties, for the whole Empire of Man. Before this chapter we asked, “What’s going to happen?” But after this chapter we’re asking, “God’s Teeth, how is it going to happen?” It’s the science fiction equivalent of killing Marion Crane.
It may seem counterintuitive to use a classic science fiction novel to argue for the genre’s fans to read outside their comfort zone. But I’m on Goodreads, I look through online forums, and it’s tragic to me that most contemporary sci-fi fans’ comfort zones only go back to around the year of their birth. They may read a couple Asimovs or PKD’s or Heinleins, always the top tier names, but few seem inclined to sample STAND ON ZANZIBAR or ALAS, BABYLON or the short stories of Mack Reynolds or Robert Sheckley. Please don’t mistake me for yet another douchebag filling the internet with mewling self-regard for his own irreproachable taste. Read whatever you want, but at least try broadening your horizons for your own benefit. If you read something other than space operas, you may find that it’s not the opera of it that appeals to you. If you read an indie comic book, you may discover that superheroes are not what attract you to sequential art. You may learn something about yourself, even if it’s that you’re just looking for a ripping good yarn like THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE.