Monday, June 02, 2008

One I wish I had missed

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a number of science fiction novels which I fondly remember. The Legacy of Heorot tells the story of colonization and the perils of misunderstanding xenobiology. Footfall is an exciting update on the War of the Worlds. Lucifer's Hammer concerns the collapse of society in the face of a comet impact on Earth. My major issue with Lucifer's Hammer, bloat, is a much bigger issue in highly regarded Mote in God's Eye.

The bloat issue is gigantic here. The first 150 pages are boring exposition filled where we meet the stock characters (engineer with Scots accent, plucky female aristo along for the ride, young dashing military commander) and learn about the painfully uninteresting world of the future. Once we meet the aliens, known as Moties, it takes many more pages before we learn anything about the society. There are many portentous allusions to things the Moties don't want the humans to learn. It takes so long to get to the revelations, that I really didn't care once I read about them.

All this padding would be fine if Niven and Pournelle had provided a rich world to explore. No such luck. While the initial concept is interesting ( US and USSR unite, colonize space, have a civil war, new empire tries to pick up the pieces) it quickly devolves into cutting and pasting from 19th century Britain. The navy is straight from Horatio Hornblower, with officers named sailing master and teenage midshipman running crew sections.

The Church (which is Catholic, a bit odd given the leading space powers were largely Protestant and Orthodox) is clearly more powerful, without serving any narrative purpose. Has the Church followed its social justice wing or become a rival power center to create challenges for the elite? Has the theology created cultural restraints on the development of technology or society? No and No. All the more galling the Church apparently hasn't changed much at all in a millennium.

There is a decent story about alien contact amongst all its problems, but it is such a short part of the book, it is probably not worth working your way through to find it. As the humans encounter the Moties, they learn that the society could threaten human society. The debate concerns the means by which they must deal with it. The viewpoints expressed nicely describe the classical realist view of politics. Alien first contact follows similar rules and problems as seen in foreign relations. What makes a country a threat? How do you manage threats? What is the purpose of interacting with other societies at all? The book has some interesting, if one-sided, things to say about this, but you have to wade through hundreds of pages of crap to get there. If you are looking for a classic to discover, beware this one.

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