Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review: The Mote in God's Eye

The Mote in God's Eye The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read The Mote in God's Eye basically because it was convenient. I accidentally let my free Audible trial continue and paid for an extra credit, and there was a buy-one-get-one sale on specific SF books. This was one of them. It wasn't a bad choice; it's a pretty long book, the authors are classic authors I've never read, and I enjoyed parts of it.

This is a classic - and maybe the defining? - first contact story. A bug-like creature in a spaceship shows up in the middle of an inter-solar human empire, and the humans mount an expedition to the home planet. It's also a very military-SF book as the expedition is primarily military. All in all, it's not exactly what I expected from a classic first contact story... and yet it somehow is exactly what I expected from a classic first contact story. There are so many interesting ways in which the story innovates, and there are just as many where it falls back on tired tropes and uninteresting moments. The aliens are both strange and alien, and also conveniently similar to humans.

The plot, in brief (spoilers follow): a military-led expedition travels to an alien solar system. They find evidence of civilization going back hundreds of thousands of years, and yet these creatures have no faster-than-light travel and even seem to have lost some of their technological development. The aliens have several castes - worker/engineers, negotiators, masters - that are highly specialized. Negotiators can mimic individual humans down to their thought patterns. Workers can take any piece of technology, even if they've never seen it, and remake it into something better and more efficient instantly.

The humans are simply trying to see if they are a threat to humanity - and based on those two castes alone I feel like the answer should very obviously be an emphatic YES, but the humans think solely in terms of whether or not there are weapons or technology that could be used as weapons. The humans initially host one worker on one of their ships, but that worker brings some smaller versions of itself that get loose and end up making the ship unsuitable for habitation, so they have to blow it up. They really should leave at this point because, again, it's clear how big a threat these creatures are (they rerouted the warnings and weapons systems of the whole ship!), but instead they go down to the planet's surface.

They see some fascinating things - artwork geared solely toward commemorating mediation, an indoor zoo that includes "city ruins" as one of its habitats, a better-than-real mock-up of a human castle. Just as they are heading back to their ship, there's a conflict in which several human ships are shot down. At this point the narrative takes a sharp turn and follows the humans on the alien planet for a bit as they discover the big thing the aliens are hiding: they can't control their population. They've essentially been in a boom-bust culture cycle for hundreds of thousands of years, which doesn't bode well if they ever get access to interstellar travel. The resolution of the conflict isn't as exciting as I would've liked but I won't go into that here.

These are some crazy interesting aliens! They are obsessed with their population control issue and it defines every aspect of their culture. They have museums full of artifacts from previous civilizations so that they can jump-start their culture once they get back to a certain point after falling back into ruin and dark ages. There are creatures evolved to live in city ruins. And the fact that this all centers around reproductive policy is fascinating. If they don't have children on some regular basis, they die. They can't figure out a way around this that prevents them from having children entirely (though... they do have a hormone treatment that allows sterilization prior to ever having children, which seems like it could at least partially solve their issues). In some ways, this doesn't seem plausible - couldn't you remove whatever their ovaries are and only provide a fertilized egg when it's wanted? Could inducing pregnancy and then aborting solve the issue? How does this species of entirely female (I think?) creatures even reproduce, since it's shown that in isolation they cannot? But I'm willing to look past that and think about what it means for the story and the themes. There is only one woman on the human expedition (womp). If there were more women, the humans probably could've figured out the aliens' secret much quicker. I like to think that maybe this is intentional. Maybe this should make us think about why diversity of perspective is important and not just incidental.

There are other interesting critical readings that are present, even if not explicit. For example, I'm not sure if the book means to critique military culture, but there are certainly elements that sound like critique. There's a lot of formality, ceremony, rigidity in the humans even as they are confronted with a species whose defining characteristics are their irreverence and flexibility. Only the non-military humans even come close insight into the alien psychology (though to be fair, they are not much better than the military men). The commanding officer follows standard protocols and *believes* in those protocols. On the other hand, the narrative doesn't ask us to question this belief even when it precludes obvious solutions and fails to stop threats, and even when there couldn't possibly be a protocol in place for the situation at hand.

As I mentioned, though, all of the humans are spectacularly and unbelievably bad at dealing with the aliens. Isn't rule number one of NASA that there can't even be a 1/10000 chance of contaminating an alien plant if you want to launch a mission? Would you want to completely avoid interacting with alien biology until you were very damn sure there are no microscopic beasts that could kill you? Why would you even accept the *chance* of letting tiny alien creatures loose aboard your ship, and why further would you not then evacuate when they couldn't be found? All of these things and more seem irresponsible to the point of incredulity. But again, maybe Niven and Pournelle want us to think about how our ideals and rules hold up when thrown into completely uncharted territory and when managed by perfectly adequate but unexceptional people. Would we really do much better if we made first contact today?

I can't complain about a book that made me think as much as this one did, even if a lot of what I thought about were the implausibilities.

View all my reviews

Review: Plague Ship

Plague Ship Plague Ship by Andre Norton
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Plague Ship is the first book I read for my Readathon of women in SF! It might also be the oldest novel I'll read for this project - it was published in 1956. Andre (Alice) Norton is an author I'd never read before, but I have heard of her, which makes her an exception to my general attempt to read books by women I'm not already aware of. But Andre Norton is exceptional in many ways. She was the first female Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy, Grandmaster of the SFWA, and inductee into the SF&F hall of fame. She wrote from the 1930s until her death in 2005. Her early SF&F in the 40s and 50s is pretty influential; I've heard a lot of people say that Norton was one of their favorites as a child. She was a librarian (at the Library of Congress, even!) as her day job and briefly owned a bookstore here in Maryland. Toward the end of her life, she collaborated with new SF&F authors to co-write YA books set in her established universes. She wrote under a pseudonym (actually several) of course, though she legally changed her name from "Alice" to "Andre Alice." And she was such a D&D nerd that she got to play with Gygax himself and *then* wrote a novel set in the world he created!

Plague Ship was recommended to me by several internet sources claiming it's Norton's best sci-fi work. Given that context, it was a bit of a disappointment. This is clearly an early genre work with lots of genre hallmarks and not much to recommend it beyond that. It's also the second book her Solar Queen series, which I didn't know until I'd finished. I actually thought it was perhaps the first in a series, given that it seemed like it really wanted to introduce a colorful cast of characters and then leave them in a situation where they will have to go on more adventures.

The novel follows the crew of the Solar Queen, a freelance trading ship, as they attempt to stake their claim on trade with a newly discovered planet full of cat people. The cat people love scents and perfumes. The human crew of the Solar Queen do not enjoy this and struggle to find something that the cat people will want to trade. They discover that some government-funded traders are trying to poach their trading opportunity. But after a while they figure out the cat people like catnip (WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED) and trade like one catnip plant for a hold full of jewels and fancy wood. This part is very long, about the first half of the book plus a bit, and not very interesting, and often reminded me of the Star Wars fanfiction I wrote as a child about a (canonical!) species of cat people.

You may notice that we're more than halfway through a book called Plague Ship without any mention of plague and actually very few mentions of ship, either. I noticed. The Solar Queen takes off, though, and several crew members promptly fall into comas. The crew can't figure out why, but they're certain it's not a plague, because the pattern of illness doesn't fit. The government traders somehow know about the illness, though, because they put out a "plague ship" alert for the Solar Queen, which means they can't dock at any ports.

The Solar Queen arrives in Earth's solar system and things finally pick up. For the first time, the plot and the world grabbed me. Earth has been nuked to hell at some point (as it often was in SF from the 40s-90s) and there are still "hot zones" that are uninhabitable. There are space stations spread throughout the solar system and beyond. I wanted to know more about all of this - what is it like to a be stationed on one of those space stations? What's it like to be an Earthling (or a Terran) in this world full of radiation? Sadly, those questions aren't answered.

The Solar Queen decides to land in a hot zone since no one will expect them to do that and send a heavily-shielded shuttle to look for medical help. The best scene in the book is the trip through the hot zone, which is full of strangely evolved and heavily mutated flora and fauna. It reminded me very strongly of Forbidden Planet and other early SF movies. They find a doctor, some more shenanigans happen, they threaten a whole bunch of people, and their names get cleared and the crew is healed, but they're not allowed on Earth any time in the near future.

The second biggest problem with this book is the pacing. The first half of the book could have been 1/4 of what it is, with those extra pages devoted instead to exploring the way-too-quickly-resolved climax and finale. In fact the whole debacle on the cat planet could have been a separate book with a separate story and that would have been preferable.

The biggest problem with the book and the main reason I give this 1 star was the characterization. I say "the crew" instead of any particular character name because they're all just a bunch of white dudes and maybe a token minority stereotype with no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever. The captain is very captain-y. The younger crew members are very young-y. The doctor is very responsible. That's about it. I don't think there's even a single female mentioned by name. Maybe one cat lady?

I can see why Norton is so well liked, though. It's a pretty quick read, and I was taken in by the history that her universe had. I wanted to know more. But I wanted her to tell a different kind of story than the one she wrote.

I can also see why she found success in YA later in life. That's a genre that didn't formally exist when this was published, but if these characters were maybe 15 years younger, this would be a great candidate for a YA success. There is daring-do, adventure, exotic planets, and dashing young men solving problems with courage and sensibility. They get justice in the end and there's a promise for more adventure. I wouldn't read more in this series, I don't think, but I'd go for one of her fantasy novels. It's hard to dislike a trope-y SF book that existed before the tropes were really tropes, but it's also hard for me to enjoy it. I'm much more tolerant of tropes in fantasy than in SF.

View all my reviews