Throughout the past thousand years of history it has been traditional to regard the Alderson Drive as an unmixed blessing. Without the faster than light travel Alderson’s discoveries made possible, humanity would have been trapped in the tiny prison of the Solar System when the Great Patriotic Wars destroyed the CoDominium on Earth. Instead, we had already settled more than two hundred worlds.
Until the likes of Iain M. Banks with The Culture series and Neal Asher with the Polity series came along, quite possibly the best Space Opera of all time was this forty year-old novel that took the Space Opera novels of the 1930s and 1940s and very, very nicely updated them.
The basic premise is humanity fled off Earth after a series of wars rendered most of the planet uninhabitable. One Empire based on a Fleet controlled by USA and Soviet interests has fallen to be replaced (eventually) by a Second Empire of Man. In the process of the Dark Ages between the two Empires, much of the more advanced technology has been lost.
Pournelle I think contributed the superb sections on the Empire Fleet as it reminds me of his other Space Opera fiction and I think (without actually checking it) that it might tie into that fiction. Whether or not this is true, the Fleet scenes here from the descriptions of the battles to the shipboard office of Admiral Lavrenti Kutuzov complete with silver tea service are really well done.
Niven I’m sure got to do the alien race worldbuilding which is also superb. The Moties are the Big Bad Aliens here, a race faced with endless wars, scarce resources, and a caste society based on biology that has subspecies from tiny watchmakers (that breed so fast that they can destroy an Imperial warship in a matter of weeks) to hulking soldiers.
One sec… The essay called ‘Building The Mote in God’s Eye’ which is included in the Baen Books digital edition of this novel confirms the division of labor as I stated it above. And you’ve got to love an essay that starts off by saying ‘Collaborations are unnatural. The writer is a jealous god. He builds his universe without interference. He resents the carping of mentally deficient critics and the editor’s capricious demands for revisions. Let two writers try to make one universe, and their defenses get in the way.’
The story centers on the discovery of the first alien race in the history of humanity and the journey to The Motie system too see what this species is like. What they discover is the greatest threat that Humanity has ever faced including outright nuclear annihilation of all of humanity. It’s a great story well-crafted with a narrative that moves along nicely and wraps itself up nicely. If you like this novel, I suggest that you do not read the sequel, The Gripping Hand as it has a not a tenth of the oomph this novel has.
So does this great story get an equally great narration? Not really The narrator has an almost strident voice that makes everyone sound like they’re trying to catch their breath. And it’s somewhat hard to distinguish one character from another by the verbal cues of how the character is voiced. Yes I know that this is not a full cast adaptation so it has all the text that identifies who’s saying what.
Oddly enough l. J. Ganser does a much better job of voicing the alien Moties. Each of them does have a distinct voice and it’s easy to tell them apart.
So I’m left with the very strong feeling that this was a book that alluded the narrator no matter how good his intentions were.
(Brilliance Audio, 1982)