Monday, 24 October 2016

The Mote in God's Eye (not quite a book review)

As it happens I grew up reading SciFi and Larry Niven was one of my favs (as indeed was Arthur C Clarke, Asimov and some others.

For one reason or another I never got around to reading this book until recently (like on the flight over to Finland).

I think it was Arthur C Clarke who said that futurist writers often fail by making predictions too wild or too conservative.

Living as we do in the period leading up to 2019 its hard to imagine that we'll have anything like the technology that is explored in Blade Runner.

The Mote in God's Eye sets itself far into the future after the rise and fall of an empire of humanity and into a time where humans are living across parts of the galaxy connected together by "tramlines" (or wormholes by another name).

They sidestep faster than light travel neatly by using this "time space" effect which is kept (wisely) nebulous in nature, but related to stars (and presumably their gravity distortions).

What I found most interesting was not so much the story (which isn't bad, but typical to Niven the character development is poor) but the concepts that occur in the book. Indeed I'm not entirely sure if some of these were accidental or intentional.

The first that stood out to me was the "pocket computers" and the descriptions of how they would actually reference material stored on the central computer, although it wasn't stated how, it was implied by radio. Quite interesting when you consider that  this was written in 1974 and the earliest computers which were considerable as "pocket" came out 10 years later (like the Sharp PC-1401)

The Sharp was only programmable in BASIC and had a puny amount of memory and certainly nothing like WiFi or 4G connectivity. Even WiFi as a protocol would not emerge for decades later, but Jerry Pournelle would surely have been exposed to Packet Radio protocols where data (at drearly slow rates) was sent by Radio.
What I liked even more of his imagination touch (I assume it was Jerry) was the addition of a touch screen on the device (thinkfully not described clearly) and the whole thing came out as reminding me very much of current emerging devices such as the current Android devices like the Galaxy Note series.

This sort of stuff would have been barely imaginable to most back even 20 years ago when exposure to technology was much lower. Heck even my Palm Pilot (which I bought in 1997) was barley understandable to many around me and it wasn't even the first such device I'd used (which was an Apple Newton pictured here beside an iPhone released nearly 20 years later).

Clearly these guys were not only visionary but also well acquainted with what was actually happening in the world. Yet (as Clarke observed) this sort of thing is a failure in imagination, and in some ways dates the book to a modern reader. Its both nice and at the same time quaint.

Imagine where computing and portable computing will actually be in a thousand years? It makes me think that for the general public you can't be too imaginative because they just won't grasp it.

The next thing that I found interesting was the Moties themselves. If you haven't read the book and intend to, stop reading this now, if you want a quick summary try the Wikipedia entry about the book here.

After reading the book it occured to me that the Moties were actually not a natural species of their "solar system" but may indeed have been just the ultimate expression of technology of their creators. I don't know of Jerry or Larry intened this, but there are enough pointers through out the book to make is a possibility that the original Moties were all dead and just their genetically engineered creations remained (a bit like the story by Ray Bradbury).

The original "Moties" (presented briefly in one small paragraph in a museum) seem to have vanished. Perhaps they developed genetic engineering and electronic technology to such a level as to have made biological robots (not unlike the Replicants in Blade Runner) which were able to do tasks with an effectiveness that modern robotics can only dream of (in stories such as I Robot). Indeed I'd go as far as saying could never attain, because when you consider how fuel efficient a biological creature is you would have to agree that making a mechanical machine VS making a genetically engineered living creature would of course be ineffective , power hungry and be clumsy.

Now this is not to say that these Moties didn't use machines, its clear reading the book that they do, but rather than build in automation to their machines they themselves (the lower castes like the browns and watchmakers) were the comptuers which drove them. The inclusion of a "Brown" with almost every machine is very suggestive of this.

The specialisation of the "current" Moties (much like insects or even humans within Aldous Huxleys' Brave New World) was also a further que to me that these were a bunch of biological robots (or may I call them biobots to coin my own term) intended to perform specific functions. These then took over doing things entirely after their "masters" became extinct.

Its a tantalising question if the original Moties were wiped out in their own nuclear wars, or if indeed their own biobots were responsible for their over throw (in much the same way as the machines in the Terminator series).

Lots of good material for the imagination in the discussion of what's implied in this book, more so than just whats written.

Lastly I wanted to mention that the allusion of the fate of actual Humanity is touched upon in the contrast (and parallels) between real human history (us being stuck on this planet in this solar system) and the Humanity which is discussed in the book (that of the space faring race able to move between solar systems via wormholes and having survived for another milennia (and the book is set in 3017 sot its timely) look at the Motie who have survived for (perhaps) hundreds of thousand of years (certainly 40 or 50 thousand) in an unending cycle of growth and collapse ... or boom and bust.

Reminds me of the works of John Calhoun in his work "Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice: a practical utopia built in the laboratory"

Makes one think about what will happen for us.


Noons said...

Loved this book!
I reckon the Pournelle/Niven combo has produced some amazing scifi stories.

Noons said...

The Gripping Hand was a great follow-up to this book.
And Footfall, Legacy of Heorot, Beowulf's Children and The Burning City have stayed in my mind and been re-read so many times...
Niven and Pournelle are indeed gifted.