I have been looking for a hard-science fiction novel that could grip my attention for some time. Among the various branches of fiction, sci-fi holds a unique position since most of it was written by U.S authors energized by the scientific advances in the post-world war, American dominated world. Forays into moon and colonization of space were considered akin to the discovery and conquest of the New World by Europeans. However as American influence and power has waned, so has the outlook of the predominantly American sci-fi writers. So most of the sci-fi literature today is either dystopian or has degenerated into mere fantasy. There has been a lot of hand wringing on this sorry state of affairs. My solution has been to stop reading new books and instead delve into the halcyon age of yesterday.
"The Mote in God's Eye" is a fine specimen of the bygone heydays. Written by Larry Niven of the "Ringworld" fame, this is a book about "First Contact" when humans encounter an alien civilization for the first time. History is full of such first contacts such as the Europeans meeting the American Indians or the Australian aboriginals. Often the contact is disastrous for the technically inferior party who is subsequently enslaved or worse exterminated. In the book, the human race has entered the space faring age and is organized under an Emperor similar to the British Crown. In the fashion of the British Empire, there is a powerful spacefleet under the Imperial Navy and an aristocracy designed to perpetuate the Crown.
The Imperial Navy encounters an alien probe and is then send to investigate its origins. The navy has two technical innovations that help it cover vast distances - an instantaneous drive and a force field mechanism to envelope spaceships. The humans end up establishing contact with the alien civilization whom they call "Moties". The Moties have been around for millions of years and are technically advanced than the humans. However they are yet to come up with the force field innovation that lets them survive journeys using the instantaneous drive. The Moties also possess a dangerous trait - they are an expansive race and multiply prolifically. Since they are cooped up in their solar system, this expansion also leads to competition over resources and thus war. Needless to say the Moties destroy their civilization every couple of thousands of years and make over.
Larry Niven seems to be obsessed with this idea of "civilization reset" where after a long period of order, chaos sets in and all traces of civilization are lost. His Hugo award winning Ringworld deals with a civilization living on a Dyson ring that has degenerated into savagery and has long forgotten the ways of the ancients. Unlike the Ringworld inhabitants, the Moties have a system for tiding over civilization reset. They salt away their innovations in museums and then use their accumulated wisdom to start over. They are thus a formidable foe, able to withstand devastation of a civilizational scale.
Humanity is thus faced with a dilemma when they learn more about the Moties. Here is an alien race over which they have a slight edge - but only for the time being. Already the Moties have started to build their own versions of the force field envelope and its a matter of time before they escape their jinn bottle. The options are to either exterminate the Moties or blockade their solar system so that they cannot escape and overwhelm the humans. The hypocrisy of humans is reflected in St. Mathew's words. Afterall, the Moties are not really any different from humans in their thirst for expansion and consumption.
"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye" - Matthew 7:3
In the end, the humans decide to blockade the Moties and place the Motie ambassadors under arrest. The Moties however have the last laugh as they recount the story of the talking horse by Herodotus - A prisoner on death row boasts to the king that he can teach the king's horse to sing. The king agrees to set him free if he can manage to pull it off. The prisoner is given a year to accomplish the task. Soon the prisoner becomes the butt of jokes as every day he futilely tries to teach the horse. He instead replies with a twinkle in his eye - "I have a year, and who knows what might happen in that time. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And perhaps the horse will learn to sing."