Cycles of Time & Civilisation – “THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE” (Niven & Pournelle, 1974)

A thief was on trial before the Sultan and sentenced to death. He asked the Sultan to spare his life.
“You don’t know it, but I am the greatest teacher in your land. If you spare my life, I promise to teach your horse to sing hymns.”
The Sultan smirked but accepted the offer. “You have a year, and if the horse cannot sing, you will be killed.”
Daily, after that, the thief spent his time singing hymns to the horse. His friends laughed as they saw him and asked what he hoped to accomplish.
“Many things can happen in a year,” the thief told them. “The Sultan may die, the horse may die, I may even die. Or, maybe the horse will learn how to sing.”

The above story has come up repeatedly in the past few weeks in the way that things tend to appear bunched together in repetition sometimes – you’ve never heard the thing before and suddenly it’s everywhere, permeating unexpected sources and swooping in form unthought angles. It’s a traditional tale that comes towards the end of THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE and quite early in Dan Simmons’ HYPERION (which is the next novel I’ve started on, #15), and this pattern has drawn my attention to a number of repeated themes across the Top 100 Sci-Fi Novels as I’ve been digesting them. Most prominently and encompassing is the cycles of civilisation over generations and its considerations: resource, population control, technology, and how these all interact with each other to create things like culture, politics, religion and economics. Arguably the primary issue of the civilisation and the heart of earthly problems: population. But first, a little context: THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE is about mankind’s first contact with a sentient, intelligent species of alien life discovered inhabiting the space around a yellow star suspended near a red supergiant in the vicinity of a large nebula; the optical illusion being that of a huge face with a glowing eye, believed by some to be the face of God – hence the novel’s title referring to the tiny speck or ‘mote’ of the alien homeworld.

The creatures henceforth known as “Moties” possess a strangely asymmetrical physiology evolved from adaptation to living in freefall (zero gravity), and uniquely to my experience of almost all science fiction, are roughly on par with humanity regarding experience with other races: this is also their first contact with another sentient race. The cover image above actually does a pretty good job of illustrating the general basics of their biological appearance (large left arm for gripping and brute work, two smaller right arms for finer, more detailed work), however within the species exist a number of sub-species with explicitly bred differences. The brown and white Mediator subspecies is around the mid-range as far as biological extremity goes, working for a designated white Master Motie their specialisation is communication and as such are act as ambassadors given their extraordinarily fast adaptability at any and all vocal and non-vocal communication methods – to the extent that they are able to mimic their paired study subjects (called Fyunch(click), one of the many times having an audiobook version creates a unique experience of language in literature, as the “click” is pronounced as a sharp sound with the tongue at the end of the word). Their purpose is to pair with a single human and dedicate themselves to learning every nuance of their cognitive process in the interest of better understanding the broader human species. Below the Mediators are a class referred to as “Browns” for their plain brown fur, who are a kind of supreme engineer class capable of intuitively deconstructing and improving any piece of mechanical hardware or tool that worked properly in the first place, but almost without the ability to comprehend anything beyond basic directions from the Motie classes above them. Their skulls and ears are shped differently, accoring their biology, and their hands are more refined, with longer fingers for delicate work. They use their tiny “Watchmaker” subspecies as assistants – in tandem these classes are able to repurpose any kind of technical material at all, in fact all of their technology is impermanent and in a constant state of re-appropriation for whatever needs arise.

The catch being that all Moties are sequential hermaphrodites, changing sex over and over again during the course of their lives. Their lifespans are short (about 25 years) and breeding patterns form very early in the subspecies that aren’t sterile “mules”, however, if a Motie remains female for too long without becoming pregnant then the hormone imbalance kills her, so the species breeds exponentially to the point of major societal conflict that usually involves huge swathes of the population and sometimes entire subspecies killed off before collapsing to a period of technological barbarism and eventual reformation of a new functional society in cycles. Sound familiar? That’s because we do the same thing, but on a longer timescale. TMIGE spends most of its length exploring the cautions of dealing with a new communicable and friendly species that finds us just as fascinatingly alien as we find them, and just what about our biology and nature we would perhaps want to hide from a species that itself appears so unthreatening and welcoming – but have to cope with the realities and limitations of their own biologies in radically different ways to ourselves.

One of the major threads across most science fiction is the issue of population control, recognised as the primary threat to the survival of a species given a long enough expanse of time. Considerations of available/acquirable resource and consumptive efficiency generally drive biological creatures into competition with one another: more smaller fish means more bigger fish means less small fish and also more sharks means more consumption of big fish so less big fish so less sharks and more small fish repopulating (and around and around), so goes the balance of nature. Species beyond a certain level of intelligence break this cycle – rather than adapting to fit their environment they instead shape their environment to suit themselves and warp evolution in a different direction as they begin to ensure better survival rates and longer lifespans, but in the process put a larger strain on the resources available to sustain such booms to population. There’s an inevitable breaking point when interests come into conflict, and there you have the story of the human race since before recorded history – there’s only so much to go around and too many people, so what do you do about all those people? War, for one. Killing the hell out of anyone who doesn’t subscribe to your worldview has been a pretty popular tactic as far as people go, and it tends to create scarcity of resource and famine, which is also extremely effective at reducing population. There are both better and worse options.

The Moties in TMIGE are observed undertaking almost casual infanticide, though culturally it remains distasteful though almost biologically necessary (they’re absolutely bewildered to learn that humans have effective contraceptive devices and practices that don’t lead to death). They’re repeatedly described as having a somewhat fatalistic bent to them, so their biology and by extension the path to overpopulation and collapse is culturally understood to be unalterable – in fact every “rising” culture works to an estimated timeframe until their next collapse and some subspecies are dedicated to easing the transition and retaining information for the next cycle, much like the monks in A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ (“reviewed” HERE). Some members of their society have been discussing development of colonisation projects to move them to systems with greater resource, but are largely considered to be insane within Motie culture.
Planet Earth in THE FOREVER WAR (which I talk about in an earlier post HERE) undergoes a number of cultural shifts over centuries in order to curb population problems including the complete destruction of modern financial economics for a caloric economy, sperm/egg freezing followed by optionally-reversible vasectomy for men (a solution so obvious it’s thrown away casually in conversation without any real discussion), and eventually evolving the concept to culturally ingrained homosexuality with reproduction no longer even being a biological process at all. Need another person? We’ve got just the genetics you need on file. It’s interesting to note that abstinence is considered almost laughable in all of these examples, so let’s focus on pragmatism. Most of the above options are dictated by the societies that house them – infanticide is a big fat “no” almost universally excepting extreme circumstance, the cultural status of women in society can shift traditional gender roles away from the (M)provider/(F)breeder model that still permeates today. The issue of abortion stems from this somewhat in that the social acceptability of practice is tied inexorably to the status of women within a community and their exercisable level of control over their own biological processes. China’s “single child” policy has had the interesting side-effect of producing a whole generation vastly over-represented by young men given the cultural desire for a male son. There’s so few women comparatively that many young Chinese men are unlikely to ever even have a shot at getting laid, let alone standing out out as desirable enough to justify procreation. Tradition clashing with legislation in this instance led to horrific rises in infanticide rates, and is going to have an ongoing impact on an ongoing culture now oversaturated with males. To have a population with sex largely taken off the table, their division of labour is going to be pretty efficient, I’ll give them that.

Strict tradition, largely in the form of religion, if we’re being honest, is by definition going to be a roadblock to any kind of discussion on population control due to the age and rigid institutionalisation of its ideals unless in times of desperation – most of which stemmed from a time when “til death” meant 30ish if you were lucky enough not to catch a cold, when infant mortality was high for a variety of factors (mothers being too young, for a start) so more children meant more were likely to survive, and when culturally ingrained monogamy was the most effective method of preventing the spread of disease around a community. We’re a bit beyond that now, despite the cultural hangovers, so it’s probably about time to work something else out. The idea that “God makes children, he shall also feed them” is spectacularly stupid, ignorant and dangerous. And the demonisation of homosexuality is only working against you, Various Churches, specifically because sex that doesn’t produce children is your taboo and we’ve already established that trying to repress sex never ends well for anyone, so really you ought to be hugging every gay person you meet for not contributing to the overpopulation of the planet. You know the planet? You live here.

The most elegant, Everybody Wins conclusion, sidestepping logistic detail for the sake of brevity, would be to give young men a (reversible) vasectomy at puberty, keeping samples of their sperm in a reserve on file so that the viability of actually creating and providing for another human life has to come into consideration before they can go around spreading their genetic information. Unplanned pregnancies? Numbers would plummet. Deadbeat Dads and homes built of necessity rather than love would too. STIs would probably go up, given a reduced incentive to wear condoms (and we already know how much coercion that can take sometimes as it is), but with a good medical system in place people should be getting checked for these things regularly anyhow. It also places more of the social responsibility on the heads of men by making it a conscious decision between consenting equals rather than something women almost exclusively need to have consideration for (yes, this is the world we live in, still, sadly). Optimistically it would work to remove the abhorrent “fragile broodmare” stigma from women in society, and rather than “give” them control over their reproductive rights (because isn’t that extraordinarily patronising?), spreading the responsibility over the sexes to “cure” the birthrate and push us all forward together. This is a human issue, not men’s or women’s alone.

Wasn’t really expecting to end on that tangent, but, well, here we are. And what does this have to do with that opening story? Well, the thief only needed to buy himself a little more time for better circumstance, and our clock is ticking.

Next is #15: Dan Simmon’s HYPERION (1989)


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