Monthly Archives: June 2009

Notes on Some Science Fiction

I recently decided to go back in time and re-read some science fiction that I enjoyed as a teenager.   The author of interest is Jerry Pournelle.  In my teens, I read a couple of the books he co-authored with Larry Niven: The Mote in God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer (comet hits Earth, setting off a nuclear war), and then some of his own work in the collection of short stories High Justice.  I also did some time with Niven’s Ringworld series.  The general genre of these authors is “hard science fiction”, meaning that they make more than a passing attempt to build realism into their science fiction, relying on a reasonable knowledge of physics.  

Pournelle has degrees in statistics, systems engineering, and PhDs in political science and psychology.  He also served in the US Army during the Korean War, worked for major defense contractors including Boeing, the Aerospace Corporation, and Rockwell.  In his spare time he was the campaign manager for Barry Goldwater in his run for Congressman.  He also wrote a long-running column for Byte magazine called “Chaos Manor”.

Pournelle’s politics are roughly Libertarian, though to be honest, I am only getting this from the recent re-reading of High Justice and The Mote in God’s Eye, and some familiarity with what he has written in Chaos Manor.   I chose to read these two books because I had “heard somewhere” that they were related.  In actual fact, the two works are created within the same fictional “universe”, but occur over 1000 years apart, and there is almost no real connection between them which is obvious (or at all useful) in reading the books.

High Justice is a very interesting collection of short stories set in the near future.  Published in 1974, the target time period for these stories is near 2000.  The setting is grim on Earth.  The United States has all but collapsed into a socialist hell.  Large corporations have fled the US and operate virtually independently from any government.  In effect, they are becoming alternate governments.  Some of the environmental catastrophes that are widely “expected” have occurred – oil is unavailable, solar power is the solution, water in the SouthWest has become a dominant problem (solved by a combination of desalination technology, and the more brute-force technology of carving off huge icebergs from the polar regions and transporting them to arid regions), the ocean floor is being mined for precious materials, and we’re communicating with dolphins. 

Ok, not all of this is particularly rational, but some of the political philosophy involved is entertaining.  The culmination of the short stories (all moderately inter-related) is the departure of the principals of the largest corporations to colonize the solar system, specifically to escape from the political disaster which has occured all over the Earth.

The Mote in God’s Eye is a very different story.  This chronicles Man’s first contact (after 1000s of years, the rise and fall of a massive human interstellar Empire, followed by a lengthy Dark Age when colonies were basically surviving on their own with limited or no interstellar trade, and then a slow Renaissance, during which the story is set) with an alien species.  The “Moties” are very bizarrely evolved creatures.  Bodies are asymmetrical, all species look very, very similar, and are separated by level of intelligence, and then by skill within the sentient species.  There are worker Moties, Mediator Moties, Master Moties, Farmer Moties, little semi-intelligent monkey-like Moties, and Warrior Moties.  Each class is super-specialized to its skill, and co-dependent on the other species.  This is the result of a very old civilization (10’s of thousands of years of civilization) surviving within a single solar system, with one very big biological problem – they must breed to live.  Failing to reproduce results in early death.  And infanticide is culturally forbidden.  Population pressure repeatedly leads to massive warfare, followed by a complete technological collapse, and the “cycle” repeats.  With this cycle well-known by the Moties, they have created safeguards to slow down the frequency of the cycles, but they generally recognize the inevitability of war followed by collapse.

In their interaction with Man, they hide the existance of their Warrior class, along with any other indication that they have had large scale warfare in their past.  They also hide their big biological secret – that they must breed to survive, and that they will not kill their children.  At the very end of the story, Man discovers this hidden fact, and proceeds to blockade them within their system, to prevent them from spreading throughout the Empire, and ultimately overwhelming Man through population growth.

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