This is a very interesting, very detailed science fiction story about first contact between a fictional human empire around the year 3000 and a fictional intelligent species called "Moties." The Moties get their name from the location of their planet, which is in an astronomic formation sometimes called 'the face of god.' Their home system is near a red giant sun, which forms in the eye of the 'face of god.' The Moties' planet is around a small, bright star which the humans call the "Mote in God's Eye." Thus, you get the title of the book, and the name of the Aliens.
This review will contain spoilers. SPOILERS!
This book is different from other books I've read in that there is a great deal of focus on the people in positions of power and authority and their decisions and responsibilities. For this reason the book reads a little like Historical Fiction. Important Men, members of Aristocracy and Military Leadership, making Important Decisions despite the meddlesome civilians who get in their way. Lots of patriarchy and general misogyny. It's not really my taste, but there is enough content that I enjoy to keep me reading through the end.
I think, perhaps, the book is structured in this way to give it a certain timelessness, as the military/aristocracy/patriarchy resembles any given period of western history, in which important events define the progress of a nation or people. First contact with an Alien society is always a big deal, and the book treats it appropriately. This is the sort of book I would prefer to read in a book-club setting, so that I can discuss it between reading.
The political struggle between Humans and Moties is slow moving and massive. For this reason, it can get boring at times. I think there is enough political tension in the story that, given to a different set of storytellers, this story could be reborn in a much more entertaining, and equally thought provoking form. While I don't particularly care for most of the human characters, and some of the pacing of the story, I think the sense of politics and science is pretty strong. One present theme is the notion of invasive species.
The Empire of Man is in constant struggle to contain its own borders, socially, economically and politically. They have no idea how regular contact with a new Alien Civilization will affect the tenuous balance of their own civilization. There is a very real concern that the Aliens might overwhelm them within a few generations even. This makes me think of the invasive species of plants brought over to the US form Europe after the colonization of America. Some of these plants and animals have gotten a foothold and taken up resources that once went to native species.
This theme starts out subtly in the book, with the mention that rats are present on Starships, despite every effort to remove them completely, where there is food, there always seems to be Rats. The rats are perfectly adapted to human society and thus have been able to travel the stars and colonize worlds, riding the coattails of the humans.
Another example is the small 'Watchmaker' creatures of the Moties. They breed rapidly, they adapt quickly, and become an overwhelming force before too long. Because they are able to manipulate technology with great talent, they are arguably better adapted to the starship environment than the humans are. They are able to hide away, surviving on rats, and multiply at great speed until they take over the ship completely.
Then, finally, there is the Moties own society and the possibility of access to human tech. The Moties themselves are not capable on interstellar travel, and as a result, their civilization is confined, like a volatile concoction in a bottle, frothing and changing over rapidly. Because of the volatility of their population, the humans determine that they cannot be allowed to leave their system, for fear they will spread and quickly dominate human society. The book leaves off with the search for a catalyst which might bring calm to the Moties.
This book may be of a finer quality than I give it credit for. Still, I would like to see another interpretation, using some of the best ideas in this story. The characters in general are pretty flat and uninteresting, and some of the details in the story aren't as fleshed out as they might be. But, I've said before that I love it when things give me ideas of my own, and this book has done that. I may even crank out another post just to further flesh out that idea.
All in all, I recommend the Mote in God's Eye to people who can tolerate dry science fiction for the nutritious, speculative ideas contained within.