In the long run I feel that Larry Niven was harmed as a writer by his association with Jerry Pournelle; but this, the first of their colloborations, is undoubtedly a masterpiece.
The story is set in the early years of the 31st century. Following the development of the Alderson hyperspace drive in the 21st century, mankind has spread over a chunk of the galaxy including some two hundred worlds; and now it encounters for the first time an intelligent alien species, whose members are rather strange but in some ways more capable than humans. The human expedition sent to meet them (part military, part scientific) must assess whether they pose a threat to humanity, and how to deal with them.
Although Niven was a much better known and more successful writer, Pournelle rather arrogantly refused to believe in Niven's future history, so the book is set in Pournelle's future history — a distinctly unoriginal scenario in which humanity is ruled over by an Emperor and an aristocracy. This old-fashioned background fits rather oddly together with Niven's more sophisticated aliens, but it works after a fashion and one comes to accept it.
The core of the book is the fascinating nature of the aliens (referred to as Moties) and their civilization, the details of which are only gradually uncovered. This was surely Niven's work, and it's what makes the book a classic. However, although we see no war and only a little fighting, there had to be a significant military presence in the expedition. Niven, with no military experience, probably couldn't have handled it convincingly by himself. Pournelle's contribution was therefore essential, though arguably Niven might have found another collaborator who could have done it better.
A conventional novel features the interplay between human characters. Here we have that, and also the interplay between humans and Moties, and between Moties and Moties. It's all interesting, and despite the basic seriousness of the situation there's a welcome undercurrent of humour running throughout the book.
Although one can easily criticize Pournelle's corniness (I'm occasionally reminded of Star Trek), I think anyone who reads sf should read this book. The late Robert Heinlein called it “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” It's also a page-turner. In the past I've repeatedly picked it up intending to reread only a small section, and found myself rereading the whole book.
Written in August 2007