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I read this book when I was a teenager, or in my early twenties, so that puts it no later than 1979. My favorite authors at the time were (of course) Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, and a few others. I've looked up the bibliographies of most of these, to no avail.

The story in general: Earth people spot a small alien craft near the sun. Investigating, they find a lone passenger, a female pilot from an alien race, whose distinguishing characteristic is that her hands are claws of two different sizes: one large, one small. She is suspiciously quiet about how she got there (I think). Examining the video footage, they find that, as the Earth ship approached, she jettisoned four other passengers into the sun.

There is much talk about sexual practices (which makes me think Heinlein). Earth society is going through another "sex is sinful" stage, but the alien female has a biological imperative to breed; if she doesn't have sex, she'll die. Since her shipmates are gone, she keeps getting sicker.

They return her to her own world, and find that there are five different races, all of which build a fully-integrated society. The creatures are of different size, shapes and colors, but all have the same mismatched claws. One breed of alien is like a technician, and, for example, while waiting outside by the car (which are a story in themselves), he or she uses the larger claw as a tool to repair, upgrade, or modify the vehicle. All of the aliens are capable of things like this, so there are no businesses to take care of it. Basically, everyone does everything, if I recall correctly.

I don't remember the resolution of the story, and probably for that reason it's been bothering me for several months. If this sounds familiar to anyone, please let me know the title and author, and if I can download a digital copy somewhere.

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    I don't know the book you're talking about, but it sounds like whoever wrote it got part of his inspiration from The Mote in God's Eye by Niven and Pournelle: asymmetrical aliens with "imperative to breed".
    – user14111
    Aug 21 '17 at 23:32
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    I agree with @user14111.... This sounds very much like The Mote in Gods Eye by Niven and Pournelle. It describes the first meeting of the "Moties" with the Empire of Man almost word for word.
    – Alith
    Aug 21 '17 at 23:54
  • I concur with a slightly misremembered Mote. Aug 22 '17 at 0:57
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This is The Mote in God's Eye (1974) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Virtually everything you describe matches fully.

The story is about humans traveling to a previously isolated solar system that is occupied by a strange group of alien races. They alien species all have a common origin on the system's habitable planet, but they have separated into different types, with different cultural purposes—leaders, engineers, diplomats, farmers,... and (perhaps most importantly) soldiers. The have asymmetric body plans, with two arms on one side of their bodies, but just one larger merged arm on the other side. And, crucially, these "moties" (as they come to be known) cannot survive without breeding, which means that there societies are subject to regular "cylces" of uncontrollable growth and violent collapse.

From the Wikipedia plot summary:

The Moties are an old species, native to a planet that the humans label Mote Prime, that has evolved into many specialized subspecies. The first taken aboard MacArthur is an "Engineer", possessing amazing technical abilities, but limited speech and free will. It brings along a pair of tiny "Watchmakers" as helpers. Some days later, a delegation of "Mediators"... arrive. Their specialty is communication and negotiation. The Mediators invite the humans to send a party to Mote Prime. After some debate, the invitation is accepted. Each person in this group acquires a "Fyunch(click)", a Mediator who studies their human subject and tries to learn how to think like them.

Back on MacArthur, the Watchmakers escape, and although it is assumed they have died, they have actually been breeding furiously out of sight. Undetected by the crew, they modify parts of MacArthur to suit their needs. When they are discovered, several attempts to rid MacArthur of the infestation fail, and a battle for control of the ship erupts. The crew is eventually forced to abandon ship after suffering casualties. The party on Mote Prime is quickly recalled without explanation and told to rendezvous with Lenin. Once MacArthur is evacuated, Lenin fires on her to prevent the potential capture of human technology....

During the evacuation, MacArthur midshipmen Staley, Whitbread and Potter are cut off and forced to escape in Watchmaker-modified lifeboats. The lifeboats automatically land in a sparsely populated area of Mote Prime. There the midshipmen find a fortified museum. It provides evidence of a very long and violent history, though the Moties had carefully portrayed themselves as completely peaceful. Following this discovery, the midshipmen are tracked down by Whitbread's Mediator Fyunch(click), who reveals that Moties (other than the short-lived, sterile Mediators) must become pregnant periodically or die. This inevitably results in overpopulation and civilization-ending wars. The Masters, whom the Mediators obey, have also concealed the existence of one Motie subspecies from the humans: Warriors more deadly than any human, even Sauron supersoldiers.

The museums exist to help restore civilization after a collapse. The "Cycles" of civilization, war, and collapse have gone on for hundreds of thousands of years, leaving the Moties fatalistically resigned to their destiny. Only a mythical character called "Crazy Eddie" believes there is a way to change this, and any Motie who comes to believe a solution is possible is labeled a "Crazy Eddie" and deemed insane.

The book is set in Pournelle's CoDominium setting, and there are many oblique references to elements of other CoDominium books. Niven and Pournelle produced a direct sequel, The Gripping Hand (1993), and in 2010, Pournelle's daughter, J. R. Pournelle, wrote another direct sequel, Outies.

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    +1 because I think it's the right answer. I assume you intend to augment your answer with quotations and links. If the OP confirms it, the question is a duplicate of Story about a civilization which repeatedly rises and falls, because individuals can't stop reproducing and People on planet have one arm shaped like a weapon.
    – user14111
    Aug 22 '17 at 1:51
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    Can you please provide some description and perhaps some quotes that show how this matches what the OP is looking for?
    – Mithical
    Aug 22 '17 at 1:53
  • Thanks to Buzz for the correct answer,, and to user14111 and Alith, who thought it was something based on the correct answer. And many, many, many thanks to Alith for "It describes the first meeting ... almost word for word." and to Buzz for "Virtually everything you describe matches fully." Both statements were giant strokes to my ego regarding memories of a book I read over forty years ago. Aug 22 '17 at 2:19
  • An interesting aside is that my brain gave me "Ringworld" several times while trying to remember the name. I knew that was wrong, so I never looked it up. Had I done so, I would have found the answer months ago. Aug 22 '17 at 2:27

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