RogerBW's Blog

Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle 12 December 2015

1981 science fiction. In the Todos Santos arcology, life is much safer than outside in Los Angeles, if somewhat sanitised: but it's still right next door.

I suspect that one's opinion of the politics of this novel can be predicted by whether one thinks that "screw 'em, let 'em fend for themselves while I'm safe in my fortress" is ever a good attitude to take (a timely thing to think about, given growing unwillingness by the "civilised" world to take in refugees). In this world, that's what you have to do: the Outside is and always will be filled with an infinite supply of muggers and rapists and burglars and street gangs, and the only way to have a reasonably safe life is to lock yourself away behind nerve gas and automatic weapons owned by the biggest bully on the block.

My politics may have changed somewhat since I first read and enjoyed this book.

What I find interesting now is that this is largely a book about public relations. The nature of Todos Santos itself isn't going to change, but the way people on the outside think about it is amenable to modification. One of the major plot points is the partial reversal in attitude of the reporter Thomas Lunan, who makes a documentary about the cultural clashes (starting, in a memorable opening sequence, with the nerve-gassing of three people who have set themselves up to look like terrorists infiltrating the arcology's power plant but turn out to be unarmed students) and ends up, while not wanting to live in Todos Santos, at least admitting that their way is a way that's here to stay. That could work, but the authors' message is just too heavy-handed, erasing characterisation.

The title is suitably ironic for a book adopted by libertarians: yes, you can be free of the troubles of the outside world, as long as you give your loyalty to and accept the protection of someone bigger than you.

Of course there's also a lot of the "bureaucracy be hanged, let's do stuff" attitude, and plenty of nifty tech – though A. Rand (ahem), the main techie here and Niven's proxy in the story, is one of the people who ends up having to leave the country rather than staying where the action is like the general manager (Pournelle's proxy). There's some decent stuff on the personal and social implications of brain-computer interfacing, too, though as with most pre-21st-century fiction it considers the inevitable far end to be one big computer, loaded with everything, rather than a network of machines under separate control.

It's all a bit straw-mannish, though: the main organised opposition is the anti-tech movement Friends of Man and the Earth, which is blatantly inconsistent even in its own rhetoric, and doesn't seem to make any internal distinction between people who feel that the resource allocation per person is a bit on the inequitable side and people who are willing to kill and destroy to make their point. There are no good FROMATEs, or bad Todos Santosians (except the traitors who were never really true believers… hmm, funny how that works). The security group which has full-time camera access to every room in the arcology is completely trustworthy, and the company only has your interests at heart, honest. I've read this story before, but generally the heroes are the people fighting against the oppressive dictatorship. As John Clute put it in the SF Encyclopedia: "The internal government of this arcology being an infallible hierarchy headed by one brilliant man in constant communication with a great Computer, no significant dissent is necessary, or heard."

The politics are hateful, but some of the tech is still interesting.

This was a choice for the YSDC Book Club.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 06:12pm on 12 December 2015

    It carries you along the same way Pournelle's military fiction does. And makes you slightly ashamed of having enjoyed it so much in the same way.

    I was going through my idiot libertarian phase back then. Nowadays I snarl whenever I pass the signs advertising the 'gated community' someone is building on Amersham Hill.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 08:31pm on 12 December 2015

    Oh, you too, huh?

    At least we got better.

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