Oath of Fealty

The Jerry Pournelle series concludes with one of my favorite Niven and Pournelle collaborations, and, I think a book of some political prescience.

The desire to retreat from crime and social chaos is still with us: gated communities and billionaires buying bolt holes in New Zealand, and survivalist compounds in South Dakota.

And Alphabet’s plans for its workers sounds like a return to feudalism which, of course, is what this book is about.

This is the only work of Niven’s or Pournelle’s to appear in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985).

Pringle exhibits a bit of snark in his capsule review of the novel when he says

 . . . memories of J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise intrude; but that is a novel which Niven and Pournelle are unlikely to have read.

I suspect that’s true of Pournelle, but Niven’s essay, “The Words in Science Fiction“, hints at fairly broad tastes in the genre.

This was the next novel Niven and Pournelle started after The Mote in God’s Eye, but it was put aside for other novels.

For the 2008 edition, they wrote an introduction, but I have not read it.

If you go to Pournelle’s website and patiently read the search results for “Oath of Fealty”, you’ll find many references to people still thinking about an urban arcology as a shelter in turbulent times.

Raw Feed (1998): Oath of Fealty, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1981.Oath of Fealty

This book was certainly shorter and better than the last Niven and Pournelle collaboration I read, Footfall.

It also stands as the most explicit endorsement of feudalism, a theme which appears in much of Pournelle’s solo work, particularly the John Christian Falkenberg series and a type of corporate feudalism of this novel also shows up in Pournelle’s High Justice (another title seemingly derived from medieval law) and, in a milder, more implicit way in Pournelle’s collaboration with Charles Sheffield, Higher Education.

The title derives from the medieval feudal oath between vassal and lord, and the novel’s plot of Todos Santos fighting for legal and economic independence from LA broadly reflects similar struggles between towns and medieval lords. [Yes, I’m aware that some medievalists argue that feudalism never existed. I just don’t accept the argument.]

That independence is never truly achieved. Indeed, Los Angeles’ reliance on Todos Santos (an emerging economic and social unit like the medieval towns) economically is used as leverage against the city.

Some time is spent on the engineering details of the arcology. Paolo Soleri is mentioned in the book as inventor of the arcology concept – seen as a test run for large spaceship design just like Biosphere II was sold. He designed the Arizona arcology Arcosanti, under construction for almost 30 years. [I stood outside it in the dusk of an April night in 2010, but I was too late for the tour.]

Most of the book,though, is on the evolution of a new form of corporate feudalism. The book’s famous phrase, “Think of it as evolution in action”, partially hearkens to this evolution and is partly a Social Darwinist observation on the lethal consequences of certain acts.

That evolution results in a loss of privacy under the vast web of surveillance in the arcology but with policemen as true public servants and not instruments of a distant authority. (A motif in many Pournelle books is people in tyrannical or dysfunctional governments – especially teachers and policemen – showing secret sympathies with the oppressed protagonist. This shows up in Exiles to Glory, the CoDominium books, Higher Education, and, with Larry Niven and Michael Flynn, Fallen Angels.

Here the sympathetic government official is LA policeman Hal Donovan. Romulus Corporation (Todos Santos’ builder and owner) brings in residents and often loans them money for entrepreneurial enterprises while closely monitoring their personal spending for bad fiscal habits. The taboo about nudity gradually fades away, casual teen sex, and an abhorrence of Angelenos and the world outside are other features of the arcology’s culture.

The novel’s plot chiefly features Todos Santos asserting more independence from LA.  However, and this surprised me, Todos Santos steps back from becoming a nation state or even a police state (though they have the instrumentality and competence to do so) when they capture the eco-terrorists who tried to sabotage Todos Santos and indirectly kill some kids in a fake sabotage incident. There is also a plot to kidnap and kill two women, one a Todos Santos resident.

The hierarchy of Todos Santos, and it is explicitly hierarchial, rejects egalitarian notions of equality. The managers of the city are treated as lords though most spend time in the Commons area of Todos Santos. Indeed, all citizens are required to spend time in the Commons as a means of fostering Todos Santos’ unity and identity and facilitate communication on city problems and solutions.) Todos Santos’ government rejects the notion that it can be executioners as well as policemen. It resorts to the old punishment of exile when they release the terrorists.

The rule of law is important to Pournelle.  ndeed, most of the fix-up Higher Justice is devoted to international law. Yet, while I suspect Pournelle (I’m not sure about Niven) wants us to see the Todos Santos society as laudable, the book expresses ambivalence about it and realizes it in antithetical to certain good and modern values.

Some characters express their reservations. And they are characters who are not seen as bad. Reporter Thomas Lunan, who explains sympathetically the feudal culture of Todos Santos, ultimately rejects living in Todos Santos because of its insularity and lack of privacy. Maclean Stevens, executive assistant to LA’s Mayor (a job Pournelle once had, I believe), is described by Todos Santos’ manager Arther Bonner (who unsuccessfully tries to hire Stevens) as a “good man”. Yet, Stevens criticizes Todos Santos as an anthill of feudal specialization and a leech on LA. When they discuss the arcology at novel’s end, Lunan says Todos Santos is nice but not to his taste and adds “There are a lot of ways to be human.”  “Maybe,” replies Steven in the books last bit of dialogue.

From the point of sf (and, continuing with a tradition started in their second novel, Inferno, there are specific sf allusions to authors and works), the book is an interesting bridge between prevalent seventies’ sf themes and eighties’ and nineties’ themes.

Racial tension is a factor here (which is not to say it is not a theme in post-seventies sf, just not as prevalent) in the character of Preston Sanders. Indeed, Todos Santos was constructed in an area of LA burned down in massive race riots.

Environmentalism is also a theme. Pournelle in particular seems concerned with environmental degradation but, in opposition to most environmentalism, sees better tech as the answer. (The notion of iceberg towing shows up here as in Higher Justice.)

Overpopulation (still a sf theme but less prevalent) shows up too. The rationale for arcologies is a dense packing of people for a more efficient use of resources, especially energy ones. Corporate feudalism, a major element of Gibsonian cyberpunk is here.

And the book, with its cybernetic implants which allow Todos Santos’ managers to work efficiently and have a form of telepathy, foreshadows (along with Norman Spinrad’s earlier “Riding the Torch”) the cyberpunk concern with all things cybernetic.

Telepresence is also here, another theme explored more in the eighties and nineties.

Literarily, though, the book has a few flaws that, given the relative lack, or, at least, much less emphasis in their solo work, seem to be due to many of the Niven and Pournelle collaborations aiming for a broader market outside of sf. There seems to be sort of a mainstream formula that requires sex and a beautiful woman (here the drop dead gorgeous Barbara Churchward, ex-model and now cunning comptroller of Todos Santos). The sexual aspects (never that explicit) could have been justified as showing changed sexual mores but mostly they don’t.

Lunan’s conversations with arcology resident Cheryl Drinkwater actually do show that.  The Bonnor and Churchward sex can be justified as showing telepathic implants at work. The Tondy Rand-Delores Mortine sex is not really necessary to develop the plot of treachery and rescue involving Rand’s ex-wife.

Still, this was an interesting book though it seems rather dated now in its estimation of corporations’ influence or ability to undertake a project like Todos Santos. [Well, no, as I said in my introduction.]


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