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Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven

Oath of Fealty (1981)

by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle

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a picture of the stresses in the gated Communities of the Rich. Perhaps insights on the George Zimmermans of the world ( )
  DinadansFriend | Dec 12, 2013 |
My reaction to reading this novel in 1998. Spoilers follow.

It also stands as Pournelle's most explicit examination of feudalism, a theme which appears in much of his solo work, particularly the John Christian Falkenberg series and the type of corporate feudalism of this novel also shows up in Pournelle’s High Justice (another title seemingly derived from mediaeval law) and, in a milder, more implicit way in Pournelle’s collaboration with Charles Sheffield in 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 though that is never truly achieved. Indeed, Los Angeles reliance on Todos Santos economically is used as leverage against the city. The struggle between arcology and LA broadly reflects similar struggles between towns and medieval lords.

While some time is spent on the engineering details of the arcology, most of the book is on the evolution of a new form of corporate feudalism which features a loss of privacy under the vast web of surveillance in the arcology. 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. Policemen here are true public servants and not instruments of a distant authority. A theme of many Pournelle books are people in tyrannical or dysfunctional governments – especially teachers and policemen – showing secret sympathies with the oppressed protagonist. This shows up in his 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 novel’s plot chiefly features Todos Santos asserting more independence from LA. However (and I was surprised) 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 stage a fake sabotage attempt on Todos Santos, an incident which indirectly gets some kids killed by Todos Santos in a fake sabotage incident. Todos Santos is explicitly hierarchical and 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.

Yet, he book expresses ambivalence about it and realizes it in antithetical to certain good and modern values. Certain characters express their reservations. And they are characters who are not seen as bad. Reporter Thomas Lunan, who explains sympathetically the feudal culture (and feudalism is explicitly evoked) 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 Arthur Bonner (who unsuccessfully tries to hire Stevens) as a “good man”, 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 on an area of LA burned down in massive race riots. Environmentalism is also a theme (though this resurged with the notion of Greenhouse Warming). 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 theme of Higher Justice, and 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 aiming for a broader market outside of sf; I attribute to some kind of mainstream formula: specifically a concern with sex and the appearance of 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 don’t. Lunan's conversations with arcology resident Cheryl Drinkwater do 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. ( )
1 vote RandyStafford | Sep 5, 2013 |
Its hard to say anything about this book. I remember it only vaguely, which means it isn't in the Top 100, but it isn't memorable for being awful, either. This is another Nivens and Pournelle collaboration about the near future, and a bleak one, at that. ( )
  Karlstar | Jan 8, 2012 |
This novel's catchphrase is "Think of it as evolution in action."; a useful phrase which I find cropping up in everyday life surprisingly often. ( )
  RobertDay | Dec 7, 2009 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Larry Nivenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Pournelle, Jerrymain authorall editionsconfirmed
Daly, GerryCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Egge, DavidCover Artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For Robert A. Heinlein,

who showed us all how.
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The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

        —Edmund Burke

Elsewhere in Los Angeles it was late afternoon, but here it was only twilight.
Life in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

        —Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Joe Dunhill polished his badge on his sleeve and plucked imaginary lint form the crisp blue of his uniform.
"There are lots of ways to be human."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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