Review: Oath of Fealty

Oath of Fealty
Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oath of Fealty is a dated, but not outdated, science fiction story of what might happen to a large group of individuals if they were to live inside a self-contained (mostly) arcology (city sized) in the midst of modern society. Modern society being one guessed at by the authors from the perspective of 1980. Keep that in mind.

I must preface this review with a rant to anyone who judges or reviews older books based solely on their own modern perceptions of society. If it is twenty or more years older than you, the author’s mind-set will not have existed in the same world you do. Adjust your pre-suppositions before reading. Think of the era ‘in which it was written’ along with the story itself.

IT IS NOW ON A DIFFERENT TIMELINE THAN YOU.

You cannot write a book about the future and get everything right. Also, you cannot read a book written thirty-six years ago and expect it to be a match for your current social setup anymore. When you choose to read a book this old, you must adjust your expectations and try to wrap your mind around the world as it was when it was written. If you cannot do that, then don’t bother picking up any book older than 15 years. And, for that matter, skip science fiction altogether because it requires you to use your imagination, and sometimes (God forbid!) willingly suspend your disbelief and repress your ‘triggers’. History happened whether you like it or not. You can’t read Shakespeare and judge his work to be crap because he comes across a misogynist to you. The same must (not optional) be applied to reading any work that was published some time ago.

This is one of those books.

Now I can get back to the review. I picked up ‘Oath of Fealty’ after a re-release of the e-book went on sale, and I realized it was a Niven/Pournelle that I had not yet read. If you have not read these two authors (collaboratively &/or individually) I feel both excited and sorry for you. You have some superb reading that you could tackle, but at the same time, a lot of it will be dated, like this book is, simply due to the passage of time. Go read them anyway!

This novel is of a near future (that spun off of the year 1980/81 when it was written). The setting is the city of Los Angeles. A riot destroyed a large portion of the city which consequently allowed the development of a corporately sponsored arcology. Todos Santos is a huge walled edifice, a skyscraper the size of a city, that stockholders may buy a share in and live their lives there. It is a place that is under nearly constant surveillance – including in apartments if needed for emergencies – that affords the occupants a premium on safety at the expense of privacy. Over time, this trade-off has become a non-issue for them. They have become used to it. Also, the corporate nature of the complex means that a distinct strata of individual privilege is present. This too is accepted by the residents as perfectly fine. Why do they think it’s fine? Because, simply put, the guards and the higher-ups technically work for them. People who have domestic servants don’t care if they know their comings and goings, right? The book’s title originates from a reporter character who does a documentary on the arcology and compares it to a feudal society. The residents have sworn an Oath of Fealty to the leader, granting him high privileges in exchange for protection.

Outside the walls of this community is the city of Los Angeles with its high crime-rates, poverty, and very jealous individuals in politics that resent the success of Todos Santos (and its independence, and their lack of influence on it, etc.) The arcology does not pay taxes to L.A. which was part of the deal at the start of its development, so this is really irksome for the politicians. The All Saints in the middle of the City of Angels is only for those who accept its constraints on the inside, and those on the outside mostly despise it, even though the symbiotic relationship that has developed also keeps industry and development flowing to them. The regular residents of Los Angeles feel this way too, but also want to be part of it at the same time. They want the benefits, but without the necessity of conformance.

Also, a militant faction of Eco Terrorists is seeking to disrupt – and destroy, if possible – the arcology. Despite the good the arcology has done for the environment, and how green it is (it is almost self-contained and recycles everything) they believe it (and other concept arcologies) to be a crime against humanity. Their socialist ideal is that the arcology takes from the poor and concentrates the riches of society in the hands of the privileged few. A very socialist dogma for the bad guys, certainly, which is to be expected from a book written at the tipping point of the cold war era from two authors with a conservative bent.
So, that’s the setup of the novel. The characters are not deep. The novel was written to showcase the concept of this arcology idea. The plot was created to give the reader a way to learn about it. The characters were written around this plot to bring the story to life.
Even so, it works. The story is entertaining. You do have to read about eighty percent of it before it becomes a page turner, but still, I like some good world-building.

Probably the neatest thing I found in this novel was that some concepts of the science were spot on and didn’t even click as ‘futuristic’ until I stopped and thought about what existed when it was written. Let me give some examples of things that happened in 1980/81, but were still futuristic to this book:

  • Ronald Reagan was first elected as President of the United States.
  • MS-DOS was released and used in IBM’s new Personal Computer (PC)

Today, most of us have cell phones that are more powerful. The book mentions at one point using a data printout of a whopping 25 megabytes (staggering!) to delay the local police.

  • NASA launched Columbia, the first Space Shuttle put into orbit.

Some of the residents of Todos Santos work from home with tele-operated devices that run machines in greater Los Angeles, and one even operates a bulldozer in a construction project on the moon.

  • Rhodesia gained its independence and became the state of Zimbabwe.

Used as a plot device in the later book. Zimbabwe today is a collapsed failed society.

  • Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was released in theaters.

The book mentions Star War Episode VIII where a character mocks Han Solo’s science. We all know what really happened to Han in Episode VII!

Those are just a few things that jumped out at me.

In this novel, Todos Santos is managed by several executives who are very good at their jobs. Part of their success stems from their ability to link with the central computer system via implant technology in their brains. This is a huge futuristic tech item, even for today. However, one of the benefits of this tech that was given was the ability of this computer system to keep track of everyone within the complex. It let the guards be able to track down and deliver messages to and from residents if needed. This was ‘amazing’ in regards to the book at the time it was published, but we all know that today we would not need guards to do that… we’d use our cell phones! Another advantage of the implants was the ability to mentally talk to other implant users via the computer. That’s pretty awesome, and still ‘advanced tech’ for today, but we can also send e-mail and text messages, so we are not that far off the mark.

Another idea in the book that has never taken root in today’s world was making use of icebergs as a source of fresh drinking water. I don’t know the feasibility of that particular idea is today, but I think the environmentalist would probably throw a fit about shrinking the ice shelf or stealing habitat from the polar bears or something. It would sure help with that drought in Cali though!

The mega city slide-walk moving from walking speed up to fifty MPH in graded strips would be a nightmare to implement as well. OSHA would have puppies and kittens at the mere thought of something like that being used by people. And the lawsuits when someone got hurt… I shudder to think.

The self-sufficient and self-contained arcology has also never been tried on this scale (to my knowledge), but I can say that I personally would not want to live in one. Then again, I wouldn’t want to be an Angelino in a crowded crime ridden cityscape either. I’ll stick to the backwoods, thanks!

One last concept in the book (which is oddly coincidental to what is in the news at the time I write this review), touches on race relations of the time, but more specifically on the US versus THEM mentality. In this case Angelinos versus Saints. What is justice from the perspective of one group is often seen as the opposite of justice from the perspective of another. We have this same issue ongoing in America today. That seems not to have changed much in thirty-six years. That is sad, but also could be seen as a lesson that speaks to the failure of the more liberal ideas of crime and punishment in our society. A lack of respect for authority and the rights of others, along with a refusal to enforce effective punishment leads to tragedy and discontent for all. The book depicts a situation in which people committing a criminal act are killed, but those with tighter ties to them are convinced that they were the victims of the out-of-control authorities of the arcology. The arcology is just as adamant that they were defending themselves from harm. This is an eerie coincidence to what I have witnessed in the news recently. Thirty-six years is a long time to fail in the same way without trying something different. The differences of opinion continue, though, because those who support the liberal side believe we just need more of the same because we haven’t tried hard enough. Conversely, those on the other side of the spectrum have gotten to the point that they just don’t care. As in this novel, the only end result is a sharp divide in societies that cannot be effectively healed. Again, a sad thought.

Anyway, the science and social concepts explored in this book, including the idea of a separate culture developing inside the arcology itself, are very interesting. I don’t know if all of it would go the way presented, but some of it undoubtedly would. I found the novel to be entertaining and mentally engaging, even if it is somewhat dated by its cold war era origins. I give it 3 stars and call it a Good Ole Read.

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