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Millennial Review XIX: Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle (1981)

Oath of Fealty

By Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle 

2 Feb, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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Oath of Fealty
Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle
Pocket Books, 1981
324 pages

Synopsis: Todos Santos is an arcology, a 1000-foot-tall city-building built in the ruins of a section of LA leveled in a riot. TS is the only successful arcology to date, but its economic success is accompanied by a mutually hostile relationship with LA, a terrorist problem and a markedly insular culture.

The book opens as a Canadian Deputy Minister [Well, in theory Canadian but he talks like he was hired away from the Ministry of Silly Walks] is visiting TS. Canada, it seems, would also like a successful arcology. During the visit several teenagers break into TS, disguised as terrorists. They are humanely nerve gassed by the Security man in charge, Preston Sanders. Afterwards, it is discovered that one of the kids is connected, is the son of an LA politician. All hell breaks loose.

TS plans to fight the murder charges. Preston turns himself in. The surviving teen is charged with murder as well. As the book progresses, the point is made that regular police can't effectively fight crime in LA due to evil public defenders and the courts.

Unknown to the people in TS, the assistant to the chief engineer is a commie mutant, sorry, is working for a group of ecoterrorists. This is where the kids got the security details needed to break in.

The Deputy Minister is shown TS in great detail in scenes which recall Looking Backwards and Twenty-One Balloons. He drinks Pimm's Cups, whatever those are, compulsively and who can blame him?

The PTB at TS decide that it would be unfair to Sanders to let him face trial. Instead, they plan to break him out and exile him to Zimbabwe. A reporter figures out their plan by talking to random occupants of TS, one of whom he sleeps with.

A genuine attempt at damaging TS is made by some ecoterrorists. It is foiled with relatively low loss of life.

Sanders is broken out of jail. The police are upset but unable to find him. Sanders leaves for Africa and a life of exile. The engineer who masterminded the breakout is exiled to Canada, where we are assured the company who owns TS can block extradition for a long time.

TS threatens to sabotage the LA water supply. The councilman whose son was killed is persuaded that the ecology group connected to the ecoterrorists is responsible and one local professor is especially responsible. The legal and economic conflict comes to an end. Later the professor is hunted down and murdered, perhaps a hit paid for by the dead boy's father.

A female member of the people running TS is kidnapped by the remaining ecoterrorists. After some gratuitous rape the infallible security team of TS tracks her down and saves her and another woman. TS can protect its people where LA can not. All ends happily as TS moves towards greater economic and legal independence.

Where to start? It's a fast read. It's easy to tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Oath of Fealty is responsible for spreading 'think of it as evolution in action'. Many of the physical details and their social implications are thought out and it isn't a utopia: privacy is minimal, for example. What helps make TS work is the all-pervading dislike and fear of nearby LA. TS is the largest gated community in history and paranoia is a powerful unifying force.

BTW, aside from Sanders [who we are assured is totally middle class and completely not descended from slaves], were there any other black people in TS?

Note about that Deputy Minister: accent aside, you don't find a lot of titled people in Canada's government for much the same reason you don't find them in the US government. Readers may remember the fuss over why Conrad Black recently sued the Canadian government in connection with getting on the UK's Honours list. I know Pournelle has been to Canada. Apparently, he didn't pay any attention when he was there.

All the characters are made of purest cardboard. The ecoterrorists appear to have been recycled from some bad 1960s episode of FBI. I strongly doubt TS could get away with the shenanigans they pull, and the logic of breaking Sanders out entirely escaped me. The significance that one of the terrorists is a Lesbian escaped me [evidence appeared to be that she was large].

Oddly enough, TS has a honking big mainframe [with crappy security: I think their security consultant went on to design Jurassic Park] but no PCs. Weird because I am sure Pournelle had written about them by 1981. They have expensive implants which let a select few talk to the mainframe via radio but no internet and again I am sure N&P would have known about ARPANET by then.

I'm sure that they could have made better use of RPV security robots. They did have one but the commo to it was easily blocked.

I don't buy the resolution to the problem with LA or the councilman, period. In the long run, LA can't afford to have TS be a law unto itself and stepping on it now will be easier than later, when it is really entrenched and when they don't have such a nice set of illegalities committed by TS.

On the whole, dated [felt more mid-1970s than 1980s], simplistic and not especially plausible but a page turner. Wouldn't surprise me if it were in the same universe as High Justice.