Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Review: Oath of Fealty

Book Review: 'Oath of Fealty' by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle




1 / 5 Stars

‘Oath of Fealty’ was first published in hardback in 1981. This Pocket Books paperback edition (top) (324 pp) was published in August, 1982. 

Pocket Books released other editions with different cover art (bottom) during the remainder of the 80s.

From the mid 70s to the late 80s, the duo of Niven and Pournelle were among the most visible – and best-selling – in sf, with titles such as The Mote in God’s Eye (1974), Inferno (1976), Lucifer's Hammer (1977), Dream Park (1981), Footfall (1985), and The Legacy of Heorot (1987). Some of these were good, others, mediocre. 


Unfortunately, ‘Oath of Fealty’ is in the latter category.

‘Fealty’ is set in the near future, in Los Angeles. An arcology, called Todos Santos, has been erected on a tract of deserted land on the outskirts of the city.

[Arcologies were not unusual in 80s sf, particularly in cyberpunk…..William Gibson refers to them in his ‘sprawl’ novels].

Todos Santos (Spanish for 'All Saints') houses nearly 250,000 people in a building nearly 1,000 feet high, and two miles to each side. It features an enormous shopping mall (this novel was written in the early 80s, after all), and offers its resident 24-hour security and all the comforts of home – at a rather steep price. 

Todos Santos is governed by a team of able technocrats who must answer to an off-site Corporate headquarters. The message from Corporate is clear: the profitable construction of future arcologies is dependent on the success of Todos Santos.

But neighboring Los Angeles is not in good shape. Years of drought have resulted in the placement of an iceberg in the city harbor to serve as a source of drinking water to the entire metropolis. Crime is prevalent, the slums have grown, and the city’s political leadership is as inept as ever (in other words, it’s exactly like the LA of 2016).

The city’s politicians are filled with resentment at Todos Santos, which they view as an enclave of wealth and privilege that exploits LA, but gives little in return.

Members of the eco-liberation front known as ‘Fromate’ also hate Todos Santos, regarding it as a self-indulgent monstrosity that is depleting the state’s resources while exacerbating Income Inequality and Social Injustice. As the novel opens, a team of marauding Fromate activists has bypassed the security of Todos Santos, and accessed the belowground passages leading to the vital fusion cores powering the arcology.

As the arcology’s security staff and senior managers look on through remote surveillance cameras, they struggle with a decision: how best to stop the saboteurs ? The choice they make will have its repercussions…..and be the first step in an intensifying struggle, not just with Fromate, but with Los Angeles, for the future of the arcology………

‘Oath of Fealty’ is a very boring book….. a soap opera revolving around dramas afflicting corporate personnel, rather than an sf novel.

Niven and Pournelle are intent on making their novel character-driven, rather than plot-driven. The result is a narrative that belabors the emotional, psychological, and managerial (!) actions of its large cast of characters. Brief episodes of political and social drama (which reflect Niven and Pournelle's Libertarian political orientations) are introduced every now and then to lend urgency to the actions of the Todos Santos technocrats, but these are too few and too far between to lend much momentum to the narrative.

The main sci-fi trope in ‘Oath of Fealty’ is the presence of ‘implants’ in the brains of some of the more senior technocrats; these implants permit subvocal communication with the arcology’s AI, called ‘MILLIE’. Niven and Pournelle not only insist on relating the conversations between the technocrats and MILLIE, but conversations between the technocrats, MILLIE, and other people, which are rendered in different fonts and ALL CAPS; trying to decipher these exchanges is a chore for the reader.

The verdict ? ‘Oath of Fealty’ is yet another example of how uninspired sf had become by the early 80s. Although they didn’t know it at the time (i.e., 1981), Niven and Pounelle’s depiction of a near-future LA had already been rendered bland and obsolete by K. W. Jeter’s unpublished 1972 novel Dr Adder, which was still three years from finally seeing print.


Indeed, the release of Dr Adder in 1984, and Richard Kadrey's Metrophage in 1988, rendered ‘Oath of Fealty’ a dud. I can’t recommend it to anyone other than die-hard Niven and Pournelle fans.

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