Thursday, May 22, 2008

I amused a fellow space advocate yesterday when I told him I was taking a break from all my space stuff to read some science fiction. I was only partly kidding. Book reading does relax me, and yes, I was reading science fiction, but it was not about space. Or rather, it was not set in space or primarily concerned with space. However, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, being two of the giants in the SF field, would be remiss if space didn't show up somewhere.

So if Oath of Fealty isn't about space, what IS it about? Set in the near future (the book was written in 1980), Niven and Pournelle describe the dramatic possibilities of a structure called an arcology. What, exactly, is an arcology? Put simply, it is an entire city enclosed within one building. The concept was invented by Paolo Soleri, an architect and protege of Frank Lloyd Wright. In the story, a large conglomerate takes advantage of an urban riot in Los Angeles, which leaves a large stretch of land burned out and dilapidated, to build Todos Santos ("All Saints" en espaƱol).

The most important aspect of Todos Santos to its designer, Tony Rand, is that it was designed to be independent of the city around it. In essence, Rand thinks of Todos Santos as a starship. In addition to this drive for self-sufficiency, the "Saints" have established a semi-feudal culture, with oaths of fealty (loyalty) given to the arcology's adminstrator and its society in return for round-the-clock surveillance and protection from the world outside Todos Santos. Alas, the "outside world" the authors describe is not far different from our own, with the things to be protected from including bureaucratic regulations, crime, and taxes. The organization running TS pays the citizens' taxes, helps them get started in business, and provides a safe, high-technology society in which to raise families.

There are, of course, people who might reject such a structure or lifestyle. These individuals are represented by the FROMATEs ("Friends of Man and the Earth"), who would be called eco-terrorists today. The Fromates occasionally perform raids on TS, everything from disturbing the peace to pouring LSD into the water to actually setting off bombs. The story centers on this conflict and the tensions between TS and the poorer city of Los Angeles around it.

Normally, in a Niven-Pournelle collaboration, we get a healthy dose of lecturing (courtesy of Dr. Pournelle, whose brain I envy). However, while the authors are swift to defend the arcology on quality of life and cultural grounds, they say surprisingly little about the ecological impacts or benefits of TS. And that's surprising, since eco-terrorists are primarily motivated by ecological issues.

Arcosanti is Paolo Soleri's prototype arcology, which was begun in the Arizona desert and has never been completed, but began as an ecological project. For example, this quotation from the Arcosanti website would have sufficed:
An arcology would need about two percent as much land as a typical city of similar population. Today’s typical city devotes more than sixty percent of its land to roads and automobile services. Arcology eliminates the automobile from within the city. The multi-use nature of arcology design would put living, working and public spaces within easy reach of each other and walking would be the main form of transportation within the city.
That sort of argument might have provided a better technical grounding for the advantages of Todos Santos.

On a storytelling level, Oath of Fealty is brisker, less ambitious, and has fewer characters to keep track of than Lucifer's Hammer. It's a little more fun as well. For instance, to discourage or mock "jumpers" who climb to the roof of TS to jump off, Tony Rand added a high-dive board. One guy backs away from the board, and Rand says, "Call it evolution in action," a catchphrase that repeats from there on. There is a bit of a social Darwinist attitude to the "Saints," which explains its popularity; the Saints are unashamedly upscale people, sort of like the folks that populate gated communities today. They pay for their security/comfort, and they expect it to be delivered. They don't have much love or patience for regular Angelinos, and the feeling is mutual.

Oath of Fealty is interesting to me because the whole concept of an arcology is just cool. Could it be done today? Undoubtedly. Will it be done? Consider this: if you added several levels of apartments to the top of the Mall of America, you'd have a close approximation of Todos Santos. The "Town Center" developments sprouting up around the country are also similar: small, contained shopping areas with upscale housing nearby. If you've got all the necessities of life (via stores) nearby, you need not ever leave your neighborhood.

There's also the question of industrial feudalism: are we approaching such a state, with aristocrats in "high castles" and the lower classes outside the walls looking in? I'd say we are. It might not be the ideal situation, but that depends on what your ideal is. Do you like stability? Medieval feudalism was stable for 800 years (~500-1300 A.D.). Laissez-faire capitalism lasted about a century in the U.S. and UK (1776-1893). After that, it mutated into welfare-state capitalism. Industrial feudalism as Niven/Pournelle describe it would allow for some freedom of movement and advancement through capitalist endeavors, but would be kept in check by constant surveillance. A lot of the current generation is used to cameras everywhere--perhaps that wouldn't be such a great stretch. In any case, Oath of Fealty offers the reader an easy-to-read story and an insight into another way of life. That's why SF fans read what they read.

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