Bad Company

Oath of Fealty*, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Science Fiction writers form the tightest and most messianic propagandist clique since the Scholastics, with whom they have much in common. Like beating dead horses, mistaking trivia for profundity, cavalier views on the rights of lesser men, and some bizarre notions of propriety.

Oath of Fealty is more evidence of it. It is nothing more or less than an easy rewrite of Lucifer’s Hammer; once again we see the same Science Fiction themes: technology-as-savior; hierarchy and rigid social structure as positively attractive; the Enemy so well-smeared so as to deserve sympathy from Satan. Bigotry is bad when it is perceived among the fence-sitters of the outright enemy, but there is nothing wrong with it when we do it.

Niven and Pournelle have churned out another action-packed thriller of no consequence, taking pains not to hide their prejudices behind any pantywaist proofs that one side or another is correct. First they steal the idea of the Proprietary Community for an obscure group of futurist libertarians; it entails a city within a single building run with a soft iron hand by the owners, who have solid contracts with their residents. The owners and administrators provide a valuable commodity in this horror future: security. They have surveillance cameras everywhere; guards who watch everything, and special passes to keep out undesirables.

The conflict entails a plot by various conveniently rabid and violent environmentalists to destroy the big, private city. They’re going to sneak in and blow up the power lines; they’re going to use dynamite on the turbines and flywheels far underground. We see two attacks; the first turns out to be a prank by innocent youths who get gassed with some nerve poison. Because one of the youths was the son of a prominent politician on the Outside, tensions mount, and the man who pushed the button is arrested and jailed. With love affairs in the background we move ahead meeting everyone and finding out what’s so wonderful about living in a friendly police state. Finally another attack is mounted, this one for real, and our anguished leaders do their best to capture the intruders without… the later confusion the jailed hero is rescued; an economic war is declared between the two cities and the Proprietary Community wins with threats and scare-tactics.

For structure the novel is not bad; although he characters are unidimensional we are only asked to swallow a few impossible motives and actions. If you enjoy thrillers, or exploring moral issues of some possible worlds, the book is worth the price.

But I have a problem with Niven, Pournelle, & Co.’s vision. Like any Science fiction writer of reknown barring but a few, they are on the Far Right, in the Pro-tech faction: conservatives in the worst sense. They are naive about power, even though they do heave in a quote from some Lord Acton imitator about its effects. The unease starts perhaps in Lucifer’s Hammer, where the only group opposed to the Champions of Truth, Justice and Authority is a ragtag band of cannibals, environmentalists, and Christian cultists. Worse: they are largely black, and from the inner cities. It is almost the same in Oath: the savage, violent madmen with bombs; anyone who expresses some qualm about living in the Hive, as it is called, are bigots, Know-Nothings, or maniacs. The Heroes, the Good Guys, are obedient in the face of “duly constituted” authority: this authority is omniscient (in Oath they get brain implants that hook them up to the omniscient computer), benevolent, and wise beyond measure.

It becomes positively obnoxious when Niven and Pournelle start tossing around libertarian arguments for that section of their audience. Oh, it is clear: no one’s rights are being violated except for the actions of the despicable Enemy; all the residents freely chose to live in the techno-feudal slave camp of the future; commerce is voluntary; the benefits are real. For instance, the city has negotiated a bargain that exempts all its people from filing taxes with any government; taxes are paid to some distant American state, and it comes out of the price of the rent.

It becomes clear that Niven and Pournelle (and many if not most of their fellow propagandists) are libertarians only to the extent that they could use freedom of association to create rigid, intolerant hierarchies; incredible class divisions; and the New Militarist Man. Reagan and ray-guns to the end of the galaxy; the more things change the more they keep telling us that they stay the same. Bob Black put his finger on it: “Everything can be different in the same old way! Less taxes, more rent! Less cops, more Pinkertons!”

Hero worship, slavish obedience, modernist hierarchies, and pure power are not libertarian, despite Ayn Rand and despite freely chosen submission. Contract or no contract we are talking about lockstep, lock-up, and lock-out. It is not libertarian to praise universal and inescapable surveillance no matter who wants it at what price and for what reason. To say that Niven and Pournelle are even faintly libertarian is to say that Pol Pot could be a Party member because everyone who saw what he was going to do had a chance to leave before he did it.

I am not one to prevent people from signing on with whatever dictatorial or discipline-oriented outfit they choose. Think of it is evolution in action as the novel’s obscene slogan goes. If people want to follow Jim Jones to Guyana, or Sun Myung Moon to blissful flower dispensaries, that is their business.

But I do have a valid objection to propaganda that lauds such behavior. Oath does not really celebrate anything worth celebrating; they put Power on a pedestal, scorning present governments in favor of their own, in which there is no possibility that any action of the State can ever be challenged or impeded; in which it is never questioned and conveniently never wrong. Oath creates insipid people in a mutual admiration society; they’re all Heroes because they obey the Boss; they fight only that authority which seems to get in their way; but have no qualms about being dictator. The obvious nature of relationships in brutal subcultures is glossed over: no more are the simpering, bootlicking weaklings who turn cruel tyrant even in evidence; no, authority is mediated, low-key, and no one in power ever pulls rank, revels in power, or does anything that the dominant/submissive psychotic tends to do.

People who like this milieu, who enjoy living sans dignity and autonomy, who pretend that submission isn’t the watchword in hierarchies, are writing books in favor of it; and they’re lauded by too many infantile libertarians. They seize on the few recognizable libertarians sentiments and skirt the glorification of Power. In the end of Niven and Pournelle’s ode to dominance, the Perfect Leaders decide not to use their utter immunity and kill their helpless captives; anyone, anyone who takes this as an accurate projection of behavior, given history, cannot call themselves literate or informed, and anyone who thinks that this book even approaches a treatment of libertarian ethics is an absurd, ahistorical quack.

Libertarians who do not take a positive stance in favor of a tolerant ideal in various cultural and interpersonal codes do themselves grievous harm. All around us there are insidious preachers of the exact opposite of what we stand for stealing our arguments and foisting off their garbage on an unsuspecting public. If these ostensible freedom-lowers are not exposed, and opposed by a positive alternative ethic, we will end up being lumped together with all those who are rightly mistrusted by the independent-minded. Apologists for Power are bad company, and if we don’t watch out, correct prejudice against them will destroy us.

* Gerry’s handwritten note on the typed copy: “My Dad sent it for Christmas after seeing laudatory review in REASON

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