What if Pournelle and Niven’s Todos Santos had really been built?

Anybody remember Oath of Fealty by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven?

It’s been a long time since I read this one. I wonder if I still have a copy on my shelves? 

In the near future, Los Angeles is an all but uninhabitable war zone, racked by crime, violence, pollution and poverty. But above the blighted city, a Utopia has arisen: Todos Santos, a thousand-foot high single-structured city, designed to used state-of-the-art technology to create a completely human-friendly environment, offering its dwellers everything they could want in exchange for their oath of allegiance and their constant surveillance . But there are those who want to see the utopia destroyed, whose answer to tomorrow’s best and brightest hope is mindless violence. And they have just entered Todos Santos. . . .

In Oath of Fealty, Pournelle and Niven posited a giant building, or a small city, that offers a really nice place to live, at least if you don’t mind little cameras looking over your shoulder all the time. The bad stuff comes from outside the city.

But check this out:

Real World Cities: Ponte City

When I was going to Ponte City, my taxi driver repeatedly asked me if I knew what I was doing. “It is a dodgy area,” he said. …When he asked the fourth time, I managed to explain that there was a tour and I was going inside the building. Then he quieted down and seemed satisfied. Because Ponte City is a building. A building tall enough that it once was almost self-catering, a city with within a city with bars, shops, daycare, barber, bowling alley and more.

According to the owner of my bed-and-breakfast, Ponte City has a kind of legendary aura around it. It is a place everyone knows. It is even a place that was used to scare little children. “If you do not work hard in school, you will end up in Ponte City”

This is an essay posted at File 770, by Hampus Eckerman, about a huge building in Johannasburg that was supposed to work like Todos Santos. Spoiler: it didn’t turn out well.

Built in 1975, it was a place where everyone wanted to live.

20 years later it was a place in ruins, a place where no one wanted to go. It was known for its suicides, people travelled to Ponte City only to throw themselves from the top of the building. The inside of the cylinder was filled up with garbage, at the end it reached 14 levels high and there were rats the size of cats. The building with its close to 500 apartments roomed almost 10,000 people, many of them criminals. There was even a discussion of turning the whole building into a prison. Putting locks on the door in the middle of the night and putting guards there to keep its armed residents inside.

Wow. It sounds a bit like the infamous Projects of East St Louis, only all packed into one building and dialed up to 11.

What went wrong? Well, that’s quite a story. It started with intrusive, unpleasant government actions and then segued through what sounds to me like extraordinarily stupid, brutal government inaction. Click through and read the whole thing.

There is a remarkable ending to this story, though:

So how is Ponte City today? Like a miracle, it has turned around. A temporary owner managed to empty the building of all its criminal residents, exactly how this happened is unknown. Perhaps the gangsters were bribed. Perhaps the police. What we know is that the building was empty and renovations were started. In 2012, people could start to move in again…

I certainly did not see that coming.

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2 thoughts on “What if Pournelle and Niven’s Todos Santos had really been built?”

  1. I’d have preferred the libertarian SF novel version, where they’d have bought a generator, hired private security, and become the nexus for a successful integrated society that brought down apartheid early.

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