Niven & Pournelle - Burning City

August 02, 2004

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The Burning City
New York : Pocket Books, c2000.

This is another novel set in Niven's Magic Goes Away universe, a land where people consume mana to perform magic, where mana is limited, and where a complicated society is adjusting to the lack of renewable resources - Atlantis fell because they ran out of mana to keep it afloat.

I was torn by the book. On the one hand, it is a perfectly reasonable action-adventure about a reasonable yet flawed hero as he first comes of age and then returns to his home city. On the other hand, it is written within Pournelle's world - a land where the surest route to destroying a society is to enforce the social contract. The burning city of the title is South Central LA, in the land of magic and armor, complete with gangs, AFDC distributed by the suburban fathers, constant crime, and a systematic lack of opportunity. Atlantis fell because the king decided to create equality of outcome for his residents, and not only kicked off a crime wave but used up all the wealth of the nation on housing, failed crime policies, and amenities.

In many ways Pournelle continues to live in an odd conservative reading of the 1970s and 1980s, where welfare creates crime, crime leads to a breakdown of civil order, and the implication is that a just society should do the proper Whiggish thing and encourage all people to strike out on their own - and then blame them for failing.

That is a straw man version of Pournelle, but you know, he runs up his own straw men as he critiques social services so I don't feel all that guilty about it. What worries me is that there is a group of people who get their assumptions about how the world works from fiction, and when they read fiction like this it encourages them to hearken to vicious sound bites and to ignore the complexities of social welfare - just because it is possible to build a social welfare system that traps people does not mean that all social welfare is that way, just as the Clintonian effort to get people off welfare was done without falling into the Whiggish trap of the "free" market.

Neither the dysfunction of Pournelle's fictional burning city nor the near genocide of Great Hunger in Ireland are necessary, but so long as folks like Pournelle write stupid fiction, people will assume that these false choices are the only policy options.

Posted by Red Ted at August 2, 2004 12:52 PM | TrackBack
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