Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Larry Niven's "Cloak of Anarchy": An experiment in anarchy-based society

The dozen odd Niven stories I've read seem to fall in two broad classes: those focussed on a specific subject, & the school boy types where you are made to face a cacophony of all the ideas & gadgets the author can think up at the moment. This story falls in the second type. I prefer the former - so it's not high on my list of great stories.

Full text of this story is available online.

Story summary.

Key plot element here is an anarchical society - the kind you have probably seen in dozens of post-apocalypse stories. Just after the cataclysmic event, when there is no law or its enforcers, physical might rules.

Except that there is no great apocalypse here; it's a demonstration at a small scale. A public park where no law applies save one - no violence among humans please. There are some floating "copseyes" - small floating police robots with camera & with capacity to incapacitate anyone via some kind of a ray. They enforce this single law - if you hit someone, both attacker & victim are incapacitated by a copseye; they will wake up at different times, & can walk away. "copseyes" are powered by wirelessly transmitted power - Tesla style.

There are implications of only no violence among humans rule. You are free to kill copseyes! You are free to destroy public property like water fountains! You can even hit the guy destroying water fountain provided you are ready to take the hit from copseye.

Entries & exits to park are automated. Entry gates close at specific times in the evening.

People don't like copseyes - they keep getting destroyed regularly. Since they are cheap gadgets, administration doesn't really care.

As part of story buildup, we are treated to a variety of futuristic gadgets & social rules in this town in US.

Today, Ron Cole has a plan. He hires some boys to hit a certain copseye with stones. When it falls to ground, he switches off its power, & figures out its innards. Then he does something to its communications system, & all the remaining copseyes in the park fall down too - to be quickly destroyed by people.

Turns out - this act of vandalism has also killed power to exit gates of park! And it's closing time for entry gates. So you get a nice little park where there are no rules - none temporarily even against violence, no way to enter or exit, night about to fall, & many people.

We see familiar crowd behavior of post-apocalypse stories - girls are no longer safe, a gang has claimed water fountains as their property, some violence - till finally new copseyes arrive.

Fact sheet.

"Cloak of Anarchy", novel, review
First published: Analog, March 1972.
Rating: B