Will There Be Justice? Science Fiction and The Law

“Not to go on all fours. That is the Law. Are we not Men?”

So says one of the most enigmatic characters of early science fiction—the Sayer of the Law, from H.G. Wells’s 1896 novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. The Sayer is one of the human-animal hybrids created by the titular doctor, but the only one whose species is never clearly identified—he looks a little bit like a Skye terrier, a little bit like a goat, and a little bit like a weird dude. Maybe the reason for this imprecision is that the Sayer is an example of an even rarer animal in science fiction: a lawyer.

Science fiction is full of imaginary laws, like the rules of chimeric conduct promulgated by the Sayer, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and Star Trek’s Prime Directive. But only rarely do works of science fiction show the systems whereby those laws are administered, and even more rarely do they feature those systems’ practitioners as characters. This paradox—that science fiction has lots of law, but few lawyers—makes sense when the reasons for it are more closely examined. That examination reveals the potential for a more deliberate exploration of law and justice in fictional worlds to help us tell fresher stories, and maybe even find the path to a more just tomorrow in the real world.

Law—the code that governs a society—is an obvious part of the toolkit for anyone wishing to extrapolate possible futures or imagine alternate worlds. Some science fiction stories get right up to the edge of legal procedurals by focusing on changes in the criminal law, as with Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report,” about a world where people are prosecuted for crimes the system predicts they will commit in the future, or Asimov’s “A Loint of Paw,” which considers the statute of limitations applicable to time travelers. And there are a handful of science fiction stories that are little more than courtroom dramas in space, usually with one of the characters put on trial—as when Captain Kirk gets hauled in front of a tribunal of Federation brass in the Season One episode “Court Martial.”

More commonly, law is used to establish a background element of the world of the story that is taken for granted by the characters but fundamental to what makes the world different from ours, and frames the decisions the characters must make. It can be a border, the legal fiction that divides physical and political space. Consider China Miéville’s The City & the City, a neo-Borgesian noir about detectives investigating a murder in a city that is divided into two mirror cities by a breach, both legal and existential, that no citizen may cross. Or the opening of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, in which the protagonist, a member of a breakaway anarchist community on the moon of a capitalist planet, steps over the line into the spaceport where supplies are delivered from the homeworld, and immediately enters a territory governed by other laws. The laws that are different include property laws, an element often explored in space-based science fiction, as with Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, whose protagonist by lucky legal accident may be the sole owner of Mars, or John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation, a reboot of H. Beam Piper’s classic Little Fuzzy in which the plot turns on the legal regime governing planetary colonization, and the protagonist is a lawyer turned surveyor. In a darker Heinlein work, Starship Troopers, the right to vote must be earned through military service in endless fascist wars against aliens—one of many examples of science fiction that explores issues of citizenship and identity. The legal regime of a science fictional society can define the world the characters live in just as much as the environmental conditions of an alien planet. And while the laws of nature are immutable whether they’re on Vulcan, Venus, or our own homeworld, the laws on the books can be challenged, changed, or violated, usually at great risk. This possibility provides characters with profound choices and the potential for liberating agency, in a way that can be much more plausibly transformative—of the lives of the characters, and the worlds they live in—than even the most scientifically ambitious reengineering.

Sometimes the laws are embedded in the background of the story such that the characters experience them more like inherited religious commandments. In the film adaptations of The Planet of the Apes, the First Law cited by the simian authorities, “Ape Shall Not Kill Ape,” is attributed to the Lawgiver—a dead orangutan prophet represented by a looming statue. In Logan’s Run, a seeming utopia is revealed as a dark dystopia through one simple law that defines the society—the requirement that all citizens submit to ritual execution (and, in their belief system, reincarnation) upon their thirtieth birthday. Moreau’s Sayer of the Law functions more like a priest than a lawyer, teaching the rules dictated by the god-like mad scientist creator to regulate the beast-men he has birthed in his lab. By framing their laws as inviolable sacred edicts blindly followed by the inhabitants of their worlds, these stories more sharply illustrate the way that all laws must be interrogated to validate them as just and rational rather than exercises of raw power, dystopian expediencies, or plain madness. And they amplify the gravity of the choices the characters face when they begin to question the basic rules on which their society operates. When Logan decides to run, policeman becomes fugitive, and discovers that what he thought was the entire world is a plastic bubble surrounded by a wild green paradise—and that the core law of his world is a death sentence untethered from its original purpose. Stories of science fictional law-breaking have profound potential to highlight the injustices we accept without question in real life—using the speculative prism to show truths about our world that realism cannot.

In the best utopias and dystopias, the invented law pervades the story so deeply that it becomes almost invisible, as Ben H. Winters cogently argued in a recent New York Times essay on the bureaucracies of science fiction. Le Guin’s Dispossessed shows two dipoles of political economy, one without private property rights and the other founded on them, in a manner so fully realized that the differences are expressed through the small details of every scene. The world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a mirror of our own America, but one in which the constitution has been seized by a theocratic patriarchy that enforces a new legal code designed to deprive the remaining fertile women of their reproductive rights. Claire North’s 84K takes the idea of the rights of corporations to an extreme where everyone lives out their lives inside the legally fabricated environment of the corporate personality. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four law is expressed as the supreme power of the party and the absence of any rights of the citizens—a kind of law so pervasive that it doesn’t really exist as law, even as it almost entirely defines the world and choices of the characters. The lasting relevance of Orwell’s dystopia is rooted in its deep bite into that radical truth: that all law is ultimately just the expression of power through rules wrapped in an aura of legitimacy. And the more horrific the consequences such stories show for those who dare to resist, the more they prove the persistence of hope in even the worst conditions of tyranny, and the consequent certainty that such regimes are always doomed to fail in the end—even if they survive the end of the story.

Works of science fiction more commonly end up needing to invent new laws in order to deal with the technological or other change that has been introduced as the principal element that differentiates the imagined world—the “novum” of the story. The ironic reality is that a genre driven by the unbounded freedom to imagine other worlds so often finds itself weighing those worlds down with a bunch of regulations. First come the robots, then the Laws of Robotics. A seminal example is Ray Bradbury’s time travel story “A Sound of Thunder,” which imagines the special rules that would need to be created to regulate the behavior of visitors to the past in order to protect the integrity of the present continuity. Artificial intelligences, animal-human hybrids, time travelers, visitors to alien planets, technologies of predicting the future—all these things require new rules to govern them. Science fictional extrapolation is such an ideal laboratory for imagining the policy changes incident to technological disruption that the tools of SF writers are increasingly being used by 21st century legal scholars as they wrestle with issues like what sort of tort liability should apply to autonomous vehicles, what legal rights and responsibilities an AI should have, how the law can prevent the proliferation of killer robots (there’s even a real-world NGO for that), and who owns the Moon—and the minerals it contains.

For the SF writer, describing the laws that follow from the innovation at the heart of their fiction can provide one of the easiest paths to narrative conflict that makes a compelling story about that idea—because as soon as there’s a law, there’s the opportunity to break it, and face the consequences. And if the law is an unjust one, transgression can be the path to liberation, not just for the character who dares to take the first step. For writers who want to bushwhack the path to better futures, testing the laws of their imagined world can be a powerful tool, one that leverages big ideas through the fulcrum of character and personal choice.

In contrast, stories that purport to be all about the law—the real-world law—rarely are. Mainstream legal thrillers and other stories about lawyers are almost never about the law. Rather, they are about the facts—about the bad things people do to each other, and about the process of finding out who’s guilty or innocent. Courtroom dramas are a subgenre of crime and mystery stories, aided by the unique and formalistic narrative framework of legal procedure and the familiar archetype of the lawyer, usually portrayed as a mix of amoral trickster and pinstriped paladin. The law in those stories is almost always taken for granted—it’s the law of the real world, and a proxy for our shared moral code. The oral arguments and witness examinations by the lawyers are almost always focused on the evidence—whether the law was violated, not what the law is, or should be. And that makes sense. A story that waits for the jury to deliver its stunning verdict is likely to be more exciting than one about legislators debating new laws.

Science fiction and fantasy can use imaginative wonder to make even a legislative filibuster into gripping material, as evidenced by Andy Duncan’s story “Senator Bilbo,” about segregationist Hobbits fighting to keep out refugees after the war of The Return of the King. The “literature of ideas” is perfectly suited to build great stories around ideas of different laws, whether they are the criminal sanctions that apply to misuse of future technologies or entire social contracts underlying more utopian or dystopian societies. But whether law is the central point of the story, or the deep background, finding actual practicing lawyers in science fiction is a lot harder.

There are plenty of lawyers who write science fiction (or science fiction writers who started out as lawyers)—Theodora Goss, Ken Liu, Terry Brooks, Marjorie Liu, David Drake, Melinda Snodgrass, and Guy Gavriel Kay, for example—but the bibliography of science fiction lawyer stories is short. They often deal with lawyers mediating between different cultures, as with Frank Herbert’s The Dosadi Experiment, about the only human admitted to practice before the bar of an alien planet, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s story “The Impossibles,” about a lawyer on the staff of a multicultural tribunal. Nat Schachner’s golden age Space Lawyer is as cornball as its title, but nonetheless anticipates the current age of SpaceX, Blue Origin and Deep Space Industries by featuring a corporate counsel working for interstellar capitalists. My personal favorite may be “Stoned Counsel” by H.H. Hollis, included in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions—a trippy New Wave tale about lawyers who battle an environmental case inside a shared LSD hallucination, like an insane mashup of John Grisham and Dr. Strange. I learned about “Stoned Counsel” after a bookstore reading from my own forthcoming dystopian lawyer story, Rule of Capture, when my colleague Don Webb noted that I am not the first SF writer to have Texas lawyers dropping acid on the way to the courthouse. What better use of the literature of the fantastic?

Comic books, unlike their science fiction cousins, have plenty of lawyers. She-Hulk and Daredevil, for example, are both practicing trial attorneys. This reflects the fact that superhero comics often deal with crime and punishment, and less often with big ideas. And science fiction television has its fair share of lawyers, from the scenery-chewing suit who defends Captain Kirk in the original series’s “Court Martial” to Battlestar Galactica’s Romo Lampkin. But even then, the characters are rare, and anomalous.

Part of the problem is cultural. A genre that creates safe spaces to express difference from prevailing norms is wary of suits telling them what the rules are, as opposed to what they could be. The bigger problem is one of plausibility—lawyers don’t feel like the future. The legal system we have is an immense labyrinth of code and procedure that reflects all the myriad complexity of modern life, but it’s also one of the most extant vestiges of our primitive roots—a system created by our ancient forebears to regulate disputes through a means other than violence. The trappings of the courtroom are relics of that past, from the robe and the gavel to the ritualistic speech used by the advocates and even the jury. Samuel T. Cogley, Esq., the lawyer who defends Captain Kirk against charges of murder by escape pod, reveals himself as an anachronism before he utters a line, appearing in his offices on Starbase Nine wearing a bizarro Trek version of a suit and buried in a pile of actual twentieth century law books, claiming that’s where the law really is—even as he acknowledges it’s been recodified on the computer. Canadian SF writer Karl Schroeder has made a pretty compelling argument that lawyers really aren’t the future, in a world he contends will be governed by Blockchain-based smart contracts. What is certain is that the lawyers and courts of the future will be something very different than what we have today.

To imagine the lawyers of the future, you have to imagine what justice looks like in the world to come. And while there are many good examples, that is something science fiction could do better. Science fiction has an opportunity to mine that territory in fresh ways. And there’s evidence a lot of people are working on just that—applying the truism that all science fiction is really about the present, to more radically examine the injustices of the world we live in, and use the speculative prism to see alternative paths to which realism is blind.

Among the best examples is Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Blue Mars, in which the colonists negotiate a new constitution for the red planet—one that includes human obligations as well as rights, and even encodes rights for the environment, proving the potential for changes to the social contract to have an impact as or more profound than terraforming. Malka Older’s Infomocracy and its sequels explore the nexus of law, politics and networks to imagine the future of democracy in a world where nation-states have been rendered obsolete. Cory Doctorow’s most recent novel, Walkaway, imagines what a just political economy would look like in a plausible post-scarcity society. Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male tests the dystopian potentials of China’s one-child rule. Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail considers the inequities and opportunities of 21st century life through a collapse of the global Internet, managing in the process to disprove the notion that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. “The Training Commission” by Ingrid Burrington and Brendan C. Byrne uses an innovative epistolary form (a story published as a series of emails) to tell the story of how the USA came to be governed by an artificial intelligence after the collapse of the old political order and the truth and reconciliation commissions that followed.

None of these are lawyer stories, but they all use the tools of the genre to interrogate the rules that govern the world we live in, and envision what else could be—while telling great stories in the process. A genre that is working harder than ever to cultivate fresh ideas and diverse voices has tremendous potential to realize more just futures—in imagined societies and real ones. More deliberately lasering in on law, on the operating systems that define what rights and obligations the members of those societies have, can help us hack those codes at the root, and remix our way back to a future we would actually want to live in.

One test of success will be whether we can imagine a future that really doesn’t need any lawyers.

Christopher Brown is the Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas. His new novel Rule of Capture is a dystopian legal thriller about a lawyer defending political dissidents in a broken America, the first in a series of near-future courtroom dramas. He lives in Austin, where he also practices law.


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