Conflict resolution in our distant past traditionally involved physical conflict and/or punishment. While such approaches are still used, in most communities this straightforward approach has been replaced by governments, formal rules, and adjudication by experts on said rules, i.e., lawyers. While a law-based approach may seem less compelling than the dangers of outright violence, writers can nevertheless extract much drama from legal disputes—hence the ubiquity of cop and lawyer shows on TV and legal thriller novels. SFF authors as well have explored this theme. Consider these five examples.
Gladiator-At-Law by Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth (1955)
Thanks to the visionary guidance of corporate law firm Green, Charlesworth, the world of yesterday’s tomorrow is a utopian paradise. Those useful to the system are rewarded with luxurious GML bubble homes. Those who fail to deliver are consigned to suburban hell, where their squalor and misery provide useful motivation to workers who might otherwise shirk their responsibilities to Green, Charlesworth.
Norma and Donald Lavin own a quarter of GML. They would be part of the 1%, if only their brainwashed father could remember where he hid the stock certificates. As it is, they are trapped in Belly Rave slum. A lawyer might be able to help, but few lawyers would be foolish enough to take the case. The Lavins’ enemy is Green, Charlesworth and Green, Charlesworth owns the legal system. Luckily for the Lavins, and less luckily for attorney Charles Mundin, Mundin has just the right combination of expertise and desperation to take on the Lavins’ cause.
The Dueling Machine by Ben Bova and Myron R. Lewis (1963)
Court battles have the drawback of favouring those with the best lawyers. Actual battles have the drawback of ending in actual fatalities. Dr. Leoh’s marvelous Dueling Machine provides a third, lawyerless path to conflict resolution. The two sides of a legal or political dispute can replace battlefields and courts with a simulated fight in virtual reality. The Dueling Machine is risk- and lawyer-free. The conflicts are quite exciting as well.
Of course, someone always has to spoil perfectly good arrangements. Death in the Dueling Machine should be impossible, but Gladiator Odal has murdered several opponents in simulated combats. It’s up to Leoh, inventor of the machine, to find out how Odal’s trick works and how to put a stop to it.
“An Ornament to His Profession” by Charles L. Harness (1966)
Lawyer Conrad Patrick was once a happy husband and father. Now he is a grieving childless widower, whose primary respite from the crushing despair that dogs him is his job in the patent department of a large corporation. He is desperate not to lose this distraction.
Fortunately his employers have more than delivered on the distraction front, considering the mounting difficulties Patrick must do his best to resolve:
- A predatory rival within the company is scheming to hire a competent secretary away from the patent offices.
- A crucial patent in which the company fortunes have been invested is based on a youthful joke and cannot stand up to close examination.
- Valuable employee John Fast is most insistent that Patrick draw up a contract between Fast and his Satanic Majesty. As is so often true of legal challenges, the devil is in the details.
Year Zero by Rob Reid (2012)
Earth may be a galactic backwater, but its natives excel at entertainment. All across the universe, aliens have enjoyed the products of human artistic labour, but without reimbursing the humans for any of it. Were copyright violations to be taken to court, potential costs and penalties would be astronomical. Perhaps it would be best to avoid the issue by simply killing everyone on Earth.
Or perhaps there is a better solution! It falls to puny human entertainment lawyer Nick (no relation to the Backstreet Boys) Carter to find it. Failure means the extinction of the human race, including Nick; thus, Nick is very highly motivated. Alas, by the time he is hired by aliens to tackle the case, the deadline for total annihilation is a mere two days away, and Nick is very much not the high-powered lawyer that the aliens believe he is.
Gamechanger by L. X. Beckett (2019)
All it took to inspire comprehensive social reform was global disaster. Having nearly wrecked the planet with short-sighted, destructive habits, humans grudgingly instituted new conventions designed to ensure the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. Freshly minted lawyer Cherub “Rubi” Whitling intends to play a vital role in the new world order, assisting otherwise hapless clients to navigate tomorrow’s legal system.
Political agitator Luciano Pox is an especially difficult client, lacking as he does any significant grasp of social etiquette. His views may be valid but his means of expressing them only alienate those around him. Perhaps Pox is merely proof that social eptitude is highly variable. Interpol Special Ops Agent Anselmo Javier has another explanation. Javier believes Pox isn’t human, but a rogue AI (that fabled monster of 22nd-century fables). This absurd idea could be easy disproved as soon as Cherub meets her client the flesh. And yet, accomplishing this straightforward task proves curiously difficult…
SFF is filled with thrilling court and legal cases! No doubt you have your favourites passed over here (Mine, Little Fuzzy, didn’t make the cut because I have mentioned it in previous pieces). Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly flammable.