In this column, regarding literature, and in a later one also discussing film and television, I propose to “explore strange new worlds…” by looking at how law and lawyers have been treated in science fiction and fantasy. It may seem that law and lawyers are not often covered in these genres, and it is true that there are few works where the subjects play a large thematic role. While it is more common for science fiction authors to be concerned with physical laws, such as the law of motion, the genre is often concerned with how human and hypothetical alien societies work, and such concerns sometimes include at least a nod to a legal system.
Some writers have made a point of including legal subjects, if not in the foreground, at least in the background of a work. One such writer is the late Sir Terry Pratchett, who in his Discworld series, occasionally gives us a peek at how the legal profession developed in a major city, Ankh-Morpork. The legal profession in Ankh-Morpork is organized somewhat like the Inns of Court in London, where clerks apprentice themselves to the chambers of senior attorneys. The most senior member of the local profession, and the president of the guild of lawyers, is a zombie, Mr. Slant. Because Mr. Slant is a zombie, he has had centuries to master all relevant precedents for all possible cases, which makes him an unstoppable advocate. However, he is also corrupt. In The Truth, he is retained by a shadowy organization that wishes to overthrow the city’s government. Slant acts as an intermediary between the cabal and two thugs, arranging payments and providing instructions. In the end, he is only just able to save his reputation by taking on pro bono the case of the publisher of the newspaper who knows everything about his ethical lapses.
Another lawyer from Discworld is the ethical opposite of Slant: Mr. Thunderbolt, who is a troll. Mr. Thunderbolt is very wise for both a troll and a lawyer. While it would normally be a problem for a lawyer to represent both parties in a contract he or she has drafted, in Raising Steam, Mr. Thunderbolt does this, and is able to perfectly balance the interest of each. Oddly enough, he also served as an apprentice to Mr. Slant, so perhaps he learned what a good lawyer should not do!
The luridly titled Gladiator-At-Law is a largely forgotten novel from the 1950s written by two of the major genre writers of the era, Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth. This work provides a portrait of how a lawyer might rise from the sordid ranks of money-grubbing criminal defense work by using corporate law to overthrow the management of a major multinational corporation. In an unstated year sometime in the near future, in an America which is heavily stratified by income, we are introduced to Charles “Charlie” Mundin, L.L.B., from John Marshall. We first see him unsuccessfully trying to convince a criminal defendant to accept a plea deal. After a short trial, which he loses, Mundin’s client is convicted by a jury vote submitted to the court by punch cards, and is sentenced to be mentally reconditioned for the good of society. While the novel was written in the 1950s, part of the novel involves situations that a regular lawyer might encounter in any age. Mundin is offered a chance to work on a very lucrative corporate law case, but because he has no specialized experience or credentials, he is asked to work with an older lawyer, a former titan of corporate practice now grappling with problems of substance abuse. Mundin uses form books as an aid in drafting documents and pleadings; he goes to the clerk’s office to check on public records, something which can now be done online; he has a friend who works at a major law firm call the firm’s library to locate information about where a corporation is holding a stockholders’ meeting. In the end, he successfully engineers a hostile corporate takeover with nothing more than good instincts, guts and some sage advice. And yes, there is an actual arena and something like a gladiator fight!
Computer adjudication of criminal trials is the plot device for Welcome to Justice 2.0, a short story by George Tucker in the January 2004 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. An unnamed protagonist is seen struggling with software as he faces a criminal trial for an unidentified offense in the year 2015. After being convicted, he first files an appeal with the computer, which quickly sustains the conviction. He then attempts to bargain down the three year sentence. The first software he uses, Legal\Mac\EasyTime\, is rejected, but a shareware program successfully negotiates his sentence down to 2 years probation and time served.
Issac Asimov is well known for his novels and short stories concerning robots. He even formulated laws of robotics, which are cited in other works of fiction and also scholarly works. His interrelated Empire and Foundation novels, were also very popular. In Foundation, Asimov provides sketches of two trials, of Hari Seldon, the father of psychohistory, and of his young assistant, on charges of treason. During the first day, the trial is conducted by a commission, and takes place before a select audience. In many ways, the proceedings are in the nature of an inquisition, with the question of guilt having been determined before any formal proceedings. Seldon is examined by a commission advocate, a prosecutor. Seldon has an attorney, but his attorney does not speak. There are not many due process rights given to the defendants. The next day, however, the defendants and commissioners meet alone. The trial has ended, but the sentence still is to be imposed. The sentence is then announced, which ends the first part of the novel.
This same action is covered by Greg Bear in Foundation and Chaos, which provides a backstory to some of the developments in the first Foundation novel. In this novel, we see Seldon’s arrest and imprisonment prior to trial; no pretrial release is provided to him, even though he is an elderly man in marginal health and not a likely flight risk. In addition, it is revealed that his attorney is actually working for the government, a position which is unethical.
I am indebted to John Cannan, former Law Library of Congress legal information analyst, and current Drexel University research and instructional services law librarian, for several references to science fiction authors whose works appeared in legal journals. One that was particularly interesting was a paper presented by Sir Arthur C. Clarke to the Fourth Colloquium on the Law of Outer Space conducted by the International Institute of Space Law, held in Washington in 1961. Mr. Clarke, who is credited with publishing the first paper on the potential for using geostationary satellites to relay telecommunications signals, gave a “shout out” to a “legal friend,” who assured him that he could not receive a patent for the idea. The friend was attorney and science fiction author Theodore L. Thomas, who under the pen name Thomas Lockhard, published a humorous story in the January 1961, issue of Analog Science Fact, Fiction. In the story, Clarke goes to a law firm that specializes in intellectual property law to request assistance in filing a patent application. He is told that, sadly, the law will not support his claim. I think this may be the only work of science fiction that I have read which has citations to the United States Code, and to a decision of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia!
I hope you have enjoyed this review of legal topics in science fiction. This list is not meant to be conclusive, so please feel free to let us know in the comments if there are any other books or series of interest not listed here.
What fun! These are all new to me and I’m adding them to my reading list.
My favorite living sci fi author, John Scalzi, frequently includes interesting legal issues in his stories. Most explicit is the trial that takes place in Fuzzy Nation, an update/reboot of H. Beam Piper’s 1962 Little Fuzzy (which might have a trial too–I haven’t read it yet.) I’d also highly recommend Lock In for its look at disability law, discrimination, and healthcare, along with a criminal investigation.