Essay: The Public Service in Science Fiction

Institutionalized evil, perfect incompetence or invisible efficiency


This bibliographical essay has been produced as a companion piece for the seminar "Science-Fiction and Long Term Projections for the Public Service" presented on June 26th, 1998 at the library of the Public Service Commission of Canada.

In preparation of this essay, the author publicly requested ideas from both the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup and the SFFRANCO mailing list. Quite a few answers were received, and attribution has been given when the answers seeded parts of the final document. To protect contributors from receiving unwanted email from automated address harvesters, the format of email addresses has been slightly modified. In any case, all responsibility for incorrect opinions, misguided conclusions and shoddy research should be attributed to the author, not his correspondents.

This essay has also been translated in French by the author.



Much has been written elsewhere about Science Fiction and its sometime tortuous relation with Politics. Far less, however, has been written about SF and the way it deals with the executive arm of the government, the Public Service.

In a way, that’s hardly surprising. Mentions of the Public Service usually conjure images of stereotypical office workers, endlessly feeding papers in the vast bureaucracy –not exactly the stuff from which exciting adventure yarns are made.

And yet –Science Fiction, given enough time, will eventually cover every imaginable subject. According to the trade magazine Locus, more than 250 SF books are published each year in the English-speaking world. Clearly, there has to be something out there on the Public Service.

Why look for public servants in Science Fiction?

Science Fiction is no different from all other types of literature in that it reflects the assumptions, prejudices and "common wisdom" of the society in which it was written. SF, by transposing elements in a fantastic or futuristic setting, can get away by being considerably more explicit that other genres. As we will see later, the common attitude toward public servants is one of distrust or dismissal. Public servants should definitely be worried about the lack of efficient, visible public services in Science Fiction.

Science Fiction can also serves as a laboratory for thought-experiments. It is not bound by the extrapolation methods of futurism, but is shaped by an attitude that promotes rigorous exploration of original premises. Its reputation as a low-brow form of escapist entertainment can actually help authors to postulate very controversial ideas in relative impunity.



If we cast our net sufficiently large, and consider everyone who receives a government paycheque as a civil servant, then many (if not most) SF stories feature public servants. Parapublic employees include firemen (Fahrenheit 451), teachers and policemen. Other government agencies use professionals in domains often explored by SF: let us mention diplomats, scientists and military personnel. Are there science-fiction stories without politics, science or military operations…?

So, stretching our definition, we can include Agent Mulder and Scully (from the X-FILES), most of the human staff on BABYLON-5 and all crewmembers of the Enterprise (from STAR TREK), since they’re paid by their government to have exciting weekly adventures.

It also often happens that extraordinary heroes in SF have official justifications for their acts. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan, being of his planet’s aristocracy, has filled many official positions which might be classified as being part of the public service (most famously as judge in the Hugo-winning "The Mountains of Mourning") (robertaw]at[ (Robert A. Woodward))

Diplomats are over-represented in SF, with understandable reasons: Whenever there’s dealings with extra-terrestrials, chances are that official representatives of the government will be brought in the spotlight. Let us only cite Keith Laumer’s Retief series, C.J.Cherryh’s "Foreigner" books (Erich Schneider, erich]at[, Paul Park’s Celestis, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, etc…

Military officers are quite common in SF, often spawning series of action/adventure books. This essay lacks space for naming even a fraction of them, but Roland J. Green, Steve Stirling, David Drake and Gordon R. Dickson, among others, have specialized in Military-action novels. Of a more relevant nature to this essay, Jerry Pournelle’s stories often examine the relationship between military force and political power. (jemmons]at[ (Jim Emmons))

A particularly nebulous case of extraordinary civil service can be found in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. Initially, it seems that the Foundation project is the result of bureaucratic infighting and a secret department in the imperial administration. The protagonists of the first volume are not muscle-bound athletes, superior military officers, or amazing superheroes, but by and large people dedicated to civil responsibility. One of the central initial themes of the series is that order through government is a good thing, and must be preserved. The fictional concept of psychohistory itself, introduced by Asimov, cohabits well with the bureaucratic ideal of anonymity and mass trend analysis. (Vittorio Barabino, bromo]at[

But as the series progresses, the ideas of psychohistory, large groups accomplishing something and government orders are slowly stripped away until only a few key figures are left, controlling the lives of everyone else. Asimov, growing older, seemed to place more faith in super-entities of his own creation than in some public administration.

Besides starring policemen, Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel shows a society where a high-ranking public administrator can command privileges (seats on public transportation, offices with windows) not permitted to other workers. However, it can be argued that this is simply a transposition of class conflict in a future society rather than a particularly perceptive comment on public service. (Franck Belloni, f.belloni]at[



As soon as we move away from the more atypical public servants and examine the representation of government office workers in SF, two disturbing clichés emerge.


The first is the depiction of the more "traditional" public servants as unthinking instruments of tyranny. These public servants, quite simply, are extensions of an evil government. They execute orders blindly, whether or not these orders make sense (most often not.) They are brutal, inflexible, devoid of imagination and very loyal to the established order. They do not think, feel or care; they simply execute. They have no proper personality, taking refuge in the anonymity of bureaucracy. These "public servants" do not have families, personal interests or purposes besides making life difficult to the protagonist.

It’s worth nothing that no fictional evil public servants exist in a vacuum. Most of the time, they are the incarnation of a completely corrupt system. Thus there is no way around, over or beyond this obstacle, since all attempts to do so will result in the same outcome.

The classic counter-example in this case is Winston, the protagonist of George Orwell’s 1984. While not evil himself, he
works in the ideal example of bureaucratic hell. His department is simply dedicated to evil. Winston escapes the easy cliché by being the protagonist. His internal monologue goes a long way toward establishing the character as three-dimensional and "different" from his co-workers.

Other notable works representing this cliché include the movies BRAZIL and GATTACA (this last including a wonderful scene near the end exemplifying what happens to an "evil" public servant who suddenly acquires a family and a personality.) The encounter between a Canadian censorship official and the Harlan Ellison alter-ego in Ben Bova’s The Star-Crossed is said to be worth the price of the book itself.

It’s difficult to take totally-evil systems very seriously. But the cliché still manifests itself in more realistic -hence more dangerous- incarnations. For instance, near-future Hard-SF has lost faith in the government ability to lead the space exploration effort. Not only does the sub-genre present private corporations as being the answer, but government officials are usually depicted as corrupt, dangerously overcautious, unbearably strict on regulations and even prone to initiate legal action against over-ambitious entrepreneurs. (See Ben Bova’s Privateers, Michael Flynn’s Firestar , Flynn, Niven and Pournelle’s Fallen Angels or many of the stories in the anthology Free Space, Ed. Edward E. Kramer and Brad Linaweaver.) The libertarian overtones of this segment of SF probably have a lot to do with this attitude.


The second cliché about public servants is their (alleged) absolute incompetence and inefficiency. Mostly for comic effect, many fictional public servants are represented as complete idiots, trying to bog down the heroes in series of senseless regulations and never-ending procedures. These public servants share interesting characteristics with the servants of tyranny: They’re not very smart, rely on official regulations, have no empathy and are far more interested in their own little problems than those of the protagonist. Again, fictional incompetent public servants never come alone: they’re usually the personification of an inefficient regime.

The title character of the Retief series (by Keith Laumer) is an ultra-competent diplomat surrounded by a hierarchy of incompetent idiots, and a boss anxious to cash in on his accomplishments. It goes without saying that Retief himself is a "super-diplomat" type of hero and his adventures are often light-hearted exotic comedies… Laumer does not go beyond the usual stock image of the bumbling bureaucrats. (jemmons]at[ (Jim Emmons))

The tendency of bureaucracy to endlessly regulate itself has often been parodied in many works, including the Chalker/Resnik/Efflinger collaboration The Red Tape War, in which going to war proves to be more problematic from the administrative than the military side of things.

Harry Harrison’s humorous Bill, the Galactic Hero offers a sharp criticism of military administration. The first volume offers biting (if unsubtle) satire. The later volumes degenerate in easy slapstick.

In another genre, there’s a marvelous sequence in the French animated film "Les douze travaux d’Asterix" where the protagonist has to get a permit. In order to do so, he has to enter what is called "The Crazy House", where he gets ignored by secretaries, redirected from one office to another, asked to seek out new permits… He eventually solves the problem by playing tricks on the system, but not before almost going crazy himself. In five short minutes, this sequence manages to exemplify all the clichés about an incompetent public sector.

We will see later a small sliver of SF that uses this cliché as the basis of an opposite premise: What if the public service was fast and efficient?



Fortunately, there are a few novels that go beyond the usual clichés and try to use public administration in interesting, or at least even-handed ways.


Perhaps the most endearing Science Fiction novel to Canadian Ottawa-area civil servants is a French-Canadian SF book named L’enfant du cinquième nord (translated in English under the title The Fifth Wing) by former federal civil servant Pierre Billon. It begins by describing how civil servants are taking an extended lunch-break by skating on the Rideau Canal… a particularly truthful comment on wintertime Ottawa-area civil servants hobbies. The hero being a middle-level office worker, much of the first half of the story takes place in Ottawa government buildings. (Louis Proulx, louis.proulx]at[

Another Canadian author to address Federal Canadian Public Service is Toronto-area Robert J. Sawyer. In the Nebula-Winning The Terminal Experiment, the protagonist spends a chapter in Ottawa, reflecting harshly on the characteristics of the sleepy town…

Death By Deficit (by Canadian Richard Rohmer) is an alarmist novel about a future bankruptcy of Canada. Public servants are mentioned, if only because 25% of them have to be laid off. On the other hand, this is one of the only novel in existence where the Clerk of the Privy Council (Canada’s highest public servant) is a character.


Urban Fantasy novels, surprisingly, have proven to be a fascinating genre as far a bureaucracy and public institutions have been concerned. One common practice is to assume today’s world (or a sufficiently resembling one) where magic works. Of course, institutions have to be created in order to manage these new sources of energy.

For instance, Walter Jon WilliamsPlasm trilogy is a fantasy/SF hybrid about a world where certain building configurations produce a near-magical source of energy named Plasm. The trilogy’s heroine begins (in Metropolitan) as an inspector in the vast public utility created to control this power. Through palace intrigue and political revolutions, (not to mention being the head honcho’s mistress) she eventually rises through the ranks to become, in the second volume City on Fire, a department’s director-general. It remains to be seen what happens to her in the (as-yet-unpublished) third volume of the series. All throughout, (discounting the clear case of patronage) the public administration is portrayed as doing an adequate job and as being reasonably efficient.

Le Palais des Rêves, (Ismaël Kadore) straddles the frontier between incompetent, tyrannical and efficient public service by speculating a country where the state monitors the dreams of the population to keep a loose surveillance on the collective unconscious of the people. The protagonist is from a rich family; he rises through the ranks of the agency where dreams are monitored. (Pascal PATOZ, <Pascal.PATOZ]at[>)

Coincidentally, dream monitoring is also a part of Rachel Pollack’s series comprised by Unquenchable Fire and Temporary Agency. This feminist magical fantasy presents a world radically changed by a magical revolution: Entities -benevolent or malignant- now roam free and occasionally possess people, objects and places. Which is where the SDA (Spiritual Development Agency) intervenes. SDA officials are sometimes honest, sometimes corrupt, sometimes useful, sometimes not. (mkkuhner]at[ (Mary K. Kuhner))

A similarly-themed volume, albeit much lighter in tone, is Harry Turtledove’s novel The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump. It explores in a humorous way how today’s world might function with magic instead of technology (think Flintstones-type appliances jokes.) What make the novel relevant to this essay is that it might be the most realistic portrait of a civil servant protagonist anywhere near the
SF genre. Besides a few heroics at the end of the book, the hero is a typical civil servant with a boss, a girlfriend and staff meetings to attend. (nancyl]at[ (Nancy Lebovitz))

Closer to SF, in The Star Beast, Robert A. Heinlein imagines a future where extra-terrestrials are quite common on Earth. Naturally, a department is created to regulate their presence. It sounds like MEN IN BLACK, but whereas Agents K and J were policemen, Heinlein’s protagonists are pure desk-bound public servants. (jemmons]at[ (Jim Emmons))


The anonymity of bureaucracy has as been used as a positive thing in at least two books: In The Boat of a Million Years, Poul Anderson has one immortal character successfully "hide" in the eternally unchanging bureaucracy. Similarly, Toronto-Area author Robert Charles Wilson has written a book (The Divide) in which a super-intelligent protagonist deliberately tries to be normal and gets a job as a mail clerk in a provincial ministry.



It would be an error to assume that SF’s main goal is to predict future trends. However, there is no denying that SF can be used to explore subjects that would be unwieldy to explore otherwise. Sometimes, SF even has an influence, as proven by the sympathetic reaction of SF fans to the recent progress about cloning and life on Mars

Given than SF authors have seemingly explored every imaginable subject, it’s a surprise to find out that preciously few SF stories offer genuine insight in the public service. One remarkable exception exists.


Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is still, almost forty years after its first publication, a favorite subject of conversation between SF fans. Heinlein’s story about the military service of a young man taught to fight against extraterrestrial enemies still provokes, infuriate and stimulate thought. Was Heinlein glorifying the military mind? Was he describing a fascist society or was he trying to goad readers?

Whatever the viewpoint, it may be argued that Starship Troopers presents the issues concerning public service like few other novels do. Heinlein essentially says that it’s not enough to pay taxes: you have to be interested in your society to decide where it’s going. So, Heinlein postulated a society where you had to go through federal service in order to vote. (jeffs]at[ (Jeff Suzuki))

Heinlein further highlighted the difference between power and civil service: In Starship Troopers, people in the federal service could not vote; politicians could not be in the federal service. Such a distinction in SF is very rare, especially when thinking back to the first "servant of tyranny" bureaucrat cliché.


As mentioned previously, a small sliver of the SF spectrum has used the common cliché that the public service is slow and wasteful to ask what would happen if the public service was exceptionally fast and efficient.

Frank Herbert (most famously known for Dune), has come to the conclusion (in a series that include the novel Whipping Star) that it simply wouldn’t work: Government would be able to move so fast that chaos would result. So he created a Bureau of Sabotage (whose motto is "In lieu of Red Tape") to deliberately restrain the government in its efforts. In any case, it’s still an interesting viewpoint on the public service: Maybe it’s one of its purposes to be as conservative as possible, to dampen the effects of too rapid, too radical changes by government. (Nyrath the nearly wise: nyrath]at[

In The Cool War, Frederik Pohl uses the same idea of an agency hampering the bureaucratic process, but applies it to other rival governments.



(Suggested by various correspondents; not investigated by this author)

The Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction makes interesting references to the work of Alexis Gilliland, an ex-civil servant who reportedly wrote a book (The End of the Empire) featuring "a protagonist who works to defend a galactic empire against a comically conceived libertarianism, on the grounds that too little government is no less damaging than too much."

From: aznin]at[ (Aznin)

"To Live Forever", Jack Vance. The protagonist unsuccessfully tries to make a career in public services to improve his chances of regaining his former status.

From: astephan]at[ (adam louis stephanides)

Isaac Asimov’s "The Dead Past," while it doesn’t have civil servants as prominent characters IIRC has an interesting twist on the theme of obstructionist bureaucracy in that the arbitrary restriction imposed by the bureaucracy on scientific research turns out to be completely justified.

From: nancyl]at[ (Nancy Lebovitz)

Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle–Classical Greek physics is true, and the main character is a sympathetically drawn administrator of the space (ether?) program.

From: spamtrap]at[ (Roy Stilling)

Analog, back in the eighties, ran a series of shorts/novelettes about the sfnal adventures of a British local government officer. At least one of the stories involved her finding aliens living within her council’s area.

From: kinzel]at[ (Steve Miller)

What about Greybeard by Brian Aldiss — wonderful public servant there, wandering around in an armoured car watching the world fall part.

And then there’s Damnation Alley (Roger Zelazny), where we have an unwilling public servant…

From: joel]at[ (Joel Benford)

Michael Swanwick’s Stations Of The Tide opens with the line "The bureaucrat fell from the sky". …it’s about bureaucracy, amongst other things, in a fairly abstract way. The facelessness or otherwise of the bureaucrat is fascinating.

From: f.belloni]at[ (Franck Belloni)

Les jeux de l’esprit, Pierre Boullé. Scientists take control and try to govern scientifically by giving out work and food to everyone, but mass suicides force them to revise their role. They begin to distract the population by bloodier and bloodier games… that begin to look suspiciously like war.


Closing thoughts

Why do so few novels accurately representing the public service?

The problem with public administration is that its purpose is largely to go unnoticed. Anonymity has not only been one of the key characteristics of a public servant (at least according to the Westminster model), but an ideal. Public service is the executive arm of the government, and as such should be monolithically perceived as the government itself from the public’s point of view. Thus, we may consider almost every SF novel where bureaucracy is not mentioned to be a novel about an efficient public service. (While separation of Public Service and Power is vitally important, it tends to be an issue of interest only to top public servants and political scientists.)

Ultra-competent public servants virtually disappear, because things go so well that they are not noticed from the outside. The anonymity of the ideal public servant may be incompatible with the best three-dimensional characters.

Another difficulty is that, quite honestly, few exciting things happen on the job for most civil servants working in an office. Unlike other professions, it is hard to think of exciting, mind-expanding,
sense-of-wonder stories to tell about office work. Small wonder, then, that most fictional civil servant protagonists tend to have their exciting adventures out of their usual workplace.

Future Food for Thought

Other potential material for thought about the public service include any SF novel where the nature, working or presence of the government is different from our own. The public service then presumably changes with the government. This essay lacks space to address several provocative stories, but would still recommend a few books worth exploring: Holy Fire (Bruce Sterling), Adiamante (L.E. Modesitt Jr.), "If this goes on" in The Past Through Tomorrow (Robert A. Heinlein), the Mars trilogy (Kim Stanley Robinson), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson), The Years of the City (Frederik Pohl), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein)…

All of these novels present alternate form of government; most do not explicitly mention public service, but should provide interesting basis for further exploration of public service issues.


The final conclusion to this essay might very well be that there has yet been a Science-Fiction novel which comprehensively and knowledgeably explored issues surrounding public service. This failure is puzzling, especially given the tendency of Science Fiction to speculate on almost every imaginable (and unimaginable) subject. If any authors are in the audience, there lies a wide-open opportunity…



The Science-Fiction Resource Guide: The essential source for everything about SF on the Internet.  The On-line bookstore. You can buy the books, or consult the surprisingly numerous reviews.

The Internet Movie Database: Consult the enormous amount of movie trivia.

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Last Updated:
October 2002

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