May 27, 2024


Science It Works

Five Sympathetic Science Fiction Bureaucrats

Obstructive bureaucrats abound in fiction, perhaps because they are not infrequently encountered in real life. But not all writers settle for such easy targets. Indeed, some writers have gone so far as to make a bureaucrat or two into sympathetic figures.

Don’t believe me? Consider these five….


Mr. Kiku from The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein (1954)

Earth is a very minor world in a galaxy excessively supplied with Great Powers. It is Permanent Undersecretary for Spacial Affairs Henry Gladstone Kiku’s lamentable task to spend his days resolving endless space-related crises only for new ones to appear. He is dedicated, hard-working and professional enough not to permit his personal quirks—a terror of snakes that make the medusoid Rargyllians figures of horror to him—interfere with his duties.

Ftaelm, the very Rargyllian who makes Kiku’s phobia relevant, is but an intermediary for the Hroshii, a powerful race heretofore mercifully unknown to humans, but all too well known to Rargyllians. The Hroshii are convinced that a lost Hroshii princess has somehow found her way to Earth. They want her back. If they don’t get her back, too bad for any organisms on Earth who had plans to keep on living. It’s up to Kiku to track down the errant princess or doom his people.



Nathan Hale Swift from The Whenabouts of Burr by Michael Kurland (1975)

Nate Swift is a Bureau of Weights and Measures Field Observer. One might expect, therefore, that his career will consist of ensuring nobody has their thumb on any scales and that all tailors’ measuring tapes are honest. Heady stuff. Thanks to a minor Presidential quirk—that paranoid President Gosport sees his political enemies’ machinations in every crisis—Swift’s career takes an unexpected turn.

Someone has stolen the original American Constitution and replaced it with a near duplicate. The only difference is that it bears Aaron Burr’s signature instead of Hamilton’s. Gosport is determined to recover the original before rivals in his own Republican party—or worse, Democratic party foes—discover the theft and use it against him. Many Presidents would turn to the FBI at this juncture, but Gosport distrusts the FBI even more than he does the Republicans and Democrats. The solution? Assign the task to a seeming paper pusher from a bureau too obscure and boring to be on anyone’s radar and hope for the best. Which is how Swift finds himself on the trail of the stolen Constitution…



James Lester from Primeval, created by Adrian Hodges and Tim Haines (2007-2011)

James Lester has a clear idea of his proper role at the Anomaly Research Centre: providing effective leadership and lashings of scathing sarcasm to cowering underlings. He’s not at all a lovable boss, but although he would never admit it, he is protective of his subordinates and extremely adept at weaponizing paperwork against his enemies. Since he sees his subordinates as extensions of himself, it follows that their enemies are his as well.

The Anomaly Research Centre is charged with containing the effects of space-time anomalies linking our period to other epochs. The half-worm in Lester’s partially-eaten apple is that while Lester is bright, some of his staff are actual geniuses who are not inclined to follow the lead of a non-academic. History itself depends on teamwork, but Lester is stuck herding cats.



Aiah from Metropolitan by Walter Jon Williams (1995)

Aiah is a low-level functionary in Jaspeer’s Plasm Authority. Roughly speaking, she works for this world’s electric company, plasm being geomantic energy. Hardly a position to command respect, save when one considers that Aiah is a member of a despised ethnicity, the Barkazil. Convincing her coworkers to trust her with even minimal responsibility is a victory of sorts.

Fate hands Aiah a treasure in plasm. In another person’s hands, this would be the first step towards the sort of Simple Plan that ends with the protagonists as dead as a Coen Brothers’ criminal. Aiah, however, is not just hardworking and ambitious. She is cunning as well, which means not only will she leap on the chance to escape her circumstances, and not only can she find someone willing to assist her with her windfall—she has every chance of surviving the transaction.



Ivan Vorpatril from Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold (2012)

Ivan Vorpatril has the misfortune to be but a few convenient deaths away from Barrayar’s throne. Barrayar is a world where dynastic ambiguities are sometimes clarified with gunfire and beheadings. Ivan has been very careful to appear an unambitious, harmless fool not worth the bother of a midnight arrest and quiet execution. Ivan is, however, a capable bureaucrat, which he hopes to parlay into a long, boring career followed by a long, boring retirement.

Ivan is also a soft touch. When he discovers that Nanj, the beautiful young woman he was assigned to investigate, is being pursued by brutal thugs, he offers her refuge in his quarters. Faced with dire consequences for aiding her, he figures out an expedient solution. With the aid of a handy box of breakfast groats, he’ll marry her and envelop her in his cloak of diplomatic immunity and Barrayaran nobility.

Complications ensue. Marriage was an expedient, to be reversed by an annulment after the crisis was past. Annulment turns out to be unexpectedly difficult. Then his new in-laws soon arrive seeking refuge. His Cetagandan in-laws. Or as they are regarded on Barrayar, his war-criminal in-laws. Who, as it happens, are in search of treasure they are convinced Ivan can help them find.



Normally, this is where I acknowledge that everyone has their own favourite whatever I am talking about. Bureaucrats are pretty unpopular, though. Do you have favourite fictional bureaucrats? Let me know in the comments.

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 and is surprisingly flammable.