Science fiction and the law: beyond mere courtroom drama

Christopher Brown is a lawyer and science fiction writer; his debut, 2017's Tropic of Kansas, was an outstanding novel of authoritarianism and resistance, and his next book, Rule of Capture (out on Monday, watch for my review!) is a legal thriller about disaster capitalism, climate catastrophe, and hard-fought political change.

In a tremendous and thoughtful essay for Tor.com, Brown explores the role that law plays in science fiction and fantasy, where, despite a wealth of writers who are formally trained in the law, the majority of "legal" drama is courtroom drama that is "about lawyers and almost never about the law" -- instead, they're about "facts -- about the bad things people do to each other, and about the process of finding out who’s guilty or innocent."

But some of the most interesting legal sf is about the laws themselves: how they're passed, what changes they wreak on the world, how they get repealed. At its best, sf can subject laws to the same thought experiments it uses when considering gadgets, using narrative to figure out what changes, what stays the same, and who benefits and who loses.

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.

Will There Be Justice? Science Fiction and The Law [Christopher Brown/Tor.com]