Science Fiction is often used to speculate “what if” scenarios, taking contemporary trends and extending them or twisting them into future or alien world scenarios.
It’s probably therefore no surprise then that when it comes to government bureaucracy in science fiction, all the historically traditional traits get played up into a satire of the public sector — the obsession with process and hierarchy, officiousness, obfuscation and jargon-based gobbledygook.
Vogons — The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
The most commonly known depiction of bureaucracy in science fiction would probably be in the sci-fi comedy, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Through its various interpretations (a radio play, teleseries, novel and movie) the story has always started with the same event, the destruction of the Earth by the Vogons to make way for a Hyperspace Bypass.
When the Vogons arrive on Earth there’s no maniacal declaration, just a polite but indifferent announcement of the “regrettable” destruction of the planet. Followed by a stern lecture about the importance taking an interest in local affairs (the planning charts and demolition orders having been on public display at the local planning department a mere four light years away on Alpha Centauri).“As public service changes, will our satirical space bureaucrats continue to change?”
The Vogons, being the sole species that runs the Galactic Civil Service are the personification (speciesification?) of the most excessive traits of bureaucracy – albeit bureaucracy of the 1970s. They’re not evil, nor are they corrupt, or incompetent. They are just ill-tempered with an obsession of process over outcome.
While the 2005 film’s need for a tighter story arch resulted in the Vogons also becoming a more aggressive force then they were in other formats, it still left room to make jokes on the traditions of the public service allowing the Vogons to also play their role as a source of comedy.
Department of Temporal Investigations — Star Trek
“I guess you boys from Temporal Investigations are … always on time?”
Introduced in “Trials and Tribble-ations” the season 5 episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the agents of the Department of Temporal Investigations come onboard to interview Captain Sisko about a ‘temporal incursion’ (i.e. time travel).
Time travel in Star Trek is illegal and dangerous. For the few episodes using it, it’s inevitably the results of an anomaly in space, an alien artefact, or an extremely dangerous warp drive manoeuvre. And when time travel does occur, that’s when the Department of Temporal Investigations pays a visit.
Despite their Department’s cool-sounding name the two agents, Dulmur and Lucsly, seem less than excited about their task. And it’s easy to see why:
Sisko: It was a mistake. But there were no lasting repercussions.
Dulmur: How do you know that? For all we know, we could be living in an alternate timeline right now.
Sisko: If my people had caused any changes in the timeline, we would have been the first to notice when we got back.
Lucsly: Why do they all have to say that?
The purpose of Temporal Investigations is to ‘prevent contamination of the timeline’, which is the sci-fi way of saying ‘stop history from being changed’; but here’s the thing with history – it’s history – you don’t know if it’s been changed. There’s no suggestion in the episode that the agents will travel back to verify Siskos’ account of his adventure, in fact their report seems to depend entirely on it.
It’s clear that when it comes to time travel and changing history, the Department of Temporal Investigations is a toothless tiger.
But despite this the agents have honed their skills in dedication to the task at hand, specifically they have a profound mental agility to calendar dates:
Dulmur: …What was the date of your arrival?
Sisko: Stardate 4523.7.
Dulmur: So, a hundred and five years, one month, and twelve days ago.
Lucsly: A Friday.
Which would no doubt assist in their role.
There’s a broader issue here that could also be affecting the morale of staff at the Department of Temporal Investigations. While Sisko reports the temporal incursion himself, he’s a Starfleet Officer and has regulations to follow. The Department of Temporal Investigations is part of the Government of the United Federation of Planets. That’s a lot of space (literally) to cover and a lot of citizens in their jurisdiction.
Who will report a time traveller if not the time traveller? Would anyone else know? Also, what about all the alien civilisations outside the United Federation of Planets? Do the Klingons and Romulans also have simular reporting agencies? What’s to stop a Romulan from travelling back to 1 million BC and blowing up the Earth?
Given the size and impacts and consequences of their job when considering the whole of time and space it’s amazing the staff of the Department of Temporal Investigations aren’t constantly gripped by a sense of existential dread.
Nonetheless they solider on, interviewing, collecting, reporting. Continually reminded through their duties that they, themselves, their families, their whole existence could be snuffed out via a misplaced step of rogue time-traveller.
The Central Bureaucracy — Futurama
“You can’t just waltz into the Central Bureaucracy. It’s a tangled web of red tape and regulations. I’ve never been, but a friend of mine went completely mad trying to find the washroom there.”
The Central Bureaucracy is the public service for the Earthican Government in the year 3000. We’re introduced to the Bureaucracy in the season 2 Futurama episode “How Hermes requestioned his groove back”. Hermes Conrad being the on-staff bureaucrat at the Planet Express Delivery Service.
At the start of the episode Hermes is finishing off “the cycle of bureaucracy” — stamping each page of a pile of papers five times, stapling it, adding it to his out tray, shredding it, pulping it, having new paper made from it, printing new documents on it, and adding this pile of fresh paper to his in tray.
Then the audience is introduced to the Central Bureaucracy in a flourish of typical bureaucratic over-communication. Hermes is getting an inspection with the possibility of promotion from a Grade 36 bureaucrat to a Grade 35 (“The 35th highest grade there is!”) in a review that appears to depend entirely on the neatness of his office.
Through a series of mishaps Hermes fails his inspection and is given the “ultimate penalty” of a paid vacation to a Spa Planet. Meanwhile the rest of the Planet Express crew must save a member of the team by visiting the vast Central Bureaucracy.
The episode covers a lot of bureaucratic archetypes and references to other pop culture depictions of bureaucracy. The inside of Central Bureaucracy imitates the imagery of the movie Brazil (see below), while obsession with hierarchy and organisational permission is neatly covered in this exchange:
Bureaucrat: Central Filing? Of course I know where that is. I’m a grade 20.
Leela: Where is it?
Bureaucrat: I can’t tell you. What do I look like? A grade 16?
And the episode also simply has lots of great quotes:
Guards! Bring me the forms I need to fill out to have her taken away!
Meanwhile it’s revealed that the Spa Planet recommended to Hermes by Planet Express’s crab-like alien in-company doctor, Dr Zoidberg (who receives a bucket of krill for every patient he sends) is actually a forced labour camp. And it’s here that Hermes rediscovers what made him love being a bureaucrat. Quickly reorganising the operations of the planet until soon the entire camp is run by a single (long suffering) Australian prisoner.
Hermes is a new kind of space bureaucrat – he’s not grumpy or ill-tempered like the Vogons or Dulmur and Lucsly, and also unlike the above, he’s willing to deploy improvement when he sees the opportunity.
The comedy of Hermes is he’ll deploy improvements wherever he sees them. It does not matter to Hermes how the single prisoner feels about being the only inmate, only the efficiencies gained by improving the processes of the camp.
Hermes has a very technical mind, an attribute applauded by his seniors at the Central Bureaucracy. He is Sir Humphrey Appleby’s moral vacuum with an obsession with planning and process, which in latter episodes the writers use to hint at homicidal tendencies.
While Hermes loves to seek order and efficiency, he’s also happy to, and sees reason for, stamping documents five times only to shred everything moments later. Hermes loves order and efficiency, but is still primarily a process over outcome person. As he explains his love of bureaucracy while he saves the day in the closing song/dance/filing routine. For him; it’s not about badges and ranks – It’s supposed to be about the filing!
Intergalactic Advocate Bob — Jupiter Ascending
“This is revenue requests, not revenue review.”
Buried inside the confused jumble of 2014’s sci-fi action, Jupiter Ascending, is a fantastic sequence that could have jumped straight from the pages of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.
In the movie Mila Kunis, a human, discovers she is the “genetic reoccurrence” of a long dead Queen. She is whisked off the earth into a galactic adventure of action, intrigue and (as shown below) paperwork, as she seeks to reclaim her title and inheritance.
So we’re back at the space bureaucracy again but this time our space bureaucrat (Bob) wants nothing more than to help — it’s the system that lets him down.
Reclaiming the title and inheritance of a dead monarch is no small task, the temptation for fraud would be high and the return of a monarch and of her former possessions back to her estate also creates consternation amongst the Galactic rich and powerful – not least of all her surviving relatives (this proves to be the source of conflict in the story).
If you consider the broader effects of such an occurrence, it’s astounding that the process of reclaiming a title would be something you could hope to do in a day.
Given the importance of such an event the various organisations of the space bureaucracy have protected themselves by adding steps requiring documentation and evidence, which ultimately makes the process impossible.
To reclaim your title you need:
- To file an inheritance petition
- To file an inheritance petition you need to file a quit claim through Central Services
- To file a quit claim Central Services requires a title survey and geneprint identification from Wills and Trusts
- To obtain the title survey and geneprint identification from Wills and Trusts you need a Tax File Number from Revenue Review
- To get your Tax File Number, Revenue Review needs to see your title.
So as a result of no whole-of-process design oversight, the system fails.
Bob is so flustered by this he breaks the rules (and apparently, his programming) to get the title from the clerk at Revenue Review.“I doubt there’s an SES who doesn’t recognise kind of days Mr Warrenn has.”
And it’s noteworthy that this shortcut makes perfect sense, the clerk would have the title on record (how else could he compare them to Tax File Numbers?) and he supplies it on the basis of a thumb print (a good measure to confirm a ‘genetic reoccurrence’) the rest of the above process is red tape.
Bob is a very different space bureaucrat from those we’ve seen before, he’s goal orientated (unlike the Vogons), he’s happy with his job (unlike Dulmur and Lucsly) and while (like Hermes) he initially has full confidence in the process he (unlike Hermes) is willing do the wrong thing to get the right outcome – instead of vice versa.
By no means should we be applauding graft – but what needs to happen is for Bob to be promoted to a cross-departmental design team. His energies and motivation are not being put to their full use, and this will lead him into trouble when he breaks the rules and slips 10Cs to the wrong people.
The Ministry of Information — Brazil
“I got the right man. The wrong man was delivered to me as the right man. I accepted him, on good faith, as the right man. Was I wrong?”
With all its references and call-backs it would be remiss not to mention Terry Gilliam’s jet-black 1985 comedy on bureaucracy, Brazil.
Set somewhere in the 20th century, the movie depicts a world overrun with bureaucratic process. A world where invites to parties arrive 30 minutes after the party starts due to the backlog, where heating engineers go rogue because they can’t stand the paperwork and wind up on terrorist lists, where Security Services will cut a hole through your apartment and the Department of Works can’t plug it back up because “they’ve gone back to metric without telling us”.
It’s hard to write about Brazil without sounding unremittingly grim — it is a comedy centred on a wrongful arrest — but the film’s dialogue and imagery is so thick with commentary that it’s unsurprising that references to it have popped up over and over again in the following decades when satirising the public sector.
Also, I doubt there’s an SES who doesn’t recognise kind of days Mr Warrenn has.
Changing with the times
In reviewing these few available examples of public servants in space I’m surprised to find there has been some development when it comes to satirising bureaucracy.
- The Vogons are unhelpful grumps who merely follow process
- The Department of Temporal Investigations follow a futile process, but they’re dedicated to it
- Hermes seeks small innovations to improve efficiencies in process, irrespective of the outcome
- Bob follows process until it gridlocks, then he’ll bypass it to deliver the outcome.
The least helpful space bureaucrats, the Vogons, are also the oldest example (having been developed around the late 70’s) while the most recent example, Intergalactic Advocate Bob, (2014) is the most helpful.
As public service changes, will our satirical space bureaucrats continue to change? Will we see more explosively cheerful servants like Bob? Customer-orientated public servants wrapped in glossy plastic?
Whatever the changes it probably won’t be complimentary — where would the fun be in that? But when it comes to Public Servants in Space, it’s nice to see they have undertaken change as we have undertaken change.
This article was first published at the Public Sector Innovation blog