In British SciFi/Fantasty we see the following genre/themes:

To me this seems to be a pattern in British Sci-Fi/Fantasy. So where did this come from?

My question is What are the roots of the 'characters representing bureaucracy' as a theme in British fantasy/sci fi?

  • 3
    The government, probably? Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 12:20
  • The British civil service? I suspect Adams was the first to do this, since he takes the p*ss out of Britishness a lot, and others took the idea from him.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 12:25
  • 8
    At the height of the British Empire, England was directly or indirectly controlling around a third of the whole world's population. You don't run a world empire with military force alone - you need one heck of an administrative capacity. The British Civil Service was a very BIG DEAL for a long time.
    – Joe L.
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 13:15
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    @JoeL. - Dan Carlin (of Extreme History podcast) recently expressed it very well. British developed a global distributed computer to run their empire. It was called "Bureaucracy". Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 14:15
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    The classic comedy on the British Civil service / Goverment is "Yes Minister". "The Prime Minister doesn't want the truth, he wants something he can tell Parliament." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yes_Minister jonathanlynn.com/tv/yes_minister_series/…
    – Jaydee
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 12:38

3 Answers 3


For a literature analysis take on it, the SciFi genre is almost defined by its commentary, critique and satire of society. This is seen already in the very oldest material in the genre[1]. State bureaucracy just happens to be a significant part of society and ripe for criticism.

Drilling down a level in the analysis, state bureaucracy can be criticized on political grounds and it's not uncommon for a scifi author to take a political viewpoint in his/her stories. [2,3] A prominent example is the libertarianism in Robert A. Heinlein's books. Terry Gilliam, which is mentioned in the question, has a degree in political science and spent his formative years, politically, on the liberal side during the US 60's unrest [4]. Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams were both outspoken atheists/humanists, which puts them in an anti-establishment position. Moreso in the UK than the US perhaps, considering that the former has a state church.

[1] https://scifi.stackexchange.com/a/43290/13961 [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_science_fiction [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_ideas_in_science_fiction#Politics [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Gilliam#Early_life

  • Great answer :)
    – hawkeye
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 13:11
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    While an interesting basis of an answer, the analysis seems... weak. As one point, "atheists/humanists, which puts them in an anti-establishment position" is a very narrow and biased point of view - not when the establishment is atheist (Witness Strugatsky Brothers "Tail of the Triumvirate" ("Skazka or Troike") aimed ad decidedly atheist Soviet bureaucracy; nor when it is "humanist" (as Heinlein's disdain of 1960s liberal state shows in many places, none more than in Starship Troopers). Lem wasn't too keen on bureaucacy either, and I'm pretty sure Zelazny has some examples if we dig in. Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 13:15
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    Just a point of order. While the UK does indeed have an official church but it is way, way, way less religious than the US. For example, this list shows "irreligion" at 36% in the US versus a whopping 76% for the UK.
    – terdon
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 13:29
  • @DVK: Thanks. Good points and good examples. Kurt Vonnegut's slaughterhouse five, several of the works of Kafka as well as Joseph Hellers's Catch-22 all criticize military and bureaucracy in some form, but a common denominator among the authors is hard to find. Vonnegut was a pacifist, Heller flew bombing missions and Kafka was denied service in the military for medical reasons.
    – Abulafia
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 20:35

I think the origins of this are largely cultural.

Here in Britain we have always had a degree of Bureaucracy at various levels in society, combined with a wealth of regulations and an aptitude for petty officiousness that can make dealings with any large organisation ( not only government or local government- power companies, telephone companies, everyone ) deeply frustrating.

We mitigate this somewhat by also being sarcastic and quick to laugh about the ridiculous predicaments that we find ourselves in, even as we are deeply irritated by them.

I think it is this combination that lead to British writers bringing us the Vogons and Pratchett's Auditors ( among many other elements of life in Ankh Morpork ) while continental writers such as Kafka take a more serious approach to the same concept. Although we are subject to so much ridiculousness here, we laugh at it a little more.

There have been more serious takes on this concept of course and it is important to be conscious of the significance of 1984 as a literary landmark- books written since then are likely to reference it in some way and I would say that Brazil is basically an extended gyre on those same Orwellian ideas.

Another strand to British culture that is often missed by other people is the class system. This may seem ridiculously antiquated, because it is, but it does still exist to some degree. In that context, the bureaucrat is in a position of power - because they represent the rules - which means that they are able to put themselves in the way of both peasants and kings. The bureaucratic jobs are typically middle-class or lower-middle-class so it is a way in which a bureaucrat can get one over their social "superiors" with impunity. In the face of annoying bureaucracy all are equally irritated but we just tut to ourselves while politely queueing- we're not animals after all.

  • Great mention of Kakfa, 1984 and the bureaucrat's relationship to the class system!
    – hawkeye
    Commented Sep 17, 2014 at 23:45

Earliest example that I can think of, of an English SF author who used his stories as a method to take down bureaucracy (based on his frustrating experiences in WW2) is Eric Frank Russell. The vast majority of short stories and books tend to be about a single man (with rare exceptions, it's a man) outwitting bureaucracy of some sort, in some fashion as to get ahead. The only time I can think of where it backfired was in the Offog, but I think that's another exception.

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