Though ostensibly genres of escapism, some of the best and most entertaining government agencies—hardly two words synonymous with “fun”—ever conceived were invented by sci-fi and fantasy writers. Of course, these speculative agencies, departments, and extra-legal bureaus tend towards the ungovernable, the incomprehensible, and the unregulatable—which makes them more or less just like the government agencies we deal with in real life. Here are nine of the most fun bits of bureaucracy in SFF.
The Folly (Rivers of London Series, by Ben Aaronovitch)
Part government agency, part research hub, part social club, The Folly is where all the official magic in London is supposedly policed. Eternally short-staffed, the Folly differs from many magic agencies in the sense that it isn’t a secret at all; the police seem more embarrassed by its existence than anything else, and work very hard to bury the budget lines and name everything in as dull a manner as possible in order to hide the fact that they have at least one—and often only one—magical cop on the payroll.
The Laundry (The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross)
The Laundry is an official but very secret part of the British government, charged with defending humanity against a host of Lovecraftian horrors and other occult threats, using a combination of magic and advance math, computers and arcane objects (which are all much less different than you might suppose). What’s delightful about The Laundry is the sluggishly bureaucratic way it operates, bringing elements of pitch-black humor to the struggle to actually fight the Lovecraftian horrors, which hits up against the need to fill out all the forms properly.
The Checquy (The Rook Files, by Daniel O’Malley)
A sort of spiritual cousin to the Laundry, the Checquy are the secret agency defending Great Britain from malevolent supernatural forces in Daniel O’Malley’s blockbuster urban fantasy novels The Rook and Stiletto. Much of the fun of the series (particularly the first book) is found in decoding the inner workings and squabbles of the Checquy power structure alongside protagonist Myfanwy Thomas, who, thanks to a memory wipe (it’s complicated) has no knowledge of the group’s long history, despite the fact that she holds a fairly senior position. Top agents of the Checquy tend to have magical powers (Myfwany can alter memories; others can invade dreams or exude poison from their pores). Their primary antagonists are a rival group known as the Grafters, which dates back to the 17th century and has a history of mad science (hence the name).
The Department of Metahuman Affairs (Soon I Will be Invincible, by Austin Grossman)
Grossman’s excellent novel about metahumans is told in a more realistic, darker tone than you might expect of a comic book story, almost like a dark twin to the Watchmen graphic novel. That doesn’t mean the Department of Metahuman Affairs isn’t delightfully incompetent, insisting it can totally handle the supervillains delivered to them by the world’s heroes despite the fact that all evidence points to the contrary. While the DMA doesn’t factor much into Grossman’s story, their existence in the universe is a lot of fun.
SpecOps 27 (Thursday Next Series, by Jasper Fforde)
What isn’t to love about a government agency charged with investigating literature-related crimes? Especially in an alternate universe where literature has the cultural heft of superhero movies, and the division between reality and fiction is so thin the two are easily mixed—with breathtaking results. All of the “Special Operations” units in the fictional world are pretty cool, actually, including SpecOps 12, in charge of investigating time travel-related events. For anyone who’s ever dreamed of falling into a book and waking up in their favorite story, SO-27 represents kind of the next best thing.
The Ministry of Magic (The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling)
While we now know (spoilers for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child!) the Ministry of Magic is in good hands with Hermione Granger serving as Minister, the agency in charge of all things magical in Rowling’s series was, over the course of seven books, simultaneously great fun and really, really terrible at carrying out its stated mission. Corrupt, poorly run, and eventually completely superfluous, the Ministry is supposed to serve as a bridge between the Muggle world—whose prime minister is usually quite surprised to be visited by the Minister of Magic after election—and the magical one. While we can only wonder what might have been had Dumbledore accepted the post of minister when asked, at least we were very entertained by the political shenanigans the Ministry blessed us with.
U.N.I.T. and Torchwood (Doctor Who)
The importance (and existence) of the Unified Intelligence Taskforce (U.N.I.T.) in the Doctor Who universe waxes and wanes with the years, as does its function and effectiveness. Sometimes it appears to be a well-oiled paramilitary machine ready to deal with alien invasions, and sometimes it functions solely to provide the Doctor with an audience for his brilliance. Torchwood began life under Queen Victoria and had a much more pro-England and “by any means necessary” brief, but mainly served to give us regular doses of the absolutely delightful Jack Harkness, a character most Whovians wish fervently would return to the TV series. As with all things Doctor Who, the tone and effectiveness of both organizations varies depending on the needs of the story—and the mood of the Time Lord.
PsyLED (Blood of the Earth, by Faith Hunter)
PsyLED is an official part of Homeland Security in Hunter’s urban fantasy universe. Dragging Nell Ingram into its investigations, PsyLED is remarkable because it’s the rare government agency presented without a hint of irony or corruption: PsyLED recruits Jane because she wields deep magic stemming from deep within the Earth, and they are funded by the taxpayers to defend the country against all manner of occult and supernatural threats. This sort of straightforward charter is a refreshing change in a genre where “government agency” is usually code for “bad guys.”
The Department of Diachronic Operations (D.O.D.O.) (The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland)
Stephenson and Galland’s rollicking time travel farce opens with a stunning revelation: aged documents, newly translated, provide proof that magic was, in fact, real…until something wiped humans’ ability to perform it, sometime in 1851. With the help of a disgraced quantum physicist, his skeptic wife, and a short-tempered Eastern European witch, translator Melisande Stokes and government agent Tristan Lyons discover how to perform a magic a spell that sends people through time, in the process forming the Department of Diachronic Operations (or “D.O.D.O”), a time travel agency dedicated to carrying out government operations and (hopefully) restoring magic to the world. That is, if enemies both witting and unwitting don’t rip the fabric of spacetime apart—or if the government doesn’t cut their funding before they get results. You’ve got to hand it to public servants willing to go above and beyond the call of duty (or temporal laws) to do the job right.
The Department of Records (Brazil, directed by Terry Gilliam)
This one might be a stretch, because the ramifications of a monumental screw-up by the Department of Records aren’t great for basically anyone in Gilliam’s absurdist dystopian satire. But that the whole dang this is sent in motion by an errant housefly, which gets caught in a typewriter’s work and causes the wrong name to be printed on a lists of terrorists to be rounded up, is so delightfully bizarre and bizarrely mundane, it’s nearly hilarious—even once the mistake is laid bare, the cogs in the government machine can’t do anything about it, because they don’t have the right paperwork. Laugh, to keep yourself from screaming.
What byzantine government agency did we miss?