Christopher Brown: Five Things I Learned Writing Rule of Capture

Defeated in a devastating war with China and ravaged by climate change, America is on the brink of a bloody civil war. Seizing power after a controversial election, the ruling regime has begun cracking down on dissidents fighting the nation’s slide toward dictatorship. For Donny Kimoe, chaos is good for business. He’s a lawyer who makes his living defending enemies of the state.

His newest client, young filmmaker Xelina Rocafuerte, witnessed the murder of an opposition leader and is now accused of terrorism. To save her from the only sentence worse than death, Donny has to extract justice from a system that has abandoned the rule of law. That means breaking the rules—and risking the same fate as his clients.

When Donny bungles Xelina’s initial hearing, he has only days to save the young woman from being transferred to a detention camp from which no one returns. His only chance of winning is to find the truth—a search that begins with the opposition leader’s death and leads to a dark conspiracy reaching the highest echelons of power.

Now, Donny isn’t just fighting for his client’s life—he’s battling for his own. But as the trial in the top secret court begins, Xelina’s friends set into motion a revolutionary response that could destroy the case. And when another case unexpectedly collides with Xelina’s, Donny uncovers even more devastating secrets, knowledge that will force him to choose between saving one client . . . or the future of the entire country.

Perry Mason is cool.

I never paid much attention to lawyer stories until I decided to write one—in my case, about the lawyers you call when you get arrested in dystopia. Courtroom scenes are so pervasive in our popular culture and newsfeeds that we learn their basic rules almost by osmosis, but I wanted to dig deeper. The mediascape of my youth was full of black and white lawyers in suits, from Raymond Burr’s darkly impish portrayal of Erle Stanley Gardner’s model defense attorney to Sam Driver, the two-fisted legal aid lawyer who was the real star of the Judge Parker comic strip. For research I read a lot of smarter lawyer stories, real and fictional—including transcripts of William Kunstler’s defense of the Chicago Seven, oral histories of the pro bono defenders of the Guantánamo detainees, the sharply observed Boston lawyers and preppy crooks of George Higgins’s Kennedy for the Defense novels, and the morally compromised defense lawyer who drives David Peace’s stylistically innovative 1983. But it was Perry Mason and his lookalikes who really nailed the archetype when given a fresh look—not noir, but noir-adjacent, the grey flannel tricksters who mediate the ambiguous territory between the moral complexity of real life and the false binaries embodied in the rules we are supposed to live by. These pinstriped anti-paladins usually protect their clients from the system by breaking those rules themselves—tricking people into giving them information that will change the case, and tricking the judges and prosecutors into letting them get that information in front of the jury. Revealing the secret code of lawyer stories: they aren’t really about getting justice for the innocent, but about protecting people from an unjust system, by helping people get away with it.

Science fiction is full of law, but devoid of lawyers.

Can you name a single lawyer from the vast oeuvre of science fiction? There are plenty of laws, from Asimov’s Laws of Robotics to the Prime Directive, but almost no lawyers. Trust me, I looked. And when they do show up, they feel like anachronisms, because they ape the advocates from our contemporary adversarial justice system, which is a very peculiar product of our own culture, and a very old one at that. As a consequence, the lawyers who do show up in sci-fi futures feel like Perry Mason in space. Consider Samuel T. Cogley, Esq., the scenery-chewing suit who defends Captain Kirk from charges of dereliction of duty in the Season One episode “Court Martial”—a character so out of place in the futuristic utopia of the Federation that he first appears literally buried in a pile of actual 20th century law books. The reason is that the creators never seem to ask the predicate question: what does justice look like in the society of the future?

Legal thrillers are never about the law.

Courtroom dramas are all about the legal system, but they take the law for granted. They focus entirely on the process of determining whether someone is innocent or guilty, and meting out punishment. Just the facts. The archetypal client is someone who has been wrongfully accused of a horrible crime, and the defense lawyer’s job is to prove it. What those stories never do is interrogate whether the law itself might be unfair—as is often the case in real life. By remixing a lawyer story with science fiction—the self-proclaimed “literature of ideas”—I found a way to remedy that. In Rule of Capture, the clients are guilty—it’s the laws that are unjust (and the punishment is straight out of Dante).  Which makes the lawyer’s job that much harder.

Dystopia is real.

I try to ground my science fictions in the material of the observed world. So when I set out to invent the imagined legal system of my dystopian mirror America, I went to the law library and researched it from real precedents. Martial law? I found a whole section of dusty tomes on how to administer it, whether in a recently conquered foreign territory or an American state that’s getting too rowdy (which usually meant workers acting up and asserting their rights to strike). Getting locked up without even being told the charges? That’s right there in the federal constitution, the power to suspend habeas corpus in times of insurrection or emergency. And we know how easy it is to declare an emergency in this country. Just ask the detainees awaiting their trial date before the Kafkaesque tribunals at Guantánamo—which I used as the principal basis of my dystopian courtroom.

Property really is theft.

The main client my lawyer protagonist Donny Kimoe represents in Rule of Capture is a young documentary filmmaker and ecological activist who witnesses a political assassination and is accused of terrorism to silence her. Because the normal justice system has been suspended a fair trial is impossible, Donny must come up with a counterintuitive strategy—by attacking the system from a totally different angle, but one that is supported by his client’s work. Theirs is a society ravaged by climate change, in which land (and the resources it contains) is the most precious commodity. Donny sets out to hack the operating system of power by chipping away at the property law regimes at its foundation. Researching those doctrines to help Donny make his case, I rediscovered the early Supreme Court cases that openly acknowledged most of the land in the USA had belonged to the sovereign tribal nations that had lived there for generations, and that the only “legal” justification for the transfer of title to the United States government was the law of the conqueror. When you learn that even the lawyers who invented American law admit that it is founded on theft, it puts the system of justice in a different like. It gave a deeper charge to the idea of writing a legal thriller that puts a mirror up to the dystopia we already have, and the bigger project of imagining what a more just future would really look like.

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Christopher Brown is the Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas. His new novel Rule of Capture is now available from Harper Voyager.

Christopher Brown: Website

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