Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

It's curious, but the people who are most sceptical about flying saucers are us oldtime science fiction fans. Most of us would be only too happy to believe in visits from extra-terrestrials, but we've been thinking about the possibility long enough to know that there's something wrong with those queer books about little green men illustrated by blurry photographs of lampshades. Things just don't happen that way. If alien intelligences were really to contact us it wouldn't be in such a hole and corner fashion: it would be the sensation of the century. Or else, come to think of it. . . .

You know, Earth has been invaded thousands of times in science fiction and we have valiantly overcome the fiendish aliens in just about every conceivable way—with courage, microbes, atomic energy, bluff, psionics, guerrilla warfare, passive resistance, subversion and clever gadgets cooked up in underground laboratories by the hero's fiancee's father. But there is one dreadful weapon no one seems to have thought of vet. The dead hand of bureaucracy.

I wouldn't be surprised if at this moment there lies in some government office a highly secret file containing full details of an alien invasion that happened only last month. .It won't come to light for another 25 years, when some energetic clerk moves it out of the cupboard to make more room for the teapot, but I can see it now.....

It starts, of course, with a report from the Police. An alien spaceship, proceeding in the direction of down, has landed in sub-district 14 and issued an ultimatum: surrender or be vapourised by horrible green rays. The police have confined themselves to keeping it secret, diverting traffic round it and asking for instructions from Whitehall. Now this may come as a shock to some innocent voters, and don't tell your MP I told you, but I have it on good authority that Cabinet Ministers do not themselves answer the phone in their Departments or open letters. Everything comes to them pre-digested by the Civil Service. So this police report comes to a civil servant in the Registry, where papers are sorted and they decide who should deal with them. "Invasion . . . .ultimatum" he reads. Of course, the Foreign Office deals with all that sort of thing. He packs the papers off to them and goes back to his indexing. To his surprise, they arrive back with bewildering speed. It has taken the Foreign Office a mere three weeks to decide that the matter isn't for them. Their function, they point out in a lot more than as many words, is to handle the negotiations of Her Majesty's Government with the accredited representatives of recognised foreign governments. The alleged government of the alleged planet Xtyzzll has not been accorded either de facto or de jure recognition. Since its alleged emissaries are actually in this country, moreover, it is obviously a matter of internal security, like the IRA. Finally, they point out blandly that the Home Office already has a Division specially for dealing with aliens arriving in the country without passports. The Registry official tries the Security Division; they report that MI5 has the aliens under surveillance but they don't seem to be doing anything subversive or even committing any offence except holding up traffic: perhaps the Ministry of Transport. . . .? The Ministry of Transport say that as a matter of fact the alien spaceship is correctly parked on the lefthand side of the road, it's the police that are causing the obstruction. Four months have elapsed by now and the papers are showing signs of wear. In desperation the Registry official sends them to the Aliens Division. They reply, reasonably enough, that they are only concerned with human beings, and there's no evidence that these aliens are human. In fact, from what the Publications Division say, it seems highly unlikely. Startled, the Registry official asks the Publications Division what they know about it. He learns to his surprise that their Inspectors are quite experts on the subject. Frequently while searching bookshops for indecent literature they accidentally pick up magazines containing something known as science fiction which is full of accounts of aliens. Almost invariably they appear to be giant insects or vegetables. The wretched Registry official heaves a sigh of relief. Insects. Vegetables. Of course. Obviously a matter for the Ministry of Agriculture. He sends off the now bulky file in a large envelope marked "Insects/Vegetables" to the Ministry of Agriculture, where they are put among the papers for an Advisory Committee on the colorado beetle and are never heard of again. Once again, England has been saved by the Civil Service.

You may ask what have the aliens been doing all this time. All I can say is that all big organisations have a bureaucracy, and the aliens have their own Regulations to observe. They say to deliver an ultimatum and wait for an answer, and that's what the expedition does. They sit there quietly year after year patiently waiting, smothered in security blanket and red tape, until eventually they do succeed in getting action from the Civil Service . . . even if it's only the Department of Sanitation.

from Nebula No. 22, July 1957

Last revised: 18 October, 2006

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