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Review of Null States, by Malka Older

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Title: Null States

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: MacMillan Tor/Forge

Copyright: 2017

ISBN13: 978-0-765-39338-8

Length: 432

Price: $25.99

Rating: 100%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

Null States continues the storyline Malka Older inaugurated in Infomocracy, where a substantial number of the world’s countries have adopted microdemocracy, a system based on groupings of 100,000 citizens called centenals. Centenal governments include easily recognizable proxies for existing conservative, liberal, green, corporate, and national entities. This book, Older’s second novel, is a well-written near-future thriller with action that ranges throughout the world, encompassing states that adopted microdemocracy and those that did not.

One hallmark of microdemocracy is the adoption of Information, a version of the contemporary Internet that includes easy access to fact-checked information and video feeds from almost every public area within the system. Countries, or segments of countries, that chose not to adopt microdemocracy are called null states. As the book’s title suggests, the action in Older’s sequel includes states that chose to stay outside Information’s coverage.

Middle of the Action

The action starts in a city within a centenal within the DarFur region of the former Sudan. The DarFur government, which controls several centenals, only adopted microdemocracy for the most recent ten-year election cycle. The focal characters, who are different than the leads in Infomocracy (though they do show up later in the book), are part of a Specialized Voter Action Tactics team sent to support the new government. The governor gets blown up on his way to meeting in the town and the action starts.

Older brings her experience as a relief worker to the fore, capturing the physical environment and cultural sensibilities of peoples outside the developed world. For example, even though DarFur adopted microdemocracy, neither the government nor the people have fully embraced it or, critically, Information. This distrust, which provides substantial leverage for the story’s antagonists, invokes themes of cultural imperialism, long-burning conflicts that transcend national or centenal borders, and fierce independence. Switzerland, for example, has remained unaligned and outside the reach of Information’s nearly omnipresent video feeds. Older captures the feeling of unease and threat when Mishima, the female protagonist from Infomocracy, travels to Switzerland to investigate a lead. Outside of Information coverage and easy contact with her usual support team, she’s on her own in unfriendly territory.

Null States also addresses the language of the developed and developing world. At one point in the novel, a character gently corrects a colleague who used the term “null states”, saying that it’s demeaning. The original speaker disagrees, arguing in effect that it’s a neutral descriptive term, but Older’s comment on using the word “null” to imply that otherness equals irrelevance or, worse, non-existence, is spot on.

Conclusions

Null States is a terrific novel by any measure, made more so by the author’s deft handling of cultural issues based on her extensive experience as an aid and relief worker. If you’re new to Malka Older’s books you should read Infomocracy first so you understand the milieu, but be sure to pick up Null States at the same time so you don’t have to wait to see what happens next. I recommend both books without reservation.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

November 18, 2017 at 10:50 pm

Review of Infomocracy, by Malka Older

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Title: Infomocracy

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: Tor.com

Copyright: 2016

ISBN13: 978-0-765-38515-4

Length: 384

Price: $24.99

Rating: 98%

I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher.

Timing, as they say, is everything. Tor.com releases Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy on June 7, into the teeth of a U.S. presidential election cycle, which is the best possible time for the book to come out. I’m happy to report that both publisher and author make the most of the opportunity.

World of Infomocracy

Infomocracy envisions a speculative future in the mid-to-late 21st century where most states have joined a world government system based on local rule. Under this system, the countries have been divided into centenals, which are governing units of 100,000 residents. Each centenal may chose the regime by which they wish to be governed, with choices including ideological governments such as Heritage (conservative), Liberty (libertarian), or Policy1st (everyone’s dream party that advocates the “demonstrably best” policies on each issue, for some definitions of “demonstrably best”); corporate governments including Phillip Morris, 888, and Coca-Cola; and a smattering of nationalist and local parties. The government that wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority, which gives it significant influence at the supranational level. Some countries, including likely candidates Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, decided not to join the world government scheme and govern independently.

At the center of Older’s world lies Information, a global service that combines our current internet, the Internet of Things (e.g., this pachinko machine paid out a 28,000 yen jackpot on such and such a date), as well as manipulable visualizations and heads-up displays. I think the combination of a governing scheme akin to that found in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash with an information service more like the one described in Minority Report serves the story’s needs admirably.

Ground Game

The popular aphorism that “all politics is local” describes a world divided into 100,000-person mini-states quite well. Infomocracy follows Ken, an undercover agent of influence for Policy1st, and Mishima, a researcher and sometime security worker for Information. As in William Gibson’s novels such as Pattern Recognition, we receive the barest hints of what the main characters look like, focusing instead on what they know, what they do, and how they react within their milieu.

As the story progresses, we follow Ken and Mishima around the world as they embark on assignments, react to emergencies, and explore their burgeoning relationship. Sometimes their efforts create the desired change, sometimes they get a mixed result, and sometimes everything goes wrong. Those varied outcomes, which highlight the joy and pain that are never far from the tactical-level worker’s mind, are no doubt the product of Older’s work as a humanitarian aid worker in Japan, Darfur, Mali, and other places (including three years as a team leader), as well as her appointment as a Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015. When you consider that experience in tandem with her master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University and Ph.D. work at l’Institut d’Études Politques de Paris, you get a sense of the intellectual firepower she brings to the task.

Events in Infomocracy proceed in a manner that is both familiar and surprising. To paraphrase Chekhov, “If you see a global information network over the fireplace in Act One, it will go off in Act Five.” We don’t quite get to Act Five before the information and communication grid goes down, but fail it does and the hell that was breaking loose accelerates into a maelstrom Ken and Mishima must navigate.

Older brings the narrative to a satisfying conclusion. I didn’t give the book a 100% rating because I thought a few minor elements weren’t handled as well as they might have been, but I don’t feel compelled to write an artificially “balanced” review that makes too much of those quibbles. The book’s too good to spend much time on a few bits that were merely good instead of outstanding.

Conclusion

Infomocracy doesn’t read like a first novel—rather, it reads like the work of an experienced author who can leverage her significant life experience into a compelling narrative. I recommend Malka Older’s Infomocracy enthusiastically and without reservation. I look forward to her next book.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 40 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at http://www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Written by curtisfrye

May 31, 2016 at 3:56 pm