It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global microdemocracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.
With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?
Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy is available June 7th from Tor.com Publishing. Read chapter one below, and come back each day this week for additional excerpts!
The sign on the defunct pachinko parlor proclaims 21ST CENTURY, but the style—kanji in neon outlined in individual light bulbs? Who does that?—suggests it was named at a time when that was a bold look toward the future, not a statement of fact that has been accurate for more than sixty years. As Ken watches the sign draw closer and closer on his dashboard, he wonders whether the place closed as a consequence of gambling becoming illegal when that canton split off from what used to be Japan, or whether it was a function of its location on a nameless stretch of highway between two tiny towns, one of which no longer exists. He doesn’t care enough to check. What is important is that it is closed, and likely to remain so, and unlikely to be watched.
He gets a shock as an old-fashioned bicycle toodles by the building on his display, the rider a cocoon of parkas and scarves. It’s a live feed? Ken cares enough to check on that but is reassured to find that the camera has been focused there for almost three years, apparently in response to teenagers joyriding in search of ghosts. Ken shrugs mentally; he’ll have to hope no one who knows enough to pay attention to him is watching. The odds are pretty good, given how many feeds there are out there and how few people know they should be interested in his actions.
After months of campaign research in dense potential domino centenals, the solitude out here is putting Ken on edge. It’s a strange place to meet that happened to be convenient for both him and his contact. He took the ferry over from Korea to the west coast of Japan. The plan was just to pass through Akita on his way here, but he was able to get in a few quick lay-of-the-land surveys and shoot them up the hierarchy in case they either prove to be useful or get someone to notice his initiative and hustle. Akita felt so remote and unnoticed that he broke character a little and went beyond data gathering to do some actual campaigning, but he doubts it had any effect. The same reasons that made it safe made it useless: the people he talked to were callused old farmers and fishermen who believe the election is local and vote for whatever party co-opts their traditional leaders. He tried to suggest to them that the Supermajority was important, that it could be their centenal that decided it, but it wasn’t even that they disbelieved him. They just didn’t care.
In Akita, he rented a mini-motor and crossed Honshu to the eastern coast, following the old high-speed rail tracks that cut straight across the country until his maximum-utility path deviated from them and he had to pull off onto narrow, well-maintained roads in what was clearly the middle of nowhere.
Sure, it’s not one of those centenals in the Gobi Desert or the Australian Outback where the hundred thousand citizens are scattered over hundreds of empty miles. There are towns here, tiny shrunken ones that show up as dots on his map projection, almost lost within the erratic, widely spaced centenal borders. Ken breezes through a couple on his way: white houses with grey slate roofs pitched to let the snow slide off, isolated shops with antiquated signs lit from within advertising Pocari Sweat or Boss coffee. Heavy grey clouds make the sky darker than the snowy ground, but it’s still technically daytime, and most of the light in the towns comes from glowing Information hubs doubling as vending machines. He stops to get a can of coffee at one, his Information visuals projecting translations and explanations next to the product descriptions. Then he roars off, and from there it’s just road and sharp slopes covered with trees. Even Information has little to say here.
Ken pulls his mini-motor off the road well outside camera range of the feed he was watching and walks the rest of the way. Bundled as he is against the winter’s edge, he won’t be recognizable on a feed of that resolution. If anyone happens to be watching they’ll think he’s some local farmer, stepping into the run-down building for a respite from the cold.
Not an undercover political operative slipping in for a meeting he doesn’t want anyone to know about.
Despite not wanting to be visible any longer than necessary, Ken finds his steps slowing as he nears the pachinko parlor. Below the deadened pink neon of the sign, the building is a fading, windowless grey. The smoked-glass door was once automatic, and Ken has to struggle to edge it open. The scant light that makes it into the entrance hallway dies mired in the moldy plush carpet. The next door, only a few steps away, must once have swung open easily to welcome gamblers, but as Ken pushes it, his sleeve wrapped around his hand to avoid touching the crude and dusty alloy of the handle, it stutters along the floor before finally giving in with a screech.
Which is when Ken gets his second unpleasant surprise of the day. Despite his arrival a clean two hours early, his contact got there first.
* * *
“You don’t vote?” The girl’s tone rises with the incredulity of someone who has sucked up every mag article and vidlet about this being the event of the decade, the election of the century, the most important vote yet, a chance to change the established order, blah blah blah blah blah. Her echo chamber of friends and rivals does not include nonvoters. She’s come to this supposed voter registration rally not only because it’s the best party on tonight in the greater Río de la Plata area, but also because it feels like virtuous pleasure, an exciting civic duty with a built-in conversation starter. In sum: a semi-sentient being experiencing the first election she can vote in.
“Nah,” Domaine says, taking a toke. “Why? Do you?”
Girl laughs. “Of course! I’m already registered. Why wouldn’t you vote? I mean, in this election, we really have a chance to change things. Your vote could be the one to make the difference.”
“How do you know whom I would vote for?” Domaine asks. “Your vote and my vote might cancel each other out.”
She’s still smiling, maybe because his voice has a way of making that sound like a sexy proposition, or maybe because of the alcohol and weed, the mild summer air of the dark night, and the sounds of the electric accordion from the stage. “Somehow, I don’t think so,” she giggles, which makes Domaine want to gag, but he keeps his game face on. “Anyway, the important thing is that you vote. It’s all about participation.”
Yes, it’s all about participation. No matter who wins or loses, as long as everyone plays the game. Never mind that half of Buenos Aires belongs to Liberty and is likely to continue to, and the other half has its head up its denialist ass and consistently votes itself into what’s left of the European Union. All this surrounded by a checkerboard of populist and regionalist governments in the provinces, few of them with any centenals outside the southern cone.
“How do you know whom to vote for?” Domaine asks. The girl’s wearing an oil-slick dress, and it reflects the glow of the string of light bulbs swinging above the outdoor bar like fires on the water.
“That’s what Information is for,” she says, giggling again. Which is what Domaine has been waiting for.
“Really? And where do you get your—”
“An afro that big has got to say something about sexual potency.”
Domaine snaps his head around, brushing the incipient ideologue with the edge of his ’do, to see an auburn-haired Asian woman at his right elbow.
“Mizzzzzz Mishima,” he growls, feeling his pulse rate climb.
Mishima is also wearing black but in the thinnest of airy cottons, flowing around her body in a way that probably obscures a few concealed weapons. “Domaine. Imagine meeting you at this party.”
Domaine is too busy imagining those weapons. He considers himself an eminently reconstructed male and is disturbed by how much those images arouse him. Would you be turned on if she held a knife to your throat? he asks himself. Probably, is the even more disturbing answer.
Voter girl is still talking. Domaine runs his right hand through his hair, giving it a subtle twitch by his ear. The magnet in his ring turns off his automatic interpreter, and her Lunfardo patter goes back to being unintelligible. He needs his mojo back. “Party?” he repeats, leaning toward Mishima. “Is that what this is?”
She smiles with dark-crimsoned lips, looks around. “Live music, decorative lights, various recreational drugs,” nodding at the joint between Domaine’s fingers. “Looks like a party to me.”
“Ah,” Domaine takes a long pull from his blunt, as though he had forgotten it was there. “I must have been misinformed. I thought it was a voter motivation drive.”
“I suppose they might be multitasking,” Mishima says. “You looking to sign up?”
“Baby, you can motivate me any time,” Domaine rumbles. He pretends to think about it for a moment. “I wouldn’t have to actually vote though, would I?”
“No, Domaine, you don’t have to do anything at all,” Mishima says, turning away into the crowd. She’s gotten word in her earpiece: they checked him out and found nothing in a long-distance body scan or the records of his recent movements to suggest he’s planning violence. Maybe it’s her narrative disorder acting up again.
But before she can take a step a deep rushing noise builds over the notes of the alt-tango. Mishima swings back around. Domaine has turned too, although she doesn’t realize it at first because his head is silhouetted in the glow of the huge flaming letters rising above the park, igniting one by one:
Domaine laughs with glee and spins back to Mishima, but she has already propelled past him in the direction of the fiery libel.
* * *
It is so dim inside the old pachinko parlor that it takes Ken several seconds to make out the gun. He edges past the sticky glass door, blinking at the dust and the rows of silent slot machines, which his Information is busy annotating with release date, model, and largest jackpot at this location. Fortunately, Ken is practiced at ignoring the scrawl projected onto his vision. He takes another cautious step, then stops short as more faint light creeps in from the entrance behind him, glinting off something just ahead.
The metal tip of an arrowhead. Ken raises his eyes to find the face behind it. And lets his breath out slowly. He’s still not sure he isn’t dead, but at least he knows the person who’s aiming a spear gun at him.
“Amuru-san,” Ken says, slowly and clearly. He raises his hands, also slowly, to unwrap the scarf and push back his hood. “At last we meet in person.”
Amuru grunts but does not lower the gun. “You are early.”
“Clearly not early enough,” Ken answers, hands hovering around his collarbones. He feels like he should unzip his coat to allow for freer range of motion in case this does get physical, but the temperature in here is not much of an improvement over outside. “Can I provide you with some reassurance as to my identity?”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” Amuru says, but he waits an extra beat before sliding the spear away from Ken and setting the gun down on top of a long-obsolete change machine close at hand. “This is, after all, a friendly exchange of information. Two friends talking about politics from their respective viewpoints a few weeks before an election.” Nothing in his face or tone changes to make it feel friendlier than a holdup.
“Indeed.” Ken is impressed by the spear gun: an unorthodox weapon, sure, but both legal and lethal. That the person holding it is from Okinawa gives it additional credibility. He takes a cautious step forward. “Perhaps you could start by describing to me the situation as it stands in the Ryukyus?”
Amuru nods. He’s wearing a dark-blue parka, fur from the lined hood peeking around his collar, but now that Ken is closer he can see the man’s large brown feet crossed by the black thongs of plastic flip-flops.
“It could be worse. As usual, we have a couple of centenals that are sure for your side, and others divided among the various corporates. 1China will not do well; the centenals that went with her last time are disappointed and somewhat open to new suggestions.”
“We’ll have a fairly open field there?”
“It is possible that the opportunity has gone unnoticed. But there may be others, like me, helping others, like you.”
Ken nods. Obviously, there will be. Policy1st is hardly the first government to try to campaign without broadcasting its strategy. “You said you’d bring a breakdown of the key issues in these areas?”
Amuru casts a projection up with a detailed map of the islands and pulls out notes for each centenal, detailing their political, socioeconomic, and cultural characteristics as well as recent events or trends that might affect voting. It’s professionally done, and Ken is pleased although not surprised. Policy1st tends to attract people with a grasp of the issues and of what’s at stake. Every centenal, every collection of one hundred thousand neighbors, matters, whether it is spread over hundreds of miles in the tundra or crammed into a couple of overdeveloped blocks in Dhaka.
“And there on that coast, there’s something going on with the shoreline. They’ve had a lot of erosion there recently; I don’t know what the cause is but it’s a big concern for everyone. Also, that’s where the American base was for decades. Even though it’s been gone almost as long, they still remember it, so you have to be very careful with anything that suggests it even remotely, anything that reminds people about colonialism or militarism in any form.”
Ken is listening, nodding, recording everything. He has his own detailed map of the Ryukyus open, the projection glowing brighter than usual in the dusty, dim air between them, and is adjusting the color coding on the centenals the Okinawan is mentioning and adding notes of his own.
“The thing you should know, though,” Amuru goes on, “Liberty is making a serious push.”
“Sou desu ka?”
“Yeah. Not so much with the 1China centenals; more with the Ryukyu nationalists. They’ve been telling people, quietly, that if enough of Okinawa’s centenals go to them and they become the Supermajority, they’ll annex what’s left of Japan.”
Ken’s eyebrows shoot up. “They said that?”
Amuru nods slowly, then adds, “Peacefully. They always say ‘annex peacefully.’ ”
What does that even mean, ‘annex peacefully’? Ken’s grasp of twentieth-century history is dim, and he can’t find an analogy. “Don’t people realize they’re not seriously going to do it?” he asks. “I mean, they can’t be serious.”
“Does that matter?” Amuru points out. “If they gain ground in Okinawa but do not become the Supermajority, no one will expect them to keep the promise, and you can be sure they will try to consolidate in the Ryukyus over the next decade.”
“And if they do win the Supermajority?” Ken knows he shouldn’t even suggest the possibility. Campaigning 101 includes never admitting that an opponent’s victory is even conceivable, but he’s off balance.
“Maybe they will do what they claim,” Amuru says. His eyes drop from Ken’s. “That promise, of annexing Japan and especially Satsuma—it is still very powerful for us.”
“More powerful than micro-democracy? More powerful than peace?”
“Micro-democracy has brought winners and losers in the Ryukyus, like everywhere else,” Amuru answers. “As for peace…” He shrugs, and fires off a four-character adage that Ken’s not familiar with. It seems to suggest peace without justice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or peace without vengeance. The phrasing is ambiguous.
“Has it been recorded? This—” threat? Promise? “—slogan?”
Amuru shrugs. “Wouldn’t you know that better than I do?” Ken is too busy composing an urgent message in his head to answer, and Amuru presses his advantage. “Let’s see your globe.”
Ken expected that, expected it enough to prepare the globe he wants Amuru to see and store it in a special filepath as though it were the only one, but he’s still surprised to be asked. He supposes, as he goes through the motions of opening the file under LATEST PROJECTIONS, that he expected more sophistication from someone who brought a spear gun to a data fight.
The globe he opens is purely speculative, and in most areas strategically optimistic, although their projections for mainland Japan are distinctly underplayed. The heavy spotting in China is possible but unlikely, and although Ken is hopeful for Java, it is still far too early and crowded there to be sure. As the globe spins, a darkened Middle East and Central Asia come into view, then a surprising amount of color through sub-Saharan Africa and—this much Ken feels is justified—large swathes of Europe, not just western. North America is its usual mostly bipolar patchwork, with isolated representation for Policy1st in some of the urban areas, and Latin America looks on this version like an intense battleground, pulsing dots in Caracas, Cartagena, Buenos Aires, and a dozen more cities showing voter events going on at that very moment.
Amuru must know that this can’t all be true, or at least not verified. Maybe he wants to know what Ken, and the government he represents, want him to see. Or maybe he wants to see anything at this point, any intel about the way this contest is going, any hint that he can take back to share with others or keep close for secret reassurance. One thing Ken has learned in this job: people like to think they know things, even the unknowable.
Whatever he’s looking for, Amuru grunts as if he’s found it. “Ganbatte iru, ne,” he comments, which Ken takes as a positive reaction. It would be tough to convince people to vote for them if they didn’t think they were working hard. “It would help,” Amuru goes on, “if you gave us a person to vote for. Ideally someone photogenic and smooth-talking, like the others have.”
It isn’t the first time Ken has gotten this request. “We want people to understand that they’re choosing a set of policies and principles, a way of life, not a person. Of course,” he adds as Amuru waves his hand, now alarmingly holding the spear gun, in annoyance, “we will have people representing us at the debates. Attractive, well-spoken people.”
“People?” Amuru asks suspiciously.
“We will have different representatives at each of the debates,” Ken explains, rewrapping his scarf.
The older man, moving toward the door, leans close to Ken. “They have said that if they win, they will peacefully annex Japan. What do you think they will do to those centenals in Okinawa that belong to other governments, like yours?” His heavy eyes stare that idea into Ken’s brain, and then he disappears into the cold. “Wait at least an hour before you follow me out!”
Ken shivers and finds a seat at a pachinko machine (a 2008 Evangelion Premium that once shelled out 28,830 yen to a lucky winner) to send off some heavily underlined messages and check the latest polls while he waits. At least he’ll be out of here earlier than he expected. Sixteen days until the vote and one of the corporates is threatening war. There’s a lot of work to do.
* * *
Mishima activates her crowdcutter and it springs from its micro-crimped home in the clasps on her dress, a transparent vinyl shell shaped like a shark fin that lets her scythe through the mass of people glomming toward the sign.
“Jorge!” she yells into her earpiece mic. Her vinyl wedge is pushing aside clingy couples, shoulder-hugging friends, and, as she gets closer to the building with the fire-writing on top, a dense mass of open-mouthed spectators. “I’m on my way. Have whoever gets there first cover any rear exits; everyone else, meet me on the roof. Mariana, prepare the rebuttal.” She hates that word, rebuttal. If they had done their jobs right, the misinformation never would have gotten out in the first place. “It should be a projection the same size and position as those letters. Georgina, keep eyes on Domaine… That guy I was talking to… He’s connected with radical anti-election movements—” She can’t waste my breath on this; she’s about to run up who knows how many flights of stairs. “Just look him up. And don’t lose him!”
Another whoosh. Mishima glances over her shoulder long enough to see the flames shooting off another rooftop but doesn’t pause to decipher the words. “Jorge?”
“I’m on it.” Her interpreter gives her the words in Japanese but keeps Jorge’s deep, calming tone. “We’ve got plenty of people here. We’re covered.”
“Not covered enough,” Mishima mutters.
The Avenida del Libertador that runs between the park and the adjoining ForzaItalia centenal has been closed off to ground vehicles for the rally, and Mishima skids across it without slowing. She’s already pinpointed the apartment building, a pale façade latticed with minimal rectangular balconies, awnings fluttering over them in the faint breeze. She pulls the blueprints as she barrels into the lobby, projects them at eyeball level, and heads straight for the door marked EMERGENCY EXIT.
The stairwell is cool after the heat of the crowds and lit only by an illuminated banister zigzagging up into the dimness. Mishima dumps her crowdcutter at the bottom—it won’t refold and doesn’t provide much protection—and starts up the first flight.
WP stands for William Pressman, the nominal head of the Heritage government. He’s not a dictator, even though Heritage has held the Supermajority since the election system started. Every second, as she pounds up and up, those letters are there, burning for all to see, being recorded and sent around the world. Even though the truth or at least all the relevant Information is easily available, every second the words are up there sows more doubt and confusion. She can still hear the music from the rally; the alt-tango has given way to a fast-paced kora–steel drum duet, which only ratchets up the tension. Why couldn’t the organizers have stuck with some rousing but low-tempo trova? Breathing heavily but still moving fast, Mishima risks a glance out a window on what is either the fifth or the sixth floor. The fire phrase on the other building shines clearly now: H=ChiLabor, a reference to a Heritage sweatshop scandal from a couple of years ago. Mostly false. That one is going to require a long and complicated rebuttal.
Mishima pauses at the top of the stairwell to steady her breath and draw her stiletto. There is a steady thrumming from the other side, through which she can make out the occasional crackle of flame. She doubts she’ll find anyone on the roof: any half-decent plan would have the perpetrators far away by now. But the first rule of security is Don’t be stupid. Mishima pushes the roof-access door open hard, keeping her body angled away, and checks the whole roof before settling down to examine the mechanism that’s keeping those letters roaring two dozen feet above her head. It’s a simple enough system: letter-shaped frames around the wicks, and a pump sending accelerant—kerosene, from the smell of it—from a barrel next to the access door. Mishima wants to slash the line, but spilling flammable liquid all over this roof is not worth even a few seconds’ gain, so she settles for turning off the pump.
The fire-writing gutters and, letter by letter, blinks out, leaving the roof in retina-stinging darkness. Mishima darts back inside the stairwell to grab a fire extinguisher she saw a few floors down. By the time she gets back to the roof, the letters have blackened and shriveled, and are sinking slowly down. She douses the wicks as they land. Two security officers from Jorge’s team show up while she’s doing so, with their own portable extinguishers.
As they finish spraying, the nitrogen haze around them turns ruddy, and Mishima looks up to see the glow of a projection. Rubbing at the patina of sweat across her face, she walks to the parapet and twists around to see the rebuttal. Mariana followed the instructions: the letters look to be about the same size, and she’s even added a sort of shimmery cast that approximates fire. But they are utterly lacking in menace and go on for a paragraph and a half, stretching far along the avenida and referencing, as far as she can tell from this angle, the official Academia Española definition of dictador.
She turns and looks out across the park in time to see the o and the r from the ChiLabor message wink out. A faint sigh comes up from the crowd: the excitement is over. The kora and steel drum duo—Mishima can see the stage from here— launch into another piece, this one more of a ballad. The projection detailing the accusations and counter-accusations related to the labor misconduct from two years ago appears at the other end of the park, but nobody is watching anymore.
“Jorge?” Mishima mutters. “Did we get anyone?”
“That guy hasn’t moved. He’s standing right where you left him. Seemed to enjoy the show, though.”
* * *
Domaine has indeed enjoyed himself, alternating his gaze between the flaming subversion of Information and the pantomime of excited consternation, urgent documentation, and rapid, vapid commentary in the faces around him. He stayed put in part out of hope that Mishima would come back to finish their conversation, and his eyes scan and rescan the laughing, talking, drinking, smoking, swaying Buenos Aires elite for her figure, although he realizes it’s a diminishing possibility. Finally, he swings around toward the group he was talking to when Mishima arrived. Voter girl gave up on him some time ago and has gone back to talking with her friends, glossy lips in unstopping motion, perfectly content to be part of this newsworthy, useless event.
“They’re using you!” Domaine hisses, leaning in close to her, then sweeping his wide eyes around the circle of expertly made-up faces. “All of you!”
Excerpted from Infomocracy, © Malka Older, 2016