I’m really late to the party when it comes to Malka Older’s astonishing debut Infomocracy. It came out last year to no small degree of fanfare and acclaim. It was a finalist on the Locus Best First Novel list as well as featuring in several “Best of 2016” lists.
I can’t believe I missed it. On the other hand, this does mean I don’t have nearly as long to wait for the sequel. (Null States, forthcoming in September.)
Infomocracy is a science fiction thriller. Set in a quasi-utopian future (utopian, at least, to the extent that no one has experienced a war in twenty years), it’s all about an election. An election that involves the whole world, for almost the entire world is now divided into political units of one hundred thousand people, called “centenals.” The system is mediated and overseen by a theoretically neutral entity called the Information. The Information is a search engine on steroids, providing real-time curated near-instant information to almost everyone about almost everything. (It also appears, as far as I can tell, to control a global currency.) Every ten years, every centenal elects a new government, which may be locally based, mid-sized, or a giant global contender for the “supermajority” of centenals. That centenal then is administered by whatever government they have individually chosen.
(As an inhabitant of a parliamentary democracy, in which we expect—or at least hope for—an opposition to hold our government to account, and where if the government loses a significant parliamentary vote, it tends to trigger a new election, this is a rather horrifying vision of how government could work. Your choice after the election is apparently to either put up or move. But it is interesting.)
In this setting, the narrative follows four significant viewpoint characters as they navigate an election season in which somebody—or possibly several somebodies—are trying to steal the election, and in which one of the competing governments is dog-whistling about war.
Ken is a young campaign researcher (an undercover campaign researcher) for Policy1st, a government that believes in fairness and transparency and putting policy first (naturally). He discovers that one of the other governments, Liberty, is quietly and deniably speaking to old nationalist sentiment, dog-whistling about revolution and expansion. Liberty is one of the front-runners for the supermajority in this election. Many election-watchers are concerned about the supermajority, for it has been held by the same party, Heritage, since the beginning of the microdemocracy system, and if Heritage continues to hold the supermajority, some people fear that it may become a tyranny by default.
Ken’s life intersects with that of Mishima, an Information agent and special operative/analyst who sees patterns in the data. (She has a “narrative disorder.”) The Information is like a suped-up Google crossed with the UN: not a government, it seems to try to keep the other governments honest. Mishima is trying to make sure that nothing disrupts the election, but her analysis—that Liberty is undercutting the democratic norms by playing to old expansionist and warlike sentiment—is not taken seriously by her superiors. But when cascading disasters and enemy action takes its toll on the election process, Mishima and Ken will be in mortal danger—and at the heart of efforts to make sure there’s an honest vote.
Ken and Mishima and the election system itself are the main characters of Infomocracy. Rounding out the cast are Domaine, a sort-of-anarchist activist who doesn’t believe that the system as it stands is sufficiently democratic, and wants to destroy or reform the current system; and Yoriko, a taxi-driver in Okinawa who gets caught up in the political machinations, but really just wants to get on with her job and raise her children.
Older’s world is an international and inclusive one, and her characters are compelling and believable, intensely human in their fears and desires. (And Mishima is utterly badass and a bit terrifying). Infomocracy‘s setting is a fascinating what-if for democratic political development. Older constructs a taut thriller around the disruptive forces acting on an important election. Some parts of it are less well-thought-through than others, but it is still a stunning debut. I look forward very much to seeing the sequel.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is published by Aqueduct Press this year. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.