Reviewed by Galen Strickland
An impressive debut, not only for Ms. Older, but also for Tor.com, this being the first novel-length publication from that imprint. I received a free e-book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. A good indication of my reaction is that I've ordered the hardcover. I know I'll want to re-read it, even if not right away, but certainly before the recently announced sequel, Null States, is released. The e-book had some formatting issues, and although not specified, it could be an uncorrected proof. It's possible some passages will be edited or excised from the final publication. I re-read several sections to clarify a few things, and there may be at least one instance of an unintended revelation, although I may have missed its resolution. Or, Older was clever at mis-direction. In either case, I won't spoil it.
UPDATE: I deleted the NetGalley file so I can't check the passage referred to above. It is possible I misread it the first time, because I just finished a re-read, hardcover this time, and that scene is not as I remember it. However, there is another later in the book whose resolution might have been misdirection. Again, I won't elaborate, except to say we might find out one way or the other if the second book features scenes in the Doha Information hub.
Vaguely reminiscent of the cyberpunk school of Gibson, Sterling or Stephenson, it might also evoke memories of PKD or middle-period Varley, while still being unique enough to stand apart from anything else. All SF requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. For this novel it is the notion the world's political landscape could change so drastically in 25-30 years, but once you accept it the story will sweep you along with action, suspense, and great characters. As different as the politics are, there are also parts that seem eerily relevant to current situations. People will still be the same regardless; selfish and self-serving, with power corrupting even the most idealistic, and there will always be confusion among the electorate on whether or not they are getting accurate information. Older has both political education and experience with humanitarian aid in many locations around the world, which translates to convincing depictions of various cultures.
Gone are nation states, replaced by the Pax Democratica. Micro-democracy is governing by the smallest group possible; think the local precincts of American politics. Centenals of 100,000 people is the base level here. A few encompass many square miles, others might be confined to one large apartment complex in a major city. Each centenal votes for the political party to live under, and the number of times issues come up for vote varies between parties and centenals. The party with the most centenals holds the Supermajority. The system relies on Information, a global-spanning conglomerate that compiles, organizes, and disseminates news and vital statistics to the majority of citizens. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, do not participate in either Information's services or in the centenal form of government. It has been twenty years since the transition, and the third Supermajority vote is approaching. The Heritage party has won the two previous votes, and are heavily favored to win again. Some fear that another win for Heritage will solidify their power and make it very difficult for anyone to unseat them in the future. All the parties campaign to both maintain control of their centenals as well as sway other centenals to change their vote. Information tracks everything, posting frequent polls, and they are also in charge of debates and managing the election itself. On the periphery are some who are anti-election, although it's not clear if they are simply anarchists or if they want nationalism to reassert itself.
Heritage's major rivals are Liberty, Policy1st, 1China, SecureNation, Earth1st, and Economix. Their platforms can be surmised from the names, while other parties are affiliated with corporations, such as Sony-Mitsubishi and PhilipMorris, among others. Some remote centenals continually vote the same way, essentially maintaining the type of government they had before micro-democracy began. Information is neutral, at least that is its intent, although individual employees may vote in their own centenal, and it is possible their biases influence how they compile and disseminate the news. I either missed a few clues, or it wasn't made clear whether the technologies used by Information came first, making it possible for micro-democracies to succeed, or whether they were created later as a necessity. Information has tracked rumors that one party (Liberty is the most likely suspect) has agressive plans to annex other centenals if they gain the Supermajority. The two main characters are Mishima, a security operative with Information, and Ken, a campaigner for Policy1st. They meet and exchange intel several times throughout the narrative, sometimes showing trust, at times suspecting the other of subterfuge. One of the more intriguing aspects is that every time you think you have a character figured out, they do or say something that makes you question their agenda. Mishima in particular has a difficult time trusting anyone, which leads to some interesting conflicts with Ken.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves? Or as Alan Moore would put it, who watches the Watchmen? Information is not a party themselves, but they wield as much power, just as a lot of media controls, or at least influences, political narratives today. Can anyone, or any group, be trusted with that much responsibility? Can micro-democracy survive if Information can be manipulated or sabotaged? One proposed solution is to reduce the size of autonomous groups, down to a decimal (10,000), or even smaller, although I don't see how that would make things any easier. Perhaps that is where the story will lead in Null States. I'm anxious to find out. Recommended.
ADDENDUM: One thing I didn't mention before, even though I did think about it during the first read, is how refreshing it was to get a worldwide perspective on this political process. There are only a couple of scenes in the US, and then just briefly in New York. None of the major characters are American, and most of the action is in places like Japan, India, Peru, Qatar, Beirut, Paris, etc. One of Information's technologies is instantaneous translation for conversations as well as advertising and other signage. Thus you get a great mixing of cultures with an ease of communication between them. As in today's European Union, travel between countries and centenals is open and encouraged. The only thing I can think to criticize is the time frame. Nationalism is still too strong to allow this transformative change in such a short period of time. I'm frightened and angered by many current political agendas that tout nationalism over cooperation between countries. Nationalism is the greatest threat to world peace, so I wish this change could come even sooner. Hurry up, I'm getting old.
Infomocracy is not only recommended, it is HIGHLY recommended. Not just for the political thought, but also the interesting characters, well-paced action, and intriguing technological innovations. I've only read twelve 2016 novels so far, in the middle of the thirteenth. Not saying I won't come across another one better, but a second reading confirmed for now that this is at the top of my list for a Hugo nomination next year. Null States will be released in September, 2017. Something I didn't notice originally, or else it was thought of later, either the author or the publisher now refer to these books as the Centenal Cycle. In other instances of multi-book series I have titled the page based on the series title, but I'm not going to change this one. I will eventually add my thoughts on Null States (already pre-ordered) on this page.
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