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Infomocracy: A Novel (The Centenal Cycle) Hardcover – June 7, 2016
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"Kinetic and gripping, the plot hurtles toward an electoral climax that leaps off the page." ―NPR
"Futurists and politics geeks will love this unreservedly." ―The New York Times Review of Books
"This brilliant book is unquestionably one of the greatest literary debuts in recent history." ―The Huffington Post
"Smart, ambitious, bursting with provocative extrapolations." ―Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings
"If you always wanted to put The West Wing in a particle accelerator with Snow Crash to see what would happen, read this book." ―Max Gladstone, author of Four Roads Cross
"An inspiring book about what we frail humans could still achieve, if we learn to work together." ―Karl Schroeder
"A futuristic world with eerie parallels to current events... [an] uncanny political thriller." ―The Washington Post
"A frighteningly relevant exploration of how the flow of information can manipulate public opinion...timely and perhaps timeless." ―Kirkus Starred Review
"Older’s sparkling debut, the first full-length novel from the novella-focused Tor.com imprint, serves as both a callback to classic futurist adventure tales by the likes of Brunner and Bester and a current examination of the power of information." ―Publishers Weekly
"Micro-democracy has several things to recommend it, but the biggest strength of Older's writing is how clear-eyed she is on the fact that no system we can imagine will fix the problems of human nature, whether apathy or lust for power." ―RT Reviews
"After sweeping you into a fascinating new world, Infomocracy will leave you with helpful ideas about what's happening in this one." ―Annalee Newitz for Ars Technica
"Infomocracy has the slick language of Snow Crash, the complex global politics of Persona, and the chaotic storytelling of Moxyland. It’s bold as hell and never boring, practically dizzying." ―Lightspeed
"Good science fiction delves not just into explorations of technology and the limits of human innovation, but the political implications of same, and Infomocracy does that extremely deftly." ―XOJane
"With roots in noir and heels firmly planted in the present, Infomocracy shows a world that really isn’t too different from today. Malka Older has created a thrilling, breakneck novel with fully human characters. And it asks tough questions." ―Electric Literature
"It’s a rare thing to find a book that accurately captures the mundane and insidious absurdity of politics, but Infomocracy gets it absolutely right. " ―B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
"Older's universe is fascinating, with its believable if cynical view of how politics might evolve in the information age. The pace is brisk with enough action for fans of political thrillers, but with plenty of futuristic touches for sf lovers." ―Library Journal
"Science fiction for election nerds and for media geeks. I highly recommend it." ―BookRiot
About the Author
MALKA OLDER is a writer, humanitarian worker, and Ph.D. candidate at the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations studying governance and disasters. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than eight years of experience in humanitarian aid and development, and has responded to complex emergencies and natural disasters in Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali.
Infomocracy is Malka Older's first novel.
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Top Customer Reviews
I’ll start with the worldbuilding, because that is almost certainly why you are here. It’s that sort of book. It’s the sort of book that aspires to be hard social science fiction, taking the extrapolation seriously, but not so much of science but of social science. In this case that means political systems. Set roughly half a century in the future, most political institutions have been jettisoned in favor of worldwide “microdemocracy.” What the hell is microdemocracy? The participating parties (holdouts from Saudi Arabia to Switzerland refuse to join) have been divided into “centenals,” or districts of 100,000 people. Each centenal votes on a government. The government that (presumably) gets the most centenals wins the “Supermajority” (which presumably only requires a plurality of centenals). The Supermajority brings with it certain powers, but most governance is über-local, at the centenal level. Walking through a city, then, means constantly crossing political lines that can bring vastly different laws (and cultures). Elections are held every ten years, suffrage is universal, and voting is online. Which brings me to Information. Information is a Google/utility/government/bureaucracy all rolled into one. It both supplies the ubiquitous information at everyone’s fingertips and eyeball, er, tips for everyone and everything and runs the election and oversees and polices the whole system. Parties run the gamut from policy-based shops like Policy1st and YouGov to “corporate” shops like PhillipMorris, Heritage, and Liberty to nationalist outfits like 1China to security-based shops like SecureNation to an almost infinite number of niche governments. If you only need to win over (a plurality?) of 100,000 people to get some sway and power, there is a lot of incentive to specialize.
We open right in the thick of microdemocracy’s third election season. Heritage has won both of the two previous Supermajorities, and people are starting to get concerned that they will never give up power, and that the system will not endure, if they win another. Older rotates through several POVs—Ken, a young, undercover operative for Policy1st; Mishima, a “fixer” of sorts for Information who goes to work well armed; Yoriko, a spy for Policy1st; Domaine, an anti-election radical and necessary to justify the Cyberpunk tag.; and Suzuki, one of the “faces” of Policy1st (Policy1st is a bit odd is rotating through several; it appears the other parties use a single figurehead but are run by committee with the centenal-level governments having their own arrangements). Ken and Mishima are very much the main characters, though. A certain amount of skullduggery is afoot, as you might expect.
It’s a cool concept but not one I can’t find fault with. How did we ever get there? (Older admits this is an issue in her post on Tor.com today.) There is a sort of throwaway reference to a sort of almost unnoticed UN resolution, but that doesn’t give any real leverage over countries with armies to get them to give up their sovereignty (even with some sci-fi handwaving that takes care of small arms). There are strict rules against coalitions, but if the Supermajority is so important, it would seem that the pressure for coalition or consolidation would be enough to defeat any rules designed to thwart it. It’s not entirely clear how much power the Supermajority brings; obviously an enormous amount of power resides at the centenal level.
There are frequent mentions of rules around things like smoking, but what about the centenals where they throw gays off buildings? You can leave—presumably immigration is largely unrestricted—and apparently people do move in large numbers when centenals change governments post-election, but that raises another issue not really addressed—massive, ongoing redistricting. One of the characters at one point mentions eventually microdemocracy will have to get down to divisions of one to keep everyone happy but, hey, here is a crazy idea. Maybe government shouldn’t do so much and then there would be less to fight over.
Centenal-level government also seems incredible inefficient. I’m all for Coasian bargaining, but 100,000 is an arbitrary number that is certainly far too low to allow any sort of effective governance of a major international city. Although the book admits that public transportation in the form of trains is basically a thing of the past (it looks to be replaced by Uber-like alternatives at this point, but the book suggests a collective action problem also plays a role). Many of these problems can be solved by contracting out for services, as we see centenals do for security (perhaps the most daring nuance, but one quite supportable, I think). And any organization as powerful as Information would have its own potential for despotism, but, ah, I’ll just say that comes up.
It’s also curiously utopian. First, let’s think about Information as a benevolent protector and enforcer of the system. Color me skeptical. Not because I’m not a globalist (((I am))), but because I look at international government and I see a lot of dysfunction and failure—I’m looking at you, UN and EU—as I mention in my review of Double Star. Until the institutions in the underlying states are sufficient to protect and support liberal democracy, the role of international government should be kept very limited. Information is intended to perform much of that role, constantly feeding objective information to the masses, but there are problems with that too. Information initially approaches it the right way. Facts and context accompany everything. This corresponds with what factcheckers are doing today and does them one better. Even (supposedly) nonpartisan and objective factcheckers run by respected journalistic outfits like Politifact show significant bias. A lot of this shows up in the Truth-O-Meter. Better to just give us the context and let us draw the conclusions. But there is a perhaps irresistible temptation to put a thumb on the scale and eventually Information starts to succumb to that.
The other problem with it is that someone has to generate all that content. The book suggests its cube monkeys, pounding away at their keyboards (well, pretty much everything is voice-driven by then). This is a step back. Even very smart people aren’t going to be able to create better, more accurate content than a wiki (even with the misinformation that invites). Older is obviously brilliant and has figuratively been around the block and literally been around the globe. By now she should have internalized Hayek’s admonition that “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
But maybe she has. There are no massive author filibusters (I have access to HeinOnline and JSTOR, I don’t need you to smuggle me philosophy tracts in fiction). It rightly, leaves much for the reader to ponder. But I could have used a little more grist for my mill. I’m a speculative fiction fan. I think worldbuilding is cool. I want it in my fiction. And I wouldn’t be reading Infomocracy if I wasn’t a poli sci geek (which is very different from a poly sci geek). So give me worldbuilding! I would have loved to see Older say much, much more about her ideas. You have an organization called Information, dump a little info!
And there is a lot to like. The first half of the book is heavy on setup, but it’s easy to digest with flowing prose, effortless looking transitions between viewpoints and venues, and pacing kept at a brisk clip. There is a rich international flavor as Older takes good advantage of her experience hopping the globe doing humanitarian work. The action and romance are both subtle and superb. It works as a thriller, but only in conjunction with the worldbuilding—this is Brad Thor-top-of-his-game level stuff. The last third of the book works in a few twists. But ultimately, though, I found the final resolution a bit flat and pat. The characterization is very strong, in general, except that the characters don’t every really stand out from each other. I had trouble keeping Yoriko and Mishima straight for roughly half the book. They’re all smart, passionate, driven, clever, attractive—very much like Older herself, no doubt. Good, maybe even great for what they are but I would like to see more range. The diversity of people who agree but see the world differently is more interesting, I think, than the diversity of people who disagree but see the world in the same way. The POVs were used in an odd way, too. Every POV but Ken and Mishima could theoretically have been cut without harming the story. And while I’m not opposed to third-person omniscient, Infomocracy tends to fall more into the off-putting “third-person omniscient when convenient.”
But this adds up to a handful of nits and a lot of thoughts. Thoughts are good! As Older pointed out on Twitter the other day, political systems are constructs. They don’t have to be constructed in any particular way. To which the Burkean conservative in me must reply is a pretty good argument for whatever the political system already is, but that isn’t the point. Changing political systems in the real world comes at enormous cost. Positing change in academic and other nonfiction comes with certain norms and strictures. Positing change in speculative fiction allows us the explore the full panoply of possible political systems and how they butt against human nature. It’s one of the Big Things about speculative fiction, and we could use plenty more in this space in particular.
The technology described in the book was all eventually convincing, and probably true to the future. While much of it was fun and innovative, the initial description of the technology seemed thin, and often left me wondering through much of the book what the technology really was. A better description of the tech when it first showed up in the book would have made the book easier to read, and made the idea of the tech more interesting in my opinion.
The story itself was well though out, as was the general world (places and events), and made the story one which I really wanted to get to the next page. While I did not find the story had much of a twist, and kinda thing it should have had one, It was a well written straight forward story. While it had the formation of a relationship between main characters, it was not forced upon them or the reader, and flowed well not taking away from the greater story. Which I think is done with too many modern novels.
For a first novel this is an amazing start, and I can see where future novels from this author could be amazing, and she left enough of an opening at the end of this story to carry forward to new adventures by the main characters. All in all I enjoyed the book. It was not the best book I have read in the last year, but it was fun enjoyable.
The setting is reminiscent of cyberpunk but somewhat more grounded and plausible. The extrapolations on the internet, search engines, and altered reality are interesting and believable. This felt like a future that could genuinely come to pass.
Others have commented on the pacing of the book. It is a little slow in the beginning but no more so than most books in the genre which naturally require some time to setup the world and the key players. This is minimized somewhat by the story throwing you into events already in progress. Some may find this offputting, but I felt it was easy to follow along and catch up. The story quickly speeds up, and the last 60-70% contains a lot of jetting around the globe, frantic problem solving, and a little bit of unexpected action (I didn't really expect katanas and throwing stars to make an appearance, but they did).
I was surprised by how much I grew to like the main characters given the distance with which the book handles them. You're not usually told what the characters are thinking, and the use of the present tense naturally tends to create some additional distance from the characters. Still, I found I could relate to them very easily. Your experience may vary depending on how much of the characters' emotions and motivations you are able to infer from their actions. I got enough out of it to start to see them as real people.
If you read the book's description and were intrigued by the unique political and social themes, I think you will enjoy the heck out of this book. It was one of my favorite reads so far this year: I'm really excited for the sequel.