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Null States: Book Two of the Centenal Cycle Hardcover – September 19, 2017
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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“Subtly radical (except where it’s openly radical), this book and series continues to offer a kinetically involving narrative that can also make you think about our actual world today." ―RT Book Reviews, Top Pick (4.5 Stars)
“Carefully researched, prescient, thoughtful, and disturbing." ―Kirkus Reviews
PRAISE FOR INFOMOCRACY
"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 Book Review
"This brilliant book is unquestionably one of the greatest literary debuts in recent history." ―The Huffington Post
"A futuristic world with eerie parallels to current events... [an] uncanny political thriller." ―The Washington Post
"Smart, ambitious, bursting with provocative extrapolations, Infomocracy is the big-data-big-ideas-techno-analytical-microdemoglobal-post-everything political thriller we've been waiting for." ―Ken Liu, author of The Grace of Kings
“A fast-paced, post-cyberpunk political thriller... 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 the Craft Sequence
"A frighteningly relevant exploration of how the flow of information can manipulate public opinion...timely and perhaps timeless." ―Kirkus Reviews 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
"In the mid-21st century, your biggest threat isn’t Artificial Intelligence―it’s other people. Yet the passionate, partisan, political and ultimately fallible men and women fighting for their beliefs are also Infomocracy’s greatest hope. An inspiring book about what we frail humans could still achieve, if we learn to work together." ―Karl Schroeder, author of Lockstep and the Virga saga
About the Author
MALKA OLDER is a writer, humanitarian worker, and PhD 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. Her debut novel was 2016's Infomocracy.
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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.
Null States is a well-written near-future thriller with action that ranges throughout the world, encompassing states that adopted microdemocracy and those that did not. 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.
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.
Is democracy destined to always be undermined by the efforts of those that work to exploit its faults to their own gain?
Well... maybe not. If we always remember to perceive it as a dynamic social process in progress, and never hesitate to change, nor unduly except, what is evidently proven as bad for the people.
I hold back the fifth star only because of my expectation that Information operatives understand the significance of lack of information much quicker than they did :-)
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