In the latter half of the twentieth century, most of the world (a few areas like Saudi Arabia excepted) has moved to a form of government called micro-democracy. The world is divided into “centenals” of about 100,000 people each, and each centenal votes for its own separate government. The political party that wins control of the most centenals wins the Supermajority, which gives that party additional political clout and power, although the specific details of that Supermajority power aren’t entirely clear. There are dozens, if not more, political parties, though only about a dozen have worldwide clout. Parties are based on all types of factors: aspects of identity (like race, nationality or religion), a particular view of policy, the importance of military might, loyalty to a particular large corporation, etc. In fact, one of the most powerful parties in the world is PhilipMorris.
A worldwide vote is held every ten years and, as the story begins, the third Election Day is only sixteen days away. With the upcoming vote so close, campaigning and scheming ― both legal and illicit ― have reached a peak. A party called Heritage has held the Supermajority for the last twenty years, since the micro-democracy system was implemented, and is determined to hold onto that position … but at what price? Meanwhile, the Liberty party is making veiled but ominous statements about “peacefully” annexing other territories.
Infomocracy follows four characters through the few weeks before, during and immediately after this vote. Ken is an undercover political operative for the idealistic, environmentally-minded Policy1st party. Ken is both trying to assess and promote his party’s chances in the upcoming election, and hopefully score a good job within the party after the election. Mishima is also an operative, an employee of and trouble-shooter for Information, a Google-like entity that has vastly expanded and become the primary means for communications and obtaining news and information for the entire world. Anarchist Domaine is bent on undermining the entire political system, and is willing to use whatever means available to do that. Yoriko is a taxi driver in Okinawa who moonlights as a spy for Policy1st, trying to get some dirt on its competitors.
If this all seems a bit dry, well, it initially did to me as well. The first third of this novel is devoted to world-building and, although it’s creative world-building, it takes some time to gel for the reader, and comes at the expense of any notable action in the plot for about 150 pages. It was difficult for me to lose myself in the story when I was still confused by the world, somewhat bored, and not finding the characters particularly real or distinguishable from one another. Thankfully, however, at that point all of the build-up starts to pay off, as both natural and man-made disasters occur and the characters scramble to deal with them, each in his or her own way. Ken and Mishima meet and begin a romance, which remains rather undeveloped, understandably so when it’s sidelined by the various emergencies, but their relationship does have one memorable moment involving use of a sharp knife.
This debut novel is the most overtly political science fiction novel I’ve read; it’s completely immersed in and about the political process, as it exists in the latter part of the 21st century, and about how the flow of information ― and the disruption of that flow ― can affect people’s votes. Malka Ann Older is a PhD candidate studying governance and disasters, and has several years’ experience in humanitarian aid, responding to emergencies and natural disasters in Uganda, Indonesia, Japan and other countries. Her knowledge, expertise and concerns are woven into the plot of Infomocracy, giving it a depth and resonance than can only come from an author who has immersed herself in a field of knowledge and can intelligently extrapolate the effects and aftermath of particular trigger events.
Any reader who appreciates intelligently written science fiction will find much to enjoy in Infomocracy, but it’s most likely to engage readers who are interested in the political process and the underside of campaigning, and how that might play out in a speculative future.
With Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy (2016), I think the difference between “slow getting started” and “absolutely riveting from the first pages” for the reader might simply be when you read it. Tadiana read this book before the Brexit vote and before the USA election. She thought this was a powerful book of ideas that didn’t really pick up speed, plot-wise, until about 150 pages in.
I read it after those two events, and I found it captivating from the first three pages. I also found it be a few other things, like, “eerily accurate” and “terrifyingly prescient.” You question the validity of the electoral system (any electoral system)? You can’t figure out why people vote against their own self-interest? You worry about “fake news?” You depend on Google/Facebook/Twitter/Timblr/GPS/Uber/GrubHub/Whatever, but feel comfortable complaining about them, nearly constantly? You struggle to meld democracy with the rights of minorities and the individual? Then this book is for you.
Older has the same ability that William Gibson has: to look at events and elements in everyday life and popular culture and extrapolate where they might lead with (another of those expression) uncanny accuracy. Older’s background is quite different from Gibson’s, but Infomocracy shares the best aspects of his early works; a global view, and a techno view. Of the four characters we follow in this story, the two I had the most interest in, of course, were Mashima, an “analyst” for a global system called Information (for an “analyst,” Mishima carries a lot of personal self-defense devices, is amazingly athletic and totally rocks a katana) and Ken, a campaigner for a micro-government called Policy1st. The other two are an anti-election activist named Domaine and a spy named Yuriko. The events that precipitated the change in global governing to largely eliminate “country” governments, to try the idea of “micro-democracy” jurisdictions of 100,000 called “centenals,” comprised more by affinity than ethnicity or geography, and scores, if not hundreds of micro-governments, are not explained in the book and I wish there had been one or two paragraphs more about that.
I have to say that Policy1st made me laugh out loud. A micro-government that believes it should promulgate policy! That it should gather data, look at the common good; then develop laws and regulations in an open, fair, transparent manner, with lots of data as back-up! That is adorable! One of my favorite moments is when Ken, sitting in a bar, mentally creates a text table to address the allegations from another micro-government that Policy1st hasn’t done enough. The chart, and the text, are just so… policy!
Infomocracy is a book of ideas, and I agree that that the characters are not the primary interest of the story. The best developed character here is probably Mishima, with her “narrative disorder” and her chronic distrust. Ken is a good character but I felt that we didn’t have enough background about him, and while I liked Domaine, I never knew what his motivation was. The story swept me along, though, from tense staff meetings where both Mishima and Ken try to convince the higher-ups that there is something bad happening with one of the micro-governments; to a devastating earthquake, to the relief efforts, which rang with complete authenticity, even to throw-away lines about how relief workers drink a lot of coffee.
Balancing the technical and cerebral movement (it is hard to call it “action”) of the story are several high-intensity action sequences, but Older also breaks up the wonkish ticky-tacky of 3D holographic maps, number-crunching and analytics with beautiful descriptions of landscapes, cityscapes and the people who live in them.
After I finished Infomocracy I wondered if the pacing was a little off, with a rushed ending. I wasn’t aware of feeling that while I was reading the book. There is a romantic interlude with Ken and Mishima that comes at just the right place, not only in-world, but is terms of pausing the story until the next big crisis… and trust me, it’s big.
I not only loved this book, I bought it for two people for Christmas. My three decades of working in a bureaucracy has affected my tolerance for meetings and wonkery (my threshold is very high), so that may be part of why I never felt the book was dry or slow.
One of my criteria for five stars is that a book changes how I think about things. This book made me examine, and question, my own use of social media in particular. Basically, my newsfeed is my “centenal.” Is that obscuring my vision of the world? Am I too easily beguiled by a well-crafted tweet? I don’t think I would have formulated those questions in quite that way if I hadn’t read Infomocracy. This one belongs on our Best of 2016 list.