Null States (2017) is the sequel to Malka Older’s prescient Infomocracy and the second book in THE CENTENAL series. In Older’s universe, micro-democracies, governments with tracts of 100,000 people each, have taken hold over most of the globe. The mini-governments or centenals are designed so that minorities can participate in a democratic government. Governments are not bound by geographic borders; in this way people who hold a minority view in their physical home-town can join a like-minded government and be represented. Every ten years all the governments have an election and one government gets the Supermajority, a chance to set international policy. The entire process is overseen and helped by a powerful entity called Information, which is like Google on steroids. The agents of Information believe in data plus transparency, and in Null States, like Infomocracy, we follow several of them around the world as they deal with various situations.
It’s two years after the events in Infomocracy. The government called Heritage, which nearly subverted the last election, is fighting the imposition of sanctions and threatening to secede from the micro-democracies. A shooting war has heated up between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with consequences for the centenals near them. In DarFur, Roz and her team of Information specialists arrive for a simple check-in visit, in time to witness the assassination of that government’s leader. Roz must assist with the investigation of the assassination as well as determine why there is so little information available from within DarFur even though it took money from Information to plant the recording devices that are Information’s eyes and ears. As she is investigating, she must fend off angry accusations from the widow, who says that Information had her husband murdered.
Meanwhile, covert operative Mishima is sent on a mission to Geneva, where Heritage is still conspiring. Things get violent quickly, and soon she is chasing a bomber over the border into Switzerland, a nation-state that does not participate in the micro-democracies.
In terms of pacing and plot, Null States is very close to its predecessor. There is even a sequence where Mishima and her significant other Ken are relaxing in a luxury spot when they see news of an explosion, almost an exact duplicate of a scene in Infomocracy. The plot builds slowly as the characters, who are basically mostly geeks, poke at data, slice and dice it, and debate over its meaning, in a way that, while not necessarily thrilling, is realistic and often fun to read. The threads all come together in the last thirty pages, and the book ends on a slight cliffhanger (the assassination is solved but a new threat looms).
I enjoy these characters and I especially enjoyed Roz’s tentative reach for a romance in this book, with someone who might be good enough for her. The obstacles between them are believable, given this world. Mishima the super-spy is always fun to watch, and there is a marked change in her circumstances by the end of the book.
Like other readers, I’m sure, I spent a good deal of time wondering just how these micro-democracies would work –or could work. I’m not the only one who does that. Information employees, who whole-heartedly embrace the philosophy of information and transparency, are often forced to question things, not only the abuses by others that they uncover, but some of their own precepts. These books are great science fiction in the old-fashioned way; people come to grips with a sweeping technological change and the social changes it brings.
Null States is a solid entry in the series, delivers a good puzzle and plenty of action, and sets things in place for some seismic changes, changes that may force some of our character to re-think Information. I enjoyed it, and a couple of people on my holiday list will be getting it from me this Christmas.
I was wondering about this sequel. Thanks for the excellent review!
It’s clear by the end of Book Two that Information has even bigger problems that the ones they uncovered in INFOMOCRACY. Changes are coming, definitely.