State Tectonics (2018) is the third book in Malka Older’s CENTENAL CYCLE trilogy. The series is a Hugo finalist in the Best Series category. It did not end the way I expected it to!
(This review may contain spoilers for the previous books.)
At the end of Null States, the second book, the handful of main characters had uncovered a plot, not just against the micro-democracies, but against Information, the worldwide information-provision system itself. Now, in the third book, three or four baffling threads converge into a tangle of motivations, betrayals and, ultimately, revelations.
Since the events in Null States, over two hundred Information employees have either quit or outright fled. The staff within Information are calling them “Exformation,” and at least some of the things that are happening are attributed to them. For the first time, there have been physical attacks on Information hubs. Masked people break into the facility and take all the employees prisoner. No one has been harmed, and it’s hard to tell exactly what the raiders have done to the infrastructure, which makes it all the more scary. Maryam has been sent to meet with Taskeen Khan, the primary architect of the original Information infrastructure. Khan has chosen to live in a “sanitarium” that replicates, to the extent possible, life in the 1990s/2000s. Despite her choice to re-create this primitive environment, Khan seems quite on top of things as Maryam begins working with her.
Meanwhile, Mishima, the kick-ass field operative who was outed by one of the Chinese governments in the second book, has a two-year-old daughter and is still with Ken. Mishima has been persuaded to run for a position on a new committee Information is forming, one intended to provide transparency and oversight. It’s hard to imagine why anyone thinks Mishima would be good for this, and Mishima can’t really figure it out either. While Mishima is struggling to learn to be a public figure and a politician (neither of those is a strength of hers), Roz is observing work on another site for the controversial sub-mantel transportation tunnel. Each character stumbles across something strange; a tunnel already excavated where no one knew there was one; anomalous campaign ads showing up in unusual centenals, and a group of street-level people who aggressively hustle new tourist guidebooks in various cities — guides which promise information “that Information doesn’t have.”
These three random threads, plus the attacks on the Information hubs, pull tighter as the story progresses. As with the other books, things happen slowly, as we, along with the characters, gather information, compile it and try to make sense of it. State Tectonics also gives the various relationships quite a bit of attention; Roz, who is with Suleyman, is expecting their first child, Ken and Mishima are carefully avoiding the potholes in their relationship, while Maryam questions whether her connection with the soldier Nuria is a lasting one. At times, I felt the book was moving slowly, but I also noticed that I wasn’t putting it down.
Older breaks up the text with excellent dialogue and sly humor and wit. Like the other books in the series, State Tectonics takes place on a global canvas, and I love the way Older uses small details, like food, buildings and clothing to bring the neighborhoods, and this world, to life. This may be, largely, a global community; it isn’t homogenous, and Older celebrates the cultures her characters spring from and the one they find themselves in.
I also really enjoy that each of the major characters here, Maryam, Roz and Mishima, are distinctly different people. They have their own backgrounds, failings, and areas of competence. My favorite new character was Taskeen Khan.
Nearly all the characters, even those who are doing very bad things, have a high degree of commitment to their cause, and are mostly sincere. This makes them more interesting and more difficult to defeat — and this sometimes-misguided sincerity is also demonstrated by people within Information itself. As Mishima points out toward the end, Information is not perfect; it needs to change, and creating another committee is not the way to effect that change.
If I had a nit, it would be that Roz, in the later stages of pregnancy, never seemed to experience any of the physical issues of that condition. She used a food-checker to avoid ingesting harmful substances, and she doesn’t drink alcohol, but that was it.
Older pulls off an ending that was surprising and inevitable; shocking but hopeful, and completely satisfying. Since you cannot enjoy State Tectonics without having read the others, I recommend you read the entire CENTENAL CYCLE trilogy.