Null States

Malka Older

Tor, 432 pages

Review by Callum McSorley

 

Malka Older returns to the world of The Centenal Cycle with her second book in the series, Null States. In her debut, Infomocracy, she introduced us to a near-future in which ‘Information’ – a near-ubiquitous, utopian version of the internet where all statements and stories are rigorously fact-checked and attributed through the use of video feeds, polling data and traditional news-gathering techniques—underpins democracy, or rather, micro-democracy.

Here, nation-states such as we are familiar with are gone, the world is divided into centenals of 100,000 people who can move wherever they want to live under whatever government they want, with thousands of would-be governments competing (fairly, thanks to Information) for their votes, including both traditional parties and corporate parties like Philip Morris and 888. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, especially if you’ve read the first book, and is an interesting and fun concept.

Hippy-types move to centenals where weed is legal, smokers to centenals where there is no smoking ban, Americans to centenals where there is no health or social care and the head governor is only really concerned with letting people know he has a huge penis… Joking, that would of course be flagged up for investigation and verification by Information—the independent bureau that regulates the system and shares its name.

Protagonist Roz is part of this bureau, and at the beginning of the novel is sent to DarFur, which is new to micro-democracy and needs a helping hand to adjust. When its governor is assassinated, she has to investigate, but given its fledgling status, there is very little Information infrastructure in place and Roz has to go old school to get results, including becoming romantically entangled with a prime suspect—way old school.

This drama is played out over the backdrop of war in the ‘null states’ – old, reduced nations that refuse to convert to micro-democracy, are mostly isolationist, and therefore aren’t part of Information’s network. Older’s decades of experience in humanitarian aid and development are on full show here, bringing a powerful sense of realism to her sci-fi world.

Main character of Infomocracy, Mishima, is on the back-bench until halfway through the novel, which is a shame because she was the most interesting character in the first book, and in this one too. She’s a spy and a ninja with a mental illness called ‘narrative disorder’ which lets her see patterns of intrigue in recalcitrant data that may or may not be there, and she sometimes describes her emotions in colours and shapes. The rest of the diverse cast isn’t so well fleshed out, and Infomocracy’s dull leading man Ken (appropriate name choice) is, thankfully, largely abandoned.

When Mishima is brought in to investigate a large government’s threat of secession from micro-democracy, the pace picks up and with it the tension. The expected plot twists, however, fail to come through, with some last-minute reveals falling flat, and some being logically questionable.

Difficult situations always seem to get resolved in some banal way or through a chance event, which is realistic but not satisfying. It also leaves the reader with the feeling that the stakes are not particularly high, therefore it seems ludicrous that while working undercover in a government office, Mishima is always ready with a sharp knife hidden under her clothes—is she really going to murder someone for finding out she is an undercover Information operative? She doesn’t seem the type.

Also, it begs the question why Information, whose whole point in being is transparency, has undercover operatives at all. In fact, one of the glaring holes in the story is the lack of criticism aimed at Information. All the main characters in some way belong to Information, and they’re the good guys, even if they are undertaking covert and undemocratic missions in order to protect micro-democracy. When they do occasionally question the morality of this they always conclude that what they do is for the greater good.

Even among Information’s detractors, nobody is really, truly furious that they’ve essentially turned the world into one giant surveillance state. There are cameras everywhere, yet nobody uses the terms ‘Orwellian’ or ‘Big Brother’.

This is either a clever comment on our society’s current obsession with broadcasting our every move via social media—in this future people are so inured to it that they can’t conceive of constant surveillance being a threat in any way—or a wilful oversight. Maybe it will be addressed in the next book.

Null States suffers from the same problem as it predecessor, its mix of action thriller and political drama often doesn’t mesh. That said, it has the same strengths too. Mishima is great, the exotic locations are a joy to be in, and micro-democracy and Information are both fascinating ideas that Older has plenty of fun with, and which the reader will be left thinking deeply about long after the (abrupt) end of the novel. Despite my criticisms, I look forward to the next part of the series, slated for publication this year.