Sunday, December 16, 2018

Null States

Null States
by Malka Older, 2017

Book two of Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle. It’s the second half of the 21st century, and most people live in centenals: political units of 100,000 people each, who democratically elect their chosen government every 10 years from a panoply of choices.

The Centenal Cycle has gotten under my skin -- in a good way -- more than most fiction works I’ve been reading lately. Its world of centenals, and global governments that compete for the right to govern them, feels like something new, not just familiar extrapolations from current geopolitical trends. It’s like a very well-done thought experiment, but Older’s succeeded in populating the world with well-written characters that fully inhabit it.

(By the way, I have not yet opened book three, State Tectonics, and so every bit of this post is written in perfect ignorance of what happens in it.)

Two years after the events of Infomocracy, we begin in Darfur, where emissaries of the planetwide network known as Information have arrived to meet with a local governor, but find themselves witnessing an assassination instead. Our main protagonist is Roz, an Information agent who’d been a prominent secondary character in the first book. The investigation into the murder involves untangling the political situation in Darfur: who wanted the governor dead?

Meanwhile, two of the stars of Infomocracy are crisscrossing Eurasia. Mishima used to be a full-time Information employee, but now she’s doing freelance analysis work based out of Saigon. Ken was a Policy1st operative, but he’s left his old organization now that it’s the global Supermajority -- the most powerful government worldwide. Now they’re both hopping round the hemisphere, with only time for an occasional romantic rendezvous, dealing with the residual scandals of the old Supermajority government Heritage and the ramifications of an expanding war in central Asia.

Of course, everything is connected, and Mishima and Ken find themselves drawn into the expanding Darfur investigation. Something low-key that I like about this series is that our main protagonists are primarily analysts. There’s some old-fashioned violence, and a couple of action scenes, but Older is very clear that our heroes spend a huge amount of their time bent over screens, and they are all very competent at their jobs, and while we never get too deep into the number-crunching aspect of what they do, the narrative never loses sight of it either.

A few months ago I read and wrote about Infomocracy, and I am embarrassed to re-read that post now, as what I didn’t think worth mentioning then is exactly what becomes important in the subsequent book. “Imagine there’s no countries,” I said in my flippant way, but I shouldn’t have, as the world of The Centenal Cycle still has some traditional countries. Saudi Arabia’s one, as we learn in the first book. We see in the second book that Switzerland’s another. And there’s still a rump Chinese state, with its capital at Xi’an. And there are still nation-states in Central Asia -- Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have gotten into a shooting war that threatens to spiral out of control and drag surrounding centenals in.

These are the null states of the title. At least, that’s how Information sometimes refers to them, a bit snarkily. In my review of Infomocracy, I called Information “an independent entity that has apparently replaced the news media”. That’s not wrong, but it’s also much more than that.

The people of this world are so connected that we humans of the 2010s look ridiculous by comparison, with our clumsy, clunky “smartphones” and other “gadgets”. These people are plugged into the online world to such a degree that it borders on telepathy, as they wear miniaturized computers 24/7 that they can control with eyeball movements and they tap out messages with their fingers onto virtual keyboards. AI has become good enough to understand real-time speech with all the nuance, and honest-to-goodness universal translators that actually work well are now standard.

And they are constantly plugged into Information. Reading something -- anything -- in the “real” world? If you like, Information will helpfully annotate it with explainers, context, and fact-checking. Need video of something that happened in a public place? Fortunately, we’re all under constant Information surveillance. This is why the surviving old-timey states are nicknamed null states -- Information doesn’t have its usual level of sophisticated data on them.

This is likely to sound horribly dystopian to many of us, but we readers aren’t being pushed to see it as such. Older never insists that this world should be seen as a dystopia. All of the viewpoint characters are so accustomed to Information and this hyper-connectivity that they see it as the natural order of things, and so we readers will find ourselves doing so as well.

Within the narrative there are “outsider” characters who resist Information’s panopticon world, vindicating those readers who see it as nightmarish. For instance, there’s one very small government in this world that has ideological objections to Information surveillance, and one of its citizens is a minor character who gives her land’s point of view a voice. I can think of many ways the Centenal system is better than what we’ve got right now, and many arguments why Information as presented here is a positive thing. And yet, the downsides are real, not least the potential for malfeasance. Bad people can exploit this system in so many new and ingenious ways.

As I noted in my review of the first book, Older never delves into how we got from our world to the Centenal system, and I think it's wise of her to present this world to us readers as a fait accompli. If I were to speculate, I suspect some elites might be receptive to such a radical re-organization of political power as long as they’d continue to be the elites under the new system, but they’d have to be spooked into doing so under threat of chaos and violence and annihilation. Older does make a brief fleeting reference to large-scale wars that took place in the final years of the pre-Centenal system -- and so I wonder if there are bustling cities in our universe that our globe-trotting heroes in the Centenal Cycle never visit because they are now radioactive rubble.

I read Null States shortly before the local elections here in Taiwan, and so I naturally pondered what sort of government I’d be living under in this universe. I imagine there’d be some sort of patriotic Formosa government, but as I live in a politically very “blue” area of Taipei, they probably wouldn’t win my centenal. There’s a good chance my area would go for the global technocrats of Policy1st, but I could also see the center-right Heritage government doing very well here, at least before they sank under scandals at the end of Infomocracy. (The Heritage-built Tokyo-Taipei tunnel in that book implies they had a presence here.) Or the commercially-oriented Chinese-dominated government called 888 would also be a strong possibility. They wouldn’t be my first choice, but I would deal with it. On the other hand, if my centenal elected 1China, I would be very unhappy. Actually, I’m very curious how cross-strait relations have evolved in this universe.

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