by Malka Older, 2018
A little after the halfway point of State Tectonics comes a scene that has stuck in my mind precisely because it is not far-fetched.
We see a recording of a middle-aged father and politician, Gerardo. He’s having an argument with his teenage daughter. His daughter sullenly accuses him of not listening to who she really is, of just wanting her to be an accessory to his photogenic political family, reserved, quiet, and pretty. Frustrated, Gerardo says he never told her to be pretty.
However, his daughter is a digital native of the late 21st century and knows exactly how to conjure up a damning video that she triumphantly plays for him on the spot, proving that he has done exactly that: telling her to be pretty. All her father can do is grumble: “When I was a kid, we didn’t have a perfect record of everything our parents had ever said to throw in their faces whenever we felt like it!”
It gets worse. Because this family quarrel happened in a public space, it was recorded and is publicly available, and because Gerardo is running in a major election, some activist has found it and boosted its profile. Now it is going viral. The teenage daughter is mortified and has holed up inside her home.
Gerardo and his kid aren't major characters in the story, but our main protagonist, the analyst, intelligence operative, and diplomat Mishima, watches this recording and is horrified. She has been recruited to run for office, largely against her better judgement. She has a young child. She doesn’t want this for her family.
What politician would want to run for office if every public spat or embarrassing moment they’ve ever had is fair game for signal boost? We’re already in a world where it’s relatively easy to dig up odd or dumb things a politician put online years ago -- heck, I can think of several examples, at varying degrees of weirdness, just since the beginning of 2019. Now combine that with remarkably complete publicly available feeds of public spaces everywhere. Who would ever want to be famous in this world?
Speculative fiction writers are generally uncomfortable with the notion that they’re trying to predict the future. Ursula K. Le Guin famously denied the notion in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness. In a trivial sense, that’s true of Older’s work: the centenal system makes for a great thought experiment but it’s not easy to see how we can get there from here.
And yet, just as Le Guin’s work gave us glimpses of alternate political and social systems that expanded our sense of the possible, Older does the same, not only with issues of governance but also the knock-on effects of her late 21st-century information technology. As I wrote in my post on Null States: “These people are plugged into the online world to such a degree that it borders on telepathy.” You take this level of connectivity, combine it with a surveillance-heavy world, and a whole range of possible situations opens up, not least the ease with which anybody can be publicly embarrassed if enough people are willing to care about it.
State Tectonics is the conclusion of Older’s Centenal Cycle. Infomocracy introduced this world of statelets of roughly 100,000 people each that democratically choose their governments in global elections, overseen by the benevolent force of Information, the independent entity that has effectively replaced Google, Facebook, and the entire news media. Null States explored this world some more and gave new depth to Information.
Now in State Tectonics, Information, with its effective monopoly on, well, information, finds itself under direct attack from shadowy forces who would like to see its monopoly broken and small-i information made more democratic. As a reader, I have found the centenal system to be fascinating, but Information as depicted to be potentially sinister at best, even as Older takes pains to show us all the well-meaning, hard-working, competent people working there. I wonder what horrors occured in the Centenal Cycle world in the past that made people ready to accept Information. (And yet is Information really objectively worse than the situation we have in real-world actual 2019? Information as Older describes it isn’t a clear dystopia -- it’s more complicated than that.)
Mishima, analyst, spy, diplomat and politician, is once again front and center. Meanwhile, Information techie Maryam, a supporting character in the previous books, is now a full co-protagonist. Would it be fair to say that the gender breakdown of this series slants heavily female? Well, let’s just say that if you gender-flipped each and every character, the male-to-female ratio would be just about normal for a near-future technothriller. That’s how many female characters there are.
What’s more, Older doesn’t assume her readers will put the book down and wander off if they don’t get an American protagonist to root for. Off the top of my head, I don’t think any of the major characters of any book of the trilogy speaks English natively.
Having finished the Centenal Cycle, I can stand by what I wrote in my Null States post: “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.” The information technology of this world is more of a clear extrapolation from what we have now, but it is well-thought-through and very well-integrated into the novel political setting.
This is good political speculative fiction, it expands my sense of what is possible, and I would like to read more like it.