Speaking To Our Present: Malka Older’s Future

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There is perhaps no better moment than right now to be reading Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, a trilogy of medium-future novels mostly about — wait for it — electoral politics. Oh meh, I hear you mutter, what more boring subject could a novelist choose as the armature on which to hang her tale?

But surely the last few months have reminded us all that electoral politics is only boring when it works. When it becomes dysfunctional, it’s far from boring — downright scary, in fact. Many people are thinking, these days, that familiar political systems seem to be breaking — seem so obsolete, are disenfranchising millions, are so easily gamed. Older asks: how could democracy and politics work differently in a postmodern, networked world? Her trilogy offers some very interesting answers.

TLDR: it’s good stuff. It’s intelligent storytelling, and acutely relevant. Read it.

Older’s future is weirdly convincing, and weirdly close at hand. It’s not today, and not tomorrow, but maybe “the day after tomorrow.” It couldn’t be more relevant, more timely, more thought-provoking than it is this first month of 2021… as we wait hopefully for an end to the series of increasingly desperate tricks an incumbent US President resorts to in his determination to hang on to the office and deny the electoral victory of the opposing candidate. Political shenanigans are on everyone’s mind — from gerrymandering, poll relocations and closures, mischievous litigation making (evidence-free) allegations of ballot fraud… to a comic-opera attempted putsch in the Capitol itself during the ratification of the Electoral College results.

Information is also on our mind, as we grapple with the escalating problem of “rabbit holes” down which citizens of one nation disappear into alternate and incompatible realities. Weird cults like QAnon are flexing tangible political muscle; armed mini-militias are revved up by a cocktail of gossip, urban legends and calculated agitprop; paywalls separate readers from professional, high-quality reportage, while lies and advertising are free; an unknown amount of content on social media is generated by software pretending to be people; digital image and video fakery has reached a disturbing new peak of excellence; as a result, serious dangers and major crimes are (ironically) dismissed by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, as “fake news.” Not only is BS eagerly embraced as fact, fact is eagerly dismissed as BS.

With a global pandemic in progress, allegedly educated citizens of a first-world nation are openly spurning the best available medical and scientific expertise and embracing a reckless denialism. Truly, we seem to have “lost the plot” — at any rate, enough of us have to make the future seem increasingly chaotic, the world increasingly ungovernable.

Much of this “war on sensemaking” is jet-fuelled by internet technology and specifically by social media. It is on the internet that we see the meme-wars playing out, the debunkers never able to catch up with the myth-makers, the clickbait culture overtaking and drowning out critical thinking, intellectual caution, intellect itself. There never was a better time to think about information, or about Information: how can we design a bureaucracy/civil-service/NGO/crowdproject to provide and mediate and evaluate our fire-hose of information, without that bureaucracy itself becoming an authoritarian abuse of power? Quis moderet ipsos moderates? if you’ll forgive my dog-Latin: who shall moderate the moderators?

Malka Older is not afraid to go there; I found it very rewarding to accompany her. I want to say as little as I can about specific content of the novels, because they are the kind of book that deeply rewards the first reading, the thrill of discovery and exploration of a new (but not) world. It’s best to walk in cold. But here’s the gist, in the hope of persuading more readers to give them a try.

The three novels of the Centenal Cycle are, in order: Infomocracy, Null States, and State Tectonics. They present a nearish future world in which a global publicly funded service called Information has replaced what we now know as Google, Wikipedia, Alexa, and so forth. What is different and exciting about Information is that it is noncommercial, and dedicates its vast workforce to fact-checking. Information’s mission is to make sure that everyone has free access to accurate, high quality information.

They are assisted in this gargantuan task by nearly universal surveillance; almost the entire planet is essentially visible on CCTV, and all surveillance points are visible to all people on demand. It’s a Panopticon society. There are a few areas still where this universal omnidirectional surveillance has been resisted, and these holdout territories don’t participate in the global political system built on universal information access and transparency. (This allows for a few “wild west” areas as plot devices.)

A Centenal, in this world, is a group of 100,000 people who most likely reside within a definable physical boundary (but might not). Each centenal conducts regularly scheduled elections using incredibly secure software provided by Information. Each centenal can vote for any party it wants to rule itself, so there is microdemocracy on the township scale; in a large city, one side of the street might be under a different government from the other side, and the laws might vary when you cross the street!

Obviously people have the option to leave centenals, and to band together to form new ones, which prevents any centenal from becoming a prison microstate. One positive outcome of this system is that for the most part, people can and do have the government they want. Few communities are bitterly divided, and a great diversity of political parties are in play.

Some political parties are corporations. Heck, we’re almost there already; but in Older’s world they admit it openly. Some are authoritarian and Leader-based. They represent a wide spectrum of ideas and ideals, a world away from the confining two-party box of present-day American politics: the centenal system really does “let a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend.”

Political campaigning in such a diverse system is a big undertaking, employing legions of people. Some of our characters make a living on that circuit, so we get an insider’s view of this career path.

The stakes are a lot higher than 100,000 souls. While strictly local parties may prevail in some centenals, there’s a larger prize in view; a world governing body is led by the party that wins the most centenals during globally synchronised elections (the Supermajority). So centenals vote not only for parties they think will govern their local polity usefully or advantageously; they may also try to elect parties that will affect geopolitical decisions on a global scale. Parties, in turn, may focus on winning a particular centenal or centenals for the sake of local autarchy; or they may have their eyes on the global prize. The Supermajority determines the overall direction of planetary administration, so it’s a fraught and serious contest with great incentives to break the system. The fate of gargantuan engineering projects may depend on which party wins the Supermajority.

Needless to say, various cadres of observers and enforcers fill (more effectively!) the role that the UN barely manages to pull off today. While armed force is secondary as a governance tool to information (hence the title “Infomocracy”), there is a need for policing. Some centenals indulge in old-school bad behaviour like invading their neighbours. Then government employees show up — to quash or mediate border disputes, to monitor elections and campaigning, and if necessary to do a bit of espionage for Information. One of our key characters is in this line of work, and as a result leads a very eventful life.

If everything were lovely in the garden, there would be no drama and no story. So obviously, in Malka Older’s trilogy various challenges emerge that push her characters into stressful and suspenseful situations. The system itself is threatened by the time we open Volume 3! I was impressed by Older’s ability to present canny political manoeuvring (both legitimate and nefarious) as a compelling story, embodying it vividly in memorable characters.

Older’s world bears the fingerprints of our own age. Environmental disaster and climate change are part of the backdrop, gender fluidity is a given, strong female characters (both nice and not so nice) abound, ubiquitous free connectivity is a human right. Information is what we only dream of today: universal information access that can be trusted. Technology is interestingly advanced, but not so magical as to seem implausible. As a future vision, it’s partly wishful thinking — that we will make it past our present crises and continue to invent and thrive as a global civilisation; but it’s also a cautionary tale about the consequences of today’s decisions.

Neither utopian nor dystopian, the Centenal Cycle simply describes how human beings (could) do politics the day after tomorrow. I read it as hopeful, a realistic sketch of the potential for universal digital voting and a system that could make democracy workable in a global society, devolving maximal autonomy to the local sphere. Older herself has long and deep experience of politics, being some kind of Wunderkind of the NGO world with a remarkable CV; her knowledge of conflict, cross-cultural negotiation and realpolitik is from first-hand experience.

I don’t think I can say much more without spoilers. I’ve refrained from lit-crit so far and concentrated on content; to be honest, I don’t think Older will be remembered as one of the premiere prose stylists of our time. Her characters are well-drawn, with interesting personalities, back-stories and motivations. However unlike, say, William Gibson of Neuromancer fame, she doesn’t achieve that poetic edge that makes the reader’s brain tingle, makes us stop and repeat sentences out loud because they are beautiful artifacts in their own right. Her prose is competent, lucid and often pleasing, but not arty or particularly quotable. I think this sobriety of text is actually appropriate to the subject matter; it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

That said, there are moments of brilliance. I would like to thank Older sincerely and personally for the wonderful phrase narrative disorder which instantly became part of my internal lexicon. There was a space in my brain just waiting for that concept — it slotted in like a virus, and now feels to me as if it was in the DSM from the first edition. Her tangential musings on our relationship to storytelling and media, and what forms this might take in the future, were creative and insightful.

But the heart of the book is politics, how politics is done, how human nature interacts with governance, how technology interacts with democracy, how people interact with each other. If you care about electoral process, about internet access as a human right, about the quality of information and the perils of disinformation, about surveillance technology and its implications, about the tension between local autarchy and global governance, about democracy… then I believe this trilogy will make chewy, tasty, and even brain-altering reading.

In the hands of the right production team (think The Expanse) it could make a dandy long-story-arc multi-season TV show. Hint, hint.

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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