The Centenal Cycle
by Malka Older
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: Infomocracy | 2: Null States | 3: State Tectonics
An impressive debut, not only for Ms. Older, but also for Tor.com, this being the first novel-length publication from that imprint. I received a free e-book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. A good indication of my reaction is that I've ordered the hardcover. I know I'll want to re-read it, even if not right away, but certainly before the recently announced sequel, Null States, is released. The e-book had some formatting issues, and although not specified, it could be an uncorrected proof. It's possible some passages will be edited or excised from the final publication. I re-read several sections to clarify a few things, and there may be at least one instance of an unintended revelation, although I may have missed its resolution. Or, Older was clever at mis-direction. In either case, I won't spoil it.
UPDATE, 10/14/16: I deleted the NetGalley file so I can't check the passage referred to above. It is possible I misread it the first time, because I just finished a re-read, hardcover this time, and that scene is not as I remember it. However, there is another later in the book whose resolution might have been misdirection. Again, I won't elaborate, except to say we might find out one way or the other if the second book features scenes in the Doha Information hub.
Vaguely reminiscent of the cyberpunk school of Gibson, Sterling or Stephenson, Infomocracy might also evoke memories of PKD or middle-period Varley, while still being unique enough to stand apart from anything else. All SF requires a bit of suspension of disbelief. For this novel it is the notion the world's political landscape could change so drastically in 25-30 years, but once you accept it the story will sweep you along with action, suspense, and great characters. As different as the politics are, there are also parts that seem eerily relevant to current situations. People will still be the same regardless; selfish and self-serving, with power corrupting even the most idealistic, and there will always be confusion among the electorate on whether or not they are getting accurate information. Older has both political education and experience with humanitarian aid in many locations around the world, which translates to convincing depictions of various cultures.
Gone are nation states, replaced by the Pax Democratica. Micro-democracy is governing by the smallest group possible; think the local precincts of American politics. Centenals of 100,000 people is the base level here. A few encompass many square miles, others might be confined to just a few blocks in a major city. Each centenal votes for the political party to live under, and the number of times issues come up for vote varies between parties and centenals. The party with the most centenals holds the Supermajority. The system relies on Information, a global-spanning conglomerate that compiles, organizes, and disseminates news and vital statistics to the majority of citizens. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, do not participate in either Information's services or in the centenal form of government. It has been twenty years since the transition, and the third Supermajority vote is approaching. The Heritage party has won the two previous votes, and are heavily favored to win again. Some fear that another win for Heritage will solidify their power and make it very difficult for anyone to unseat them in the future. All the parties campaign to both maintain control of their centenals as well as sway other centenals to change their vote. Information tracks everything, posting frequent polls, and they are also in charge of debates and managing the election itself. On the periphery are some who are anti-election, although it's not clear if they are simply anarchists or if they want nationalism to reassert itself.
Heritage's major rivals are Liberty, Policy1st, 1China, SecureNation, Earth1st, and Economix. Their platforms can be surmised from the names, while other parties are affiliated with corporations, such as Sony-Mitsubishi and PhilipMorris, among others. Some remote centenals continually vote the same way, essentially maintaining the type of government they had before micro-democracy began. Information is neutral, at least that is its intent, although individual employees may vote in their own centenal, and it is possible their biases influence how they compile and disseminate the news. I either missed a few clues, or it wasn't made clear whether the technologies used by Information came first, making it possible for micro-democracies to succeed, or whether they were created later as a necessity. Information has tracked rumors that one party (Liberty is the most likely suspect) has aggressive plans to annex other centenals if they gain the Supermajority. The two main characters are Mishima, a security operative with Information, and Ken, a campaigner for Policy1st. They meet and exchange intel several times throughout the narrative, sometimes showing trust, at times suspecting the other of subterfuge. One of the more intriguing aspects is that every time you think you have a character figured out, they do or say something that makes you question their agenda. Mishima in particular has a difficult time trusting anyone, which leads to some interesting conflicts with Ken.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves? Or as Alan Moore would put it, who watches the Watchmen? Information is not a party themselves, but they wield as much power, just as a lot of media controls, or at least influences, political narratives today. Can anyone, or any group, be trusted with that much responsibility? Can micro-democracy survive if Information can be manipulated or sabotaged? One proposed solution is to reduce the size of autonomous groups, down to a decimal (10,000), or even smaller, although I don't see how that would make things any easier. Perhaps that is where the story will lead in Null States. I'm anxious to find out. Recommended.
ADDENDUM: One thing I didn't mention before, even though I did think about it during the first read, is how refreshing it was to get a worldwide perspective on this political process. There are only a couple of scenes in the US, and then just briefly in New York. None of the major characters are American, and most of the action is in places like Japan, India, Peru, Qatar, Beirut, Paris, etc. One of Information's technologies is instantaneous translation for conversations as well as advertising and other signage. Thus you get a great mixing of cultures with an ease of communication between them. As in today's European Union, travel between countries and centenals is open and encouraged, with Information providing prompts about different laws in different centenals. The only thing I can think to criticize is the time frame. Nationalism is still too strong to allow this transformative change in such a short period of time. I'm frightened and angered by many current political agendas that tout nationalism over cooperation between countries. Nationalism is the greatest threat to world peace, so I wish this change could come even sooner. Hurry up, I'm getting old.
Infomocracy is not only recommended, it is HIGHLY recommended. Not just for the political thought, but also the interesting characters, well-paced action, and intriguing technological innovations. I have now read it three times in less than a year and a half, and it is still my favorite novel from 2016, and I recently upgraded my Goodreads rating to 5 stars. I nominated it for a Hugo, but it didn't make the final ballot. Something I didn't notice originally, or else it was thought of later, either the author or the publisher now refer to these books as the Centenal Cycle. In other instances of multi-book series I have titled the page based on the series title, but I decided to keep the URL the same here, and will create a sub-header for the sequel books.
Null States was released just two days ago (9/19/17), and I read the majority of it in two sittings. I had read a few comments saying Infomocracy was slow on plot and action, an opinion I do not share, but I expect some of those same people might say the same thing about the second book. Wrong. There is plenty of action here, in several different parts of the world, but there are also quieter character moments, as well as discussions of policy, infrastructure, and social mores. It's a perfect blend of thought and action, never overlooking the personal repercussions of micro-democracy and Information.
Roz Kabwe was a high-ranking Information official in Doha, Qatar, with whom Ken worked closely following the election disruptions in the first book. At that same time, she was also assigned to various SVAT (Specialized Voter Action Tactics) teams in contested centenals. It's about eighteen months later, and Roz is on another such mission in Kas, a town in DarFur, a centenal government which had been brought into the micro-democracy fold just prior to the third Supermajority vote. Information is concerned that DarFur has not been complying with the agreements they made after accepting funds for camera feeds, news compilers and relays, and personal handheld devices. The mission is delayed and complicated by the death of DarFur's head of state. Was it an accident, or assassination, and does his death intersect with the SVAT investigation?
Mishima had resigned from Information, and Ken left Policy1st, and they now reside in Saigon. He works for a very small government named Free2B, although he takes frequent breaks to monetize his election experience on the lecture circuit. Mishima is an independent consultant, but does get recruited by Information again to infiltrate Heritage headquarters when it is discovered they may be planning to secede from micro-democracy to become another null state. Heritage is under sanctions for election fraud during the previous Supermajority vote. Remember, most nation states have been superceded by micro-democracy, fractured into multiple centenals of various governments. Null states are those who do not participate in micro-democracy, and many of them don't use Information, although they may have their own versions of similar technologies. China is one such, but it is only a portion of the former PRC. The centenal governments of 1China and 888 hold some areas, and they also control centenals elsewhere. Most relevant to this story, 888 holds some centenals in lands adjacent to DarFur. Mishima's assignment takes place primarily in Geneva, where Heritage had established its offices in buildings of the former United Nations, but her investigation also takes her into a portion of Switzerland that is a null state.
These two plots are just the tip of the iceberg. Military actions in the K-Stans (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) take Roz away from DarFur, which compels her to recruit Ken to fill in for her on the assassination investigation. Mishima is all over the map too. After Geneva, she is assigned security detail at the Governor's Ball in Mali, then is sent to China to work the opposite side of the K-Stan conflict. Not all, but quite a few of the plots start to tie together, and like multiple political crises in the real world, not all are completely resolved, just contained for the moment. But that's okay, since there will be at least one more book in the sequence. I recommend these books for anyone interested in politics, from any perspective or philosophy. I have no idea if micro-democracy could work, and several people in Information start to doubt its longevity. Still, it's an interesting thought experiment. Most importantly, it points out the necessity for global cooperation, tolerance, and mutual respect for culture and traditions, for any system to work for long. Null States gets another 5 stars from me.
I don't want to say too much about State Tectonics, but the gist is it is recommended. The tagline for the novel is "The Future of Democracy Must Evolve or Die." It is said to be the conclusion to the Centenal Cycle trilogy, but the end is just a new beginning, with both micro-democracy and Information about to undergo radical changes. I would welcome other stories in this world, both to re-visit favorite characters, and to see if they are able to shape an even more fair and successful governing system.
It is set about three years after the second book, five years from the first. Policy1st had won the third Supermajority vote, but only after two other governments were sanctioned for election fraud. Recall that Information is not a government themselves, although they exert a lot of control, since they manage debates and the vote count on a global scale. They decide there should be more frequent elections, with a Supermajority vote every five years instead of ten. Policy1st resents that of course, claiming it would not give them enough time to establish their position before having to campaign again. New governments have gained centenals, while a few centenals have opted out of micro-democracy to be either neutral or to align with one of the null states. We did get a resolution (of sorts) to the assassination of the DarFur head of state in the second book, but not to other suspicious deaths which might be tied to a wider conspiracy. Also, someone is attacking Information distribution centers, although their motive is unknown, since they don't occupy the facilities for more than half an hour, they do not harm any Information employees, and it appears they do not damage infrastructure or steal any data. Are those incidents tied to the assassinations, or are there multiple anti-Information groups working?
Other plot elements: the continued push for mantle tunnels for high speed transport, which is being contested by environmental groups; and the proposal for a new oversight body, the Secretariat, which would be made up of representatives of the major governments as well as one from Information. Mishima is campaigning for that position, although she later decides it best to back away from that. She and Ken are still together, and they have a child, but their work travel makes family life difficult. Roz is now married to Suleyman, the Kas centenal governor she met in the second book, and she is expecting, although the book ends before she gives birth. I was pleased to see Maryam get a more prominent role. She worked in the Doha Information hub with Roz, and had previously worked in Paris, but requested a transfer when her relationship with the Paris director ended. Not only is she an interesting character, the main technical officer in Doha, but that previous relationship was tied to a speculation I mentioned in the second paragraph in my comments about the first book. The resolution to that plot point was slightly different than my theory.
Regardless of whether micro-democracy could work, or whether Information deserves its prominent position, this is still a remarkable thought experiment, a challenge to envision a better system of governance. Can Information still thrive with multiple competitors? Will micro-democracy wither or be strengthened? What will the world be like for the next generation, for Mishima and Ken's daughter and Roz and Suleman's son? Even if Older never returns to the story, I'll still be thinking about that for a long time. I re-read the first two books earlier this month, and my high opinion still stands. I had nominated both for a Hugo, although neither made the final ballot. I don't know if I'll nominate or vote next year, but if so, State Tectonics is on my list at this time, and the Centenal Cycle warrants a nod for Best Series. I can't wait to see what Malka writes next.
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