Review of Infomocracy by Malka Older

Happy Election Day! I was there shortly after the polls opened, Infomocracy in hand, but heavy early voting didn’t leave many people.  There was no line so I finished Infomocracy over a leisurely breakfast instead.  Cyberpunk with a distinctly political twist, it’s the perfect book to talk about on Election Day, although it left me wanting more (in both a good and a bad way).

(You can get a little more Infomocracy (the tag, not the book) on Thursday when I post on George Orwell’s 1984.)

Infomocracy cover

I’ll start with the worldbuilding, because that is almost certainly why you are here.  It’s that sort of book.  It’s the sort of book that aspires to be hard social science fiction, taking the extrapolation seriously, but not so much of science but of social science.  In this case that means political systems.  Set roughly half a century in the future, most political institutions have been jettisoned in favor of worldwide “microdemocracy.”  What the hell is microdemocracy?  The participating parties (holdouts from Saudi Arabia to Switzerland refuse to join) have been divided into “centenals,” or districts of 100,000 people.  Each centenal votes on a government.  The government that (presumably) gets the most centenals wins the “Supermajority” (which presumably only requires a plurality of centenals).  The Supermajority brings with it certain powers, but most governance is über-local, at the centenal level.  Walking through a city, then, means constantly crossing political lines that can bring vastly different laws (and cultures).  Elections are held every ten years, suffrage is universal, and voting is online.  Which brings me to Information.  Information is a Google/utility/government/bureaucracy all rolled into one.  It both supplies the ubiquitous information at everyone’s fingertips and eyeball, er, tips for everyone and everything and runs the election and oversees and polices the whole system.  Parties run the gamut from policy-based shops like Policy1st and YouGov to “corporate” shops like PhillipMorris, Heritage, and Liberty to nationalist outfits like 1China to security-based shops like SecureNation to an almost infinite number of niche governments.  If you only need to win over (a plurality?) of 100,000 people to get some sway and power, there is a lot of incentive to specialize.

We open right in the thick of microdemocracy’s third election season.  Heritage has won both of the two previous Supermajorities, and people are starting to get concerned that they will never give up power, and that the system will not endure, if they win another.  Older rotates through several POVs—Ken, a young, undercover operative for Policy1st; Mishima, a “fixer” of sorts for Information who goes to work well armed; Yoriko, a spy for Policy1st; Domaine, an anti-election radical and necessary to justify the Cyberpunk tag.; and Suzuki, one of the “faces” of Policy1st (Policy1st is a bit odd is rotating through several; it appears the other parties use a single figurehead but are run by committee with the centenal-level governments having their own arrangements).  Ken and Mishima are very much the main characters, though.  A certain amount of skullduggery is afoot, as you might expect.

It’s a cool concept but not one I can’t find fault with.  How did we ever get there?  (Older admits this is an issue in her post on today.)  There is a sort of throwaway reference to a sort of almost unnoticed UN resolution, but that doesn’t give any real leverage over countries with armies to get them to give up their sovereignty (even with some sci-fi handwaving that takes care of small arms).  There are strict rules against coalitions, but if the Supermajority is so important, it would seem that the pressure for coalition or consolidation would be enough to defeat any rules designed to thwart it.  It’s not entirely clear how much power the Supermajority brings; obviously an enormous amount of power resides at the centenal level.

There are frequent mentions of rules around things like smoking, but what about the centenals where they throw gays off buildings?  You can leave—presumably immigration is largely unrestricted—and apparently people do move in large numbers when centenals change governments post-election, but that raises another issue not really addressed—massive, ongoing redistricting.  One of the characters at one point mentions eventually microdemocracy will have to get down to divisions of one to keep everyone happy but, hey, here is a crazy idea.  Maybe government shouldn’t do so much and then there would be less to fight over.

I brought reading material to the polls this morning but it turned out there wasn't a line.

I brought reading material to the polls this morning but it turned out there wasn’t a line.

Centenal-level government also seems incredible inefficient.  I’m all for Coasian bargaining, but 100,000 is an arbitrary number that is certainly far too low to allow any sort of effective governance of a major international city.  Although the book admits that public transportation in the form of trains is basically a thing of the past (it looks to be replaced by Uber-like alternatives at this point, but the book suggests a collective action problem also plays a role).  Many of these problems can be solved by contracting out for services, as we see centenals do for security (perhaps the most daring nuance, but one quite supportable, I think).  And any organization as powerful as Information would have its own potential for despotism, but, ah, I’ll just say that comes up.

It’s also curiously utopian.  First, let’s think about Information as a benevolent protector and enforcer of the system.  Color me skeptical.  Not because I’m not a globalist (((I am))), but because I look at international government and I see a lot of dysfunction and failure—I’m looking at you, UN and EU—as I mention in my review of Double Star.  Until the institutions in the underlying states are sufficient to protect and support liberal democracy, the role of international government should be kept very limited.  Information is intended to perform much of that role, constantly feeding objective information to the masses, but there are problems with that too.  Information initially approaches it the right way.  Facts and context accompany everything.  This corresponds with what factcheckers are doing today and does them one better.  Even (supposedly) nonpartisan and objective factcheckers run by respected journalistic outfits like Politifact show significant bias.  A lot of this shows up in the Truth-O-Meter.  Better to just give us the context and let us draw the conclusions.  But there is a perhaps irresistible temptation to put a thumb on the scale and eventually Information starts to succumb to that.

The other problem with it is that someone has to generate all that content.  The book suggests its cube monkeys, pounding away at their keyboards (well, pretty much everything is voice-driven by then).  This is a step back.  Even very smart people aren’t going to be able to create better, more accurate content than a wiki (even with the misinformation that invites).  Older is obviously brilliant and has figuratively been around the block and literally been around the globe.  By now she should have internalized Hayek’s admonition that “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

But maybe she has.  There are no massive author filibusters a la Atlas Shrugged or 1984 (I have access to HeinOnline and JSTOR, I don’t need you to smuggle me philosophy tracts in fiction).  It rightly, leaves much for the reader to ponder.  But I could have used a little more grist for my mill.  I’m a speculative fiction fan.  I think worldbuilding is cool.  I want it in my fiction.  And I wouldn’t be reading Infomocracy if I wasn’t a poli sci geek (which is very different from a poly sci geek).  So give me worldbuilding!  I would have loved to see Older say much, much more about her ideas.  You have an organization called Information, dump a little info!

And there is a lot to like.  The first half of the book is heavy on setup, but it’s easy to digest with flowing prose, effortless looking transitions between viewpoints and venues, and pacing kept at a brisk clip.  There is a rich international flavor as Older takes good advantage of her experience hopping the globe doing humanitarian work.  The action and romance are both subtle and superb.  It works as a thriller, but only in conjunction with the worldbuilding—this is Brad Thor-top-of-his-game level stuff.  The last third of the book works in a few twists.  But ultimately, though, I found the final resolution a bit flat and pat.  The characterization is very strong, in general, except that the characters don’t every really stand out from each other.  I had trouble keeping Yoriko and Mishima straight for roughly half the book.  They’re all smart, passionate, driven, clever, attractive—very much like Older herself, no doubt.  Good, maybe even great for what they are but I would like to see more range.  The diversity of people who agree but see the world differently is more interesting, I think, than the diversity of people who disagree but see the world in the same way.  The POVs were used in an odd way, too.  Every POV but Ken and Mishima could theoretically have been cut without harming the story.  And while I’m not opposed to third-person omniscient, Infomocracy tends to fall more into the off-putting “third-person omniscient when convenient.”

But this adds up to a handful of nits and a lot of thoughts.  Thoughts are good!  As Older pointed out on Twitter the other day, political systems are constructs.  They don’t have to be constructed in any particular way.  To which the Burkean conservative in me must reply is a pretty good argument for whatever the political system already is, but that isn’t the point.  Changing political systems in the real world comes at enormous cost.  Positing change in academic and other nonfiction comes with certain norms and strictures.  Positing change in speculative fiction allows us the explore the full panoply of possible political systems and how they butt against human nature.  It’s one of the Big Things about speculative fiction, and we could use plenty more in this space in particular.  Which is a good reason to keep the Infomocracy tag around.

4 of 5 Stars.

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Science Fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Review of Infomocracy by Malka Older

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