It took me a long time to read Malka Older’s Infomocracy. I couldn’t get into it right away when it came out last summer, and then the 2016 election happened and it was, perhaps understandably, just far too painful, upsetting and infuriating for me to even think about reading a book centered around election shenanigans for a good while. After a couple of false starts earlier this year, I picked up the paperback of Infomocracy and couldn’t put it down. Luckily, I had an ARC of Null States waiting for me when I finished it. The downside, of course, is that I have to wait another full year for the next installment of the series. The Centenal Cycle so far is a brilliantly clever, deeply entertaining, and extremely timely series full of great characters and smart insights into the back-end business of politics and governance.
Though it’s not hard to see how some readers may interpret the series as dystopian, perhaps my favorite thing about the Centenal Cycle is that it’s decidedly optimistic about the power of systems and public servants to achieve positive change in the world. Older recognizes the flaws in institutions and the people administering them, but in a profoundly (and refreshingly) humanist move she also recognizes the power of individuals to enact change, for good or ill. The micro-democracy depicted in the books isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement on our current system of government, and Older does an excellent job of exploring both the possibilities and pitfalls of such a system. The global organization of Information is key to both the successes and challenges of micro-democracy, and Older’s nuanced look at the ways in which media affects elections and the ways in which information can be manipulated and controlled to achieve desired outcomes is as timely as it is erudite and insightful.
In a SFF landscape that reveres meticulously detailed worldbuilding, the world of the Centenal books stands out as an example of a setting that isn’t so much built as it is just perfectly realized. Every inch of it feels real and lived-in. They say one ought to write what one knows, and Malka Older knows a good deal about a lot of things (or at least did a lot of research to make it seem like she does), which makes for a pair of novels that work on every level. The technological advances she describes feel plausible, and the ways in which technology is used—for travel, surveillance, security, media consumption, and so on—make sense and are entirely natural-seeming extrapolations from current trends. A particularly nice touch is the names of political parties in micro-democracy. Groups like Heritage, Liberty, PhilipMorris and others are clear references to current political factions and business interests, and it’s easy to imagine how those power players would survive and thrive in the kind of political environment created by micro-democracy.
The greatest thing about these books, however, isn’t the political wonkery (though that is a quality I deeply appreciated); it’s the characters. Mishima is a consummate badass, and Ken is a perfect complement for her. They’re both easy to root for, and their intertwining stories as they work both apart and together to foil a massive conspiracy in Infomocracy are highly entertaining. The main protagonist of Null States, Roz, is something else, however. Like Mishima and Ken, she’s tough and smart and resourceful and principled, but Roz’s work in Darfur is very different than either Mishima’s or Ken’s. The stakes in Null States are, at least on the surface, less global in scale, and they’re certainly much more personal as Roz gets to know the people of the area. What’s most lovable about Roz isn’t her capability or strength but her capacity for empathy, and this quality is a driving force in her narrative. Much of Roz’s story is about the ways in which empathy, caring for others and openness to new ideas and different points of view is integral to public service, and I love that Malka Older imagined Roz to embody so many of those qualities, even if she does have to grow into them a little over the course of her book. Also, Suleyman is a babe.
The optimism of the Centenal Cycle isn’t obvious, judging by the number of people who call the books dystopia, but it’s my kind of optimism. It’s not the optimism that there’s some perfect system of government that’s the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems or that aliens are going to show up on the eve of a technological revolution and save us all. It’s the optimism that hard work and decency never go entirely out of fashion, that they pay off and that individuals can and do make a difference. It’s the reminder that the arc of history bends towards progress and that we don’t have to have all the answers in order to do some good. And all that optimism is conveyed not with speeches or platitudes, but through the actions of Mishima, Ken, Roz and others. I cannot wait to find out what these characters do next.