Null States: Great SF in the old-fashioned way, as technology pushes social change

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Null States by Malka Older science fiction book reviewsNull States by Malka Older Science fiction book reviewsNull States by Malka Older 

Null States (2017) is the sequel to Malka Older’s prescient Infomocracy and the second book in THE CENTENAL series. In Older’s universe, micro-democracies, governments with tracts of 100,000 people each, have taken hold over most of the globe. The mini-governments or centenals are designed so that minorities can participate in a democratic government. Governments are not bound by geographic borders; in this way people who hold a minority view in their physical home-town can join a like-minded government and be represented. Every ten years all the governments have an election and one government gets the Supermajority, a chance to set international policy. The entire process is overseen and helped by a powerful entity called Information, which is like Google on steroids. The agents of Information believe in data plus transparency, and in Null States, like Infomocracy, we follow several of them around the world as they deal with various situations.

It’s two years after the events in Infomocracy. The government called Heritage, which nearly subverted the last election, is fighting the imposition of sanctions and threatening to secede from the micro-democracies. A shooting war has heated up between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, with consequences for the centenals near them. In DarFur, Roz and her team of Information specialists arrive for a simple check-in visit, in time to witness the assassination of that government’s leader. Roz must assist with the investigation of the assassination as well as determine why there is so little information available from within DarFur even though it took money from Information to plant the recording devices that are Information’s eyes and ears. As she is investigating, she must fend off angry accusations from the widow, who says that Information had her husband murdered.

Meanwhile, covert operative Mishima is sent on a mission to Geneva, where Heritage is still conspiring. Things get violent quickly, and soon she is chasing a bomber over the border into Switzerland, a nation-state that does not participate in the micro-democracies.

Infomocracy: Book One of the Centenal Cycle by Malka Older

Book 1

In terms of pacing and plot, Null States is very close to its predecessor. There is even a sequence where Mishima and her significant other Ken are relaxing in a luxury spot when they see news of an explosion, almost an exact duplicate of a scene in Infomocracy. The plot builds slowly as the characters, who are basically mostly geeks, poke at data, slice and dice it, and debate over its meaning, in a way that, while not necessarily thrilling, is realistic and often fun to read. The threads all come together in the last thirty pages, and the book ends on a slight cliffhanger (the assassination is solved but a new threat looms).

I enjoy these characters and I especially enjoyed Roz’s tentative reach for a romance in this book, with someone who might be good enough for her. The obstacles between them are believable, given this world. Mishima the super-spy is always fun to watch, and there is a marked change in her circumstances by the end of the book.

Like other readers, I’m sure, I spent a good deal of time wondering just how these micro-democracies would work –or could work. I’m not the only one who does that. Information employees, who whole-heartedly embrace the philosophy of information and transparency, are often forced to question things, not only the abuses by others that they uncover, but some of their own precepts. These books are great science fiction in the old-fashioned way; people come to grips with a sweeping technological change and the social changes it brings.

Null States is a solid entry in the series, delivers a good puzzle and plenty of action, and sets things in place for some seismic changes, changes that may force some of our character to re-think Information. I enjoyed it, and a couple of people on my holiday list will be getting it from me this Christmas.

Published September 19, 2017. The future of democracy is about to implode. After the last controversial global election, the global infomocracy that has ensured thirty years of world peace is fraying at the edges. As the new Supermajority government struggles to establish its legitimacy, agents of Information across the globe strive to keep the peace and maintain the flows of data that feed the new world order. In the newly-incorporated DarFur, a governor dies in a fiery explosion. In Geneva, a superpower hatches plans to bring microdemocracy to its knees. In Central Asia, a sprawling war among archaic states threatens to explode into a global crisis. And across the world, a shadowy plot is growing, threatening to strangle Information with the reins of power.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. I was wondering about this sequel. Thanks for the excellent review!

    • It’s clear by the end of Book Two that Information has even bigger problems that the ones they uncovered in INFOMOCRACY. Changes are coming, definitely.

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