A timely dive into the electoral politics and shenanigans of the future, Malka Older’s debut novel Infomocracy does a deep dive into a future where even with decentralized micro democracy, the problems of power and politics remain, even if they have altered their forms.
The monopolization of search engine technology by a company called Information has led to the atomization of society and nearly the entire world into microdemocratic states with outposts throughout the world, or sometimes just regionally or locally. Twenty years in, the next election, which has been previously globally dominated by one party, is being viewed with suspicion and alarm. If Heritage, the overall winner the last two election cycles, should win again, the microdemocratic trend might ossify and die on the vine. But governmental change is a scary thing, scary enough that people might take advantage of the election to push their own power plays.
Our viewpoint characters are primarily three. Ken is a staffer for Policy First, a policy and results-focused government that isn’t a major player in this world but has a strongly idealistic streak to its practical approach to government. Mishima, an agent for the search engine Information, is sometimes is forced to use some rather special skills in keeping elections and electioneering fair. Domaine is an informant, a miscreant, and works in moderately shady dealings and provides an outsider perspective on the system that Ken and Mishima are embedded into. A couple of other POVs also come in more minor notes into the narrative.
The world, however, that Older creates, is the real star of the novel. The premise that a search engine, Information, once acquiring a monopoly on information search would use that power to create a microdemocratic society to try and maximize the political good for the citizenry of the world is an idea that is presented and developed in fascinating terms. (I can also imagine a novel with the inverted premise, where a search engine monopoly leads to a Infomocratic Tyranny). The novel’s heart is politics and political systems. The author, too, explores the consequences of Information being available to all, and how society might change and develop with an array of content and available knowledge that makes Google and its peers seem like inhabitants in Plato’s cave. This is a world where everyone has the equivalent of Google Glass. How Information is used, and misused, and how Information itself has its own inherent bias is a key theme of the novel. Again and again, one can see how the novel comments on our world today and its fractured landscape of competing narratives and facts.
Lest one think there is no cool technology besides this, there are even flying cars, of a sort, in the novel. Although they are more like flying apartments than car-like vehicles, a flying conveyance to take me around the globe? I am not certain of the physical practicality of a Crow, but would I want one? Certainly! I could travel the globe, seeing places, working on essays and pictures in the work place as it takes me from place to place. Having a crow at my perspective would help give me a global perspective in a way that expensive and inconvenient air flights just don’t allow.
And it is that global perspective and feel that the novel really gets right. A clear case of the author’s international curriculum vitae and adventures coming to excellent use, the novel takes us across the globe. Interestingly, in keeping with that international feel, out of all of the former United States, we only get a tiny glimpse at New York City. Instead, Tokyo, Doha, Paris and other cities are used as the showcase for the microdemocratic world that Older creates. This is also a very urban novel for the most part. Even though we hear about more rural locations, and there is an island resort set-piece, it is cities of various sorts (and they are quite so) that the novel generally lets our characters drop into. This is a world where in a dense city, one can walk a few blocks and be in another government, a checkerboard world that feels like a hyperdeveloped version of the fractured world of Dave Hutchinson’s Europe at Autumn series, or going back to the days of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I found myself wondering where the 100,000 people of a Sentinel (the basic political unit) might be drawn where I live in Minnesota, and realized that I could be either lumped in the more liberal core cities, or, if the boundaries were drawn not to my advantage, to the more conservative areas of the Twin Cities area that produced the likes of Michelle Bachmann.
The novel’s character and plot are fine and good, although I found neither scintillating. It’s not that they are flat, but aside from Mishima’s James Bond-like action heroics tempered for a realistic portrayal of same, the characters did not leap off of the page for me. And the plot is interesting enough as it is, although the novel often takes a light touch with it, spiked with moments of deep engagement. Perhaps the characters and plot make an unfair comparison to the aforementioned absolutely fascinating world building and extrapolation of our society and world into a future that has not, like, say, again, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, gone so far as to be alien to us. And indeed, the problem of building the future and keeping that future is a key concern and focus of the novel. The tension between the old world and the new world a-borning is a through line of the politics, and it is presented in strong and clear terms.
As an audiobook, the Christine Marshall narration of Infomocracy is excellent, and doing a deep dive into the world of the novel ate up the miles on a long single-day driving adventure. In a day and a time of tumultuous politics of our own, getting lost in the speculation and extrapolation of Older’s political science fiction via an aural medium was precisely the right book for me at the right time.