Review: Infomocracy, by Malka Older

Posted: July 2, 2016 in Anarchism, Book Reviews, Politics, Science Fiction

Infomocracy cover(Infomocracy, by Malka Older. Tor, 2016, 380 pp., $24.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


Infomocracy could have been a great first novel. Instead, given its obvious and immediately apparent strengths, it’s a great disappointment.

The first of those  strengths is that it has a very promising premise: that a few decades from now nation states will be replaced by a worldwide electronic democracy administered by Information (always capitalized), which is essentially Google on steroids. Further, the governmental units are “centenals,” geographic areas containing 100,000 people, and with various “centenal” governments competing for a “Supermajority” (again, always capitalized). (The novel mostly takes place in the run-up to the third worldwide Infomocracy election, with such elections taking place every ten years.)

A second strength of the book is that it’s very gracefully written, with crisp dialogue and good descriptive passages, including very good descriptions of physical violence.

A third strength is that the characters (with one notable exception) are believable, if a bit thin.

A fourth strength is that Older conveys a good sense of place regarding many different locations around the globe.

These are all major strengths.  The book’s weaknesses, unfortunately, outweigh them.

The first is that Older provides virtually no information on how the “centenals” would operate. In cities of millions, for instance, there would be huge obstacles to effective provision of services with the cities broken up into dozens or hundreds of “centenals” with competing governments. How would they arrange public transit, waste disposal, the injustice system (courts, prisons)?  (Would they all have their own? — utterly impractical for transit, sewage disposal, provision of utilities, etc.) As well, what exactly does the “Suprermajority” do, what are it’s powers, what are its functions? Older provides no information on that, either.

So, she started with a very interesting premise about an alternative to the nation state, and bailed out on it —  skirted around all of its practical details for nearly 400 pages. Older might have an idea about how her system would work, but she doesn’t share it with the reader.

A second weakness is that she’ comes up short on political theory. She describes a few of the policies (allowing or not allowing people to drink or do drugs, relying on renewables or traditional energy sources, for instance). But there’s nothing beyond this. There’s almost no explanation of the various governments’ ideologies.

As well, she sets up a very difficult-to-buy anti-election activist (Domaine), and provides no explanation of his motives, no explanation of why he rejects the “infomocracy.” Older very evidently knows nothing about the primary political  current opposing electoral politics, anarchism, which is an up-from-below political movement, not one dependent on globe-trotting individuals. Rather than completely ignore the matter, however, she repeats in passing the ancient canard equating anarchism with terrorism.

A third weakness is that Older’s grasp of science and technology is poor. To cite a trivial example, she (and her characters) do not understand the difference between a telegraph and a teletype machine. A more blatant example is the “Lumper,” a backpack-size magnetic device that renders guns inoperable — but that doesn’t seem to affect electronics! Given that guns are mechanical devices utilizing a chemical reaction (rapid oxidation) to propel projectiles, and would only be affected by a very powerful nearby magnetic field (which would pull on them) it’s extremely difficult to come up with an even remotely plausible explanation of how such a device would work, and how it wouldn’t affect devices far more magnetically sensitive than guns.

As well, her grasp of how the Internet works seems weak. Toward the end of the book, she has a “virtual” conference between Information and one of the governments, which Information “can’t record” because it’s held in “their” (that government’s) “virtual space.” Given that both parties to such a conference would necessarily have unrestricted access to their outgoing feed and decrypted access to the incoming feed, it’s very difficult to see how this would even be possible.

Older’s publisher, Tor, is the largest in the sci-fi field. One would expect that they’d have given her help in avoiding such blatant scientific/technical boners. But they didn’t. (Of course, “getting the science right” doesn’t seem to matter much anymore — see Ann Leckie’s equally scientifically illterate Hugo-winning Ancillary Justice.)

Older is a capable writer. One just hopes that before she writes another novel she does a better job of researching and thinking out the matters she treats. She seems capable of producing great work; she simply didn’t do so here.

If you can ignore the unfulfilled promise of this book, and its  scientific/technological blunders, you might enjoy Infomocracy; it is uncommonly well written. Still . . . . .

Not recommended.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on both its sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover

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