Tor Books 2017
Malka Older‘s Centenal Cycle is set in the latter half of the 21st century and yet, like all good science fiction, it speaks to the current moment.
Null States (Tor, 2017), the second book in her series, builds on the first, Infomacracy, which introduced readers to a near future in which the Earth is crisscrossed by a network of small but stable democracies. But in Null States, efforts to strengthen and expand this world order are threatened by unknown plotters.
What makes Older’s books so timely is that they address some of the most vexing challenges of the Trump era, including the difficulty of separating truth from lies and the uphill effort to foster trust in government.
Drawing on more than a decade of experience working for organizations that provide humanitarian aid and development, Older’s books introduce the idea of mini-nations known as microdemocracies. These tiny states are capped at 100,000 citizens in an effort to ensure that the minority always has a voice. Each microdemocracy can vote for any government around the world, so that coalitions of micro-sovereignties are not massed in one geographic location but scattered around the globe. In a dense city, this means that different microdemocracies can arise every few blocks, with one (for example) under-girded by Rastafarianism and the next guided by the principles of Chabad.
In order to ensure the efficient and fair administration of this system, an organization called Information provides expert advice, education and resources. Older describes Information as a cross between Google and the United Nations. Perhaps Information’s most important function is to constantly stream verified, annotated facts to every citizen as an antidote to fake news, a term that has grown increasingly popular in recent years even though the underlying problem, as Older points out, has been “going on probably for as long as we can trace history and politics.”
For Older, science fiction is an opportunity to explore neither dystopia nor utopia but the real world in between — a place where her policy-minded imagination can explore practical solutions.
“I wanted to show some ideas I’d been thinking about that would improve things in some ways, but they could also make some things worse,” she says in her New Books interview. “There is no perfect system. We’re not aiming to find some system that will work for every case and every country and every group of people and then we’re done. I think what’s really important is the process and the struggle.”
- Older’s short story Narrative Disorder and her essay The Narrative Spectrum appear in Fireside Fiction.
Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe and The Escape. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, from The New York Times to the literary journal Thema. Follow him on Twitter @RobWolfBooks