REVIEW: NULL STATES, BY MALKA ANN OLDER (2017)

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 08.22.01It’s the late twenty-first century, and nation states like Japan, Peru and the US are a thing of the past. Instead, most now live in centenals, contiguous communities of 100,000 people. In rural areas, centenals can stretch out quite a bit, while in cities, there can be several in a single block. Every ten years, there’s a global election, and any centenal can vote for any party, or government that’s running. There are corporate-affiliated governments (PhilipMorris, the Chinese 888), military ones (YourArmy, LesProfessionels), nationalist ones (either representing the historically downtrodden, like DarFur, or harkening back to the glory days of nation states, like ForzaItalia), super liberal ones (Free2B), super ethical ones (Policy1st, SavePlanet), and so on. All the governments have agreed to maintain relatively permissive immigration policies, so that, if your centenal doesn’t vote for your preferred government, you can move very easily to the nearest congenial one–which, again, could just be down the block if you live in a city. And overseeing this whole system, known as microdemocracy, is Information, a kind of mega-Google that guarantees electoral and governmental transparency through a vast network of data-crunching nerds and even a handful of stiletto-wielding spies.

Malka Ann Older’s 2016 debut, Infomocracy, is set in this world, as is its sequel, Null States, out in September. I read Infomocracy not long after the Brexit vote, and, as an EU migrant living in the UK, I became smitten by the idea of (1) a Google-type organisation that makes it harder for politicians to mislead voters (e.g. by live-annotating speeches with pop-ups denying or confirming the veracity of specific statements), (2) relatively small communities of actual neighbours making big decisions for themselves, and (3) the freedom to move without hassle and without having to travel huge distances if you disagree with how the rest of your centenal votes. Of course, this system has its own flaws, and its own sinister aspects–more of which below–but the microdemocratic world remains one of the few fictional universes that I’d happily trade for this one.

While Infomocracy is set during a particularly chaotic election year, Null States starts two years after the events of the first book, when Information staff expect things to return to business as usual. Except, of course, they don’t. Roz, on placement in what was once Sudan, is trying to help the newly elected DarFur government get up to speed with the rest of the microdemocratic world–until its charismatic young leader is killed in mysterious circumstances, and Roz’s assignment turns into an assassination investigation. At the same time, Mishima–from the first book–finds that a spy’s work is never done, and spends much of the book doing what she does best, travelling from centenal to centenal (Geneva to Bamako, Singapore to Xi’an) foiling conspiracies and getting into the occasional well coreographed tussle.

I was so worried that Null States, like so many sequels before it, would be a disappointment. Turns out–I actually prefer it to the first book. I got such a buzz from it! The intrigue, the unusual settings (from Darfur to Geneva, Urumqi to Gori), the sleuthing and spying, the sudden emergencies, the political wonkery, the stats and data nerdery, the cool little worldbuilding details, the friendships, the romance (surely the character of Suleyman must be played by Mahershala Ali in a hypothetical tv adaptation?)–Null States captured me from the very start, and now that I’ve finished I’m actually considering diving back in and re-reading it from the start.

Also–Null States delves more deeply into the microdemocratic world. Mostly it does so by drawing a more nuanced picture of Information, casting some doubt on its virtuousness. Why do they need so much data, why do they need to surveil everything? Isn’t there something a bit Big Brother about them? Can they really be trusted? Could all the power they have end up corrupting them? Do the benefits of living with Information outweigh the costs? At the same time, Null States also takes a more detailed look at regions of the world where microdemocracy is relatively new–particulaly the DarFur centenals–or where it doesn’t exist at all–places like Switzerland and what remains of the People’s Republic of China in particular. What do these places think about the strange new world they are now a part of, whether they want it or not?

Null States is probably going to be the brainiest thriller of the year. If you’re interested in politics, futurism, technology, or conspiracy theories, you’ll love this book. If you’re looking for literary thrills, you’ll love this book. For newcomers to the series–I don’t think you need to read book one before you read book two, but it is worth noting that book two does leave a few threads hanging for book three to pick up, and you may care slightly less about a few of the characters if you haven’t read book one.

 

Null States is out on September 19. I received a free ebook from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

 

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