Hugo reading 2017: Malka Older

Malka Older was nominated for a Campbell Award, and has provided the Hugo voters with three short stories and a full-length novel.

The first story is called Tear Tracks, and it’s a first contact with alien story.  Quite a nice, anthropological sort of story about cultural differences with a naive but enthusiastic heroine who nonetheless has a nice professional relationship with her partner on the mission.  It’s a good story, but not subtle, and it ends rather suddenly.

The Black Box is an odd sort of story, and I didn’t quite understand what Older was trying to do with it.  It’s near-future, in a world where children can get a memory chip ‘lifebrarian’ installed in their brains to record their lives.  They can replay events when they choose; others can also replay events stored on the chip with their permission.  The story seems to be about how growing up with such a chip affects you.  Again, it ends quite suddenly.  I felt as though it was trying to be ironic but did not work.

Rupture returns to Older’s fascination with anthropology, and is, I think, the best of the three stories, though it has yet another abrupt ending.  Perhaps this is simply her style?  In this story the planet Earth is slowly coming apart, and most of its inhabitants have emigrated to other planets.  But some people still live there, and a descendant of some of the immigrants decides to visit Earth to work as an anthropologist and study why people stay.  I really liked the characterisation in this, and the awareness of cultural assumptions.

The novel is called Infomocracy and it is… intense.  And fascinating.  It’s a political thriller set in a future world which is divided into microdemocracies.  Essentially, the world is divided into ‘centenals’ (electorates or communities) of 100,000 people, and everyone in the world can vote for any political party in the world.  Whichever party your centenal votes for is the one that governs you, which means that you might share the same laws and culture and government as the centenal next door, or you might not, but you probably also share your laws with a bunch of centenals in Europe, maybe a handful in the US (but probably not many, they tend to still vote Democrat or Republican), a bunch in Africa, a lot in East Asia, and so forth.  Obviously, in larger cities this can be a bit impractical, so practical coalitions form between neighbouring centenals to manage things like lighting and public transport, but in the main, your life is dictated by your specific government.

It’s a fascinating system of government, and I kind of want it.  But of course, it is also rather flawed.  Many of the governments are in fact corporations – Phillip Morris governs a good chunk of centenals, for example – and whichever government has the supermajority can make rather broader laws than anyone else.   For the last twenty years, the supermajority has been held by Heritage.

Our protagonists are Ken, who works for Policy1st, a party that is trying to be about policies rather than personalities, and is doing OK, but not brilliantly, and Mishima, who works for Information.  Information is not a political party – it is part centralised news service, part fact-checker, part library, part Facebook mated with Google and gone metastatic, and basically central to everyone’s life.  There are also two slightly less central viewpoint characters, Domaine, who thinks that the whole system of microdemocracies is fundamentally flawed and that nobody should vote, and Yoriko, a spy for Policy1st.

And they are all in the lead up to an important election, which someone – perhaps more than one someone – is trying to steal, or maybe disrupt, or maybe prevent entirely.

The plotting and counterplotting is well worked out, and I enjoyed the characters and how their view of the system evolves over time.  I also liked the gentle and less gentle prods at our current system (one villainous character starts manipulating the Information at one point, providing contradictory stories to different groups, and cheerfully states that he will get away with it, because people in those different groups don’t talk to each other or view the same information sources anyway…).  It’s extremely clever, and a fascinating extrapolation of our current political system.

The book moves at a breathless pace and felt a lot like watching the entire US election campaign from the standpoint of Facebook while also reading and writing all my blog posts about microparties.  It is *relentless*.  I am as big a politics geek as the next person (as this blog will attest), but possibly not enough for this book.  I was exhausted by the end of it.  But also quite impressed.  I’m not quite the right audience for this book – I’m not hugely into political thrillers – but it was really extremely well done, and I couldn’t put it down.

I liked Older’s work a lot (and also, she didn’t kill any animals which was a VERY PLEASANT CHANGE), though I’m not entirely sure that she has mastered the short story length.  Her fascination with anthropology and politics and how people work was something that I enjoyed very much; it was also noticeable that when her stories were taking place on earth, they tended to be in South East Asia, India, and the middle east much more than Europe or the US (though there was some nice Paris stuff in Infomocracy).  Lots of Asian characters, and lots of diversity generally, which was a nice change.

I think I’m going to put her at the top of my ballot for now, just for the wonderfully compelling world building in Infomocracy.  Which I’m slightly coveting as a political system, because given where I live, I would TOTALLY be ruled by greenie socialists, and I could definitely go for that.

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