2018-006: Infomocracy, Malka Older

Infomocracy, by Malka Older, is near-future science fiction about election process, and it is awesome.

No, seriously. Honest.

But, also, okay, I mean, yes, I know, I know, no, honestly, I know: it’s weird, right? My (still-too-fresh) memories of the 2016 U.S. election veer toward the guttural, if not the outright post-traumatic; the sleepless nightmares, the beer I couldn’t finish, that fucking New York Times wiggly needle. A novel about an election, through that lens, ought to be one of the last things I’d want to touch, let alone recommend to others, and yet, here I am, fresh off this fascinating, riveting story, and I’m already looking forward to finishing off the trilogy, which will be completed later this year, because I really want to know what happens next, and I’d like to press copies of this book into the hands of a few other people, because I’d like to know what they think. It’s damned fun like that.

What I found kind of remarkable is that Infomocracy had me glued to my seat despite (or because of) the fact that (er, spoiler?) it didn’t build to a world-shattering conclusion. Maybe we go there by the end of the trilogy, and if we do, I suspect it’s going to be awesome, the earned end of a good steady burn, and if it doesn’t, that’s also going to be awesome, because I’m finding myself strangely attached to this world, and maybe I don’t want to see it torn apart at the seams. But at least for now, this first book is all about taking a handful of key ideas—Where does the internet go next? What if global microdemocracy? What if war was actually generally frowned upon?—and building out the systems those ideas give rise to and the world around those ideas into which those systems would feed. It all feels both futuristic but also somehow natural. You could sort of see how, theoretically, with just the right few hard-left turns here and there in the years to come, we could get to the world Older presents to us in the book. Or is that the optimist in me? Or, you know, what did I miss?

Either way, this emphasis on ideas isn’t to say there isn’t good story happening, plot movement or cool action sequences or interesting technologies or fun character arcs. At their core, after we divorce ourselves from certain painful recent realities, elections and election cycles are innately dramatic structures, and Older does a great job of taking a familiar highway and populating it with interesting sights and perils and winding roads. I don’t know where the series goes next, but there’s any number of threads left seductively dangling at the end of the book that she could pick up and tease out. I enjoyed liking the characters, too. It’s hard not to feel like an election geek right along with Ken, and even though I couldn’t yet succinctly explain what Mishima’s “narrative disorder” actually is, I know I want to keep seeing her in action, regardless. She’s a bit of a badass.

I’m calling this book post-future scifi, a phrase I’m not even going to Google so I can live inside the delusion that I’ve coined it myself. It’s like, we live in the future now, the beginnings of one version of the future that science fiction has been driving us toward since forever. Artificial intelligence, global information networks, rich assholes flinging cars into space, all that. This book picks up that future that we are actually creating for ourselves right now, and riffs on it, draws it out, sees where it could go. What I wonder at, in a very book-clubby question way, is whether this future is optimistic. It would be lovely to think so, in a moral arc bending toward justice sort of way: we’re pretty awesome at building and embracing systems that could better our lots even while leaving ourselves wide open for manipulation by those with the will to do so; the question is, whose will will be greater, and where will that will come from?

A couple stray thoughts:

  • The concept of that fucking New York Times wiggly needle does make a spiritually prescient appearance in Infomocracy. One of these days I’ll suck up the courage to ask Older whether she’s a time-traveler or if she’s just really that good.
  • To be fair, to be clear, I don’t actually know if we keep following any of these characters through the rest of the trilogy. I’ll be happy if we do and I’ll be happy if we don’t. Either way, I’m in for the long haul.
  • I do hope it wasn’t too much of a spoiler when I say that the climax of the book is not world-shattering. I won’t say what does happen, of course, but I do feel it was all well in tone with the rest of the book, though if I were to level any criticism against it, its that it might feel like a dramatic beat or two were rushed in the final stretch? But I still totally loved the book on the whole, so.
  • My comment about enjoying liking the characters is definitely a bit of a timing thing for me. Having read this as a follow-up to Fates and Furies, which, to me, challenged the basic goodness of the very idea of wanting to like characters, it was hard not to feel refreshed by simply rooting for most of the major characters of the book, and feeling like a totally okay human being for wanting to do that.

I’ve fallen in love with The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (and I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I sometimes come off like a snob)

At the risk of speaking snobbishly of black-and-white straw men and paper-thin stereotypes, I think there’s two general outcomes for those of us who grew up on science fiction. We either become nerds, or we become English majors. By which I mean, we either stay in love with it and stick with it for the rest of our lives, or we “graduate” to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and speak only furtively, in our cups, of our misspent, naive youths.

I know, I know. Tongue-in-cheek, foot-in-mouth, it’s not so simple. The straw man is easily shoved out an airlock and the English major has no clothes. Bear with me; I promise, gray is my favorite color.*

The second case has long been the extreme to which I’ve felt myself flung toward, accidentally or intentionally. Not all the way, of course, but enough to feel a certain kinship with that hypothetical fellow, but I’ve never once doubted the validity and power and utility and excellence and entertainment of genre fiction, and in my cups, I’d knife you in a bar fight on its behalf, but, that said, whatever happened between my slacker freshman year of high school when I forgot that I liked learning things and doing well on tests and my Brothers Karamazov-loving overachiever senior year of high school when I stayed up late the night before the final just to finish reading the last 300 pages or so has had certain after-effects that have ripped across my life to date, such as a tendency away from the genre fiction I grew up on and loved from an early age and toward books about people doing people-stuff or whatever.

Call it accidental snobbery.

Unintentional elitism.

Semi-unconscious biases.

Being a jerk.

I apologize.

It’s not to say I haven’t read genre since; it’s just that maybe I’ve leaned toward the genre’s literary cross-over heavy-hitters? The China Miévilles, the Jonathan Lethems. The ones where, you know, it’s cool, because, like, they’re not pulp, like, they’re actually literary, man.

Really, I do apologize. For all I’ve said, for all I’ll ever say.

The problem is, whatever your cognitive dissonance and his output levels might tell you, humankind can not live on William Vollmann alone, and as much as I’m essentially and critically entertained through much of the super heavy ironic scare quotes lit-er-ahhh-tschyeeoor I regularly reach for, as much of that reading material should be appreciated for its entertainment value and not just for the ways it quote unquote speaks volumes to our minds about the essentials of the human condition, there do come these points where, gods be damned, I just want a story that takes me out of my own head for a couple hours, and then maybe a couple more hours after that; in the eternal struggle between truth and beauty, I want space ships that blow each other up and dragons that breathe fire, a bit of the old ultraviolence. I want technicolor strobe-light laser beams dancing across my eyeballs and closing credit sequences with heavy 90’s alt-rock screaming out of the speakers as I walk out of the cold vaccuum of deep space dazzled out into the 90 degree sunlight with popcorn grease staining my t-shirt and too much damn Diet Coke in my gut, ready to go back to whatever comes next.

I haven’t been to the movies in way too long, but that’s a story for another post.

The problem, I guess, is that I’m also a grown-ass man who can’t stand bad writing worth a damn anymore. I may have a more flexible definition of “bad” than some others do, of course, but still, the beauty of language will always be a deal maker or breaker for me, I guess.

First world problems.

Point being, as much as I might feel the longing to get wrapped up in a giant comfortable space opera blanket, if the fabric itches and scratches, I’m going to claw my way out before I have a chance to get warm. I won’t name names, but I’ve left a few books like this behind, that just didn’t do it for me. In some ways I’ve wondered if it wasn’t them, if it was really just me, if I was remembering wrongly what it was I liked about sci-fi when I was younger and read it all the time, if, maybe, there really are some homes you can’t go back to again, even when they haven’t changed a damn bit.

Then I picked up Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

Two second cut of that Maxwell cassette advertisement.

It’s the kind of surprising alignment of right book, right time, that happens now and then, though maybe not often enough; when, you know, your brain needs something and your heart needs something and then there’s a book in your hands, and it’s saying, “Yes, yes. I know. Look. I just blew up a space ship for you,” and it’s just somehow perfect. Midway through the book I’d forgotten the other two books I’d taken out from the library at the same time and I was back at the library picking up books two and three in the Corey series because I wasn’t going to screw around and not have the next books in the series immediately at hand when I’d finished the first one, I mean, come on, don’t be ridiculous.

What I admire with my head about these books is the way they balance character and plot development through crisp, tight, propulsive language. I’ve started and stopped books in which the writing felt insulting, somehow, but I didn’t get that, here; I mean, no, we’re not talking William Gass, you’re not going to pick up a paragraph and chew the meaning out of its syllables, it’s function over form, but there’s enough attention to form to make the experience of processing this language smooth and enjoyable. And every now and then they drop a phrase or two that strike the match under a little old fashioned awe and wonder. It’s just enough for what I want these books to do.

What I love with my heart about these books, specifically the first book, is the fact that they refuse to screw around. The first book, there’s a blurb on there about it being the novel equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and, yes, oh gods, yes. I think that the writers’ directive to themselves (the name being a pseudonym for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who teamed up to create this series) in the first book was to ensure that if it seemed like nothing much had happened in the last ten pages, to blow up a ship, start a firefight, or unleash some fresh, mysterious horror that drives a sense of the universe they’re building around the story’s events. Books two and three, Caliban’s War and Abaddon’s Gate, both settle into a steadier groove, more ready for the marathon than the sprint, in which the scope and mythology expand, the mysteries of the universe grow more detailed and intriguing, all of which remains in service of a story about, of course, humanity, and the fact that we’re, you know, kind of a big old bag of screw-up. And throughout they still write excellent, chaotic sequences, keeping the entertainment value high and the page-turning qualities intact throughout.

I just finished the third book today and have decided to move on to other things, fresh wind in my sails, for at least a spell, before I move on to the fourth novel, or any of the assorted novellas that flesh out the series. What’s exciting about the writers’ process is that they are churning this series out quickly and, it would seam, with little loss of quality, even as the focus of the series shifts its attention from book to book. Last I checked the fifth book is due out next year and they’re under contract for another handful of books after that. If they keep the pace up this series could be my go-to summer-event series for a while to come. And even if not, these first three books form a wonderful sort of trilogy, and that first book just absolutely rocked.

* – Well, okay, it’s actually, like, a greenish-blue color, but, whatever.