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A Political History of the Future: State Tectonics by Malka Older


Welcome back to A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction imagines the political and social organization of its future societies. This time, our topic is State Tectonics, the concluding volume of Malka Older’s Centennal Cycle, which tries to imagine the complete reordering of democracy.

It’s interesting to observe that in all the many works we’ve discussed in this series so far, very few have tried to imagine alternative forms of government. We’ve discussed how new technologies could affect civil society, including things like law and criminal justice. We’ve discussed societies where government seems to have broken down and been replaced by oligarchy, and others that are so wealthy and prosperous that they don’t seem to have any need for a functional government, much less a way for citizens to participate in it. But it’s actually fairly uncommon for science fiction to ask how our systems of government might change in the future, and how we could use technology to make democracy more representative and responsive to the people’s needs.

Enter Malka Older, an academic and former humanitarian aid worker currently pursuing a PhD in political science. I read the first volume in Older’s Centennal Cycle, Infomocracy, in early December 2016. As you might imagine, I was in a bit of a raw emotional state at that point, and it was both a surprise and a great relief to discover a novel, published earlier that fall and obviously in development for some time before that, that dealt so clearly with the questions raised by the disastrous election results of a month previously. It is by no means an exaggeration to say that I came up with the idea for this series because I wanted to discuss these books with the LGM readership. With the possible exception of Kim Stanley Robinson, no author stands so strongly for what I hope we can achieve with these discussions.

The core issue of Infomocracy, and of its following volumes, Null States (2017) and State Tectonics (2018), is the question of what people look for when participating in democracy. What makes them vote for a particular party or candidate, and how can a system be designed that would not only encourage voting, but encourage an informed, rational participation in government?

Set in the late 21st century, Infomocracy presents a world in which the old national boundaries have been dissolved. Older is hardly alone in identifying core issues, such as globalization, the erosion of financial regulations, and climate change, that have weakened the ability of governments to provide services to their citizens, and to meaningfully participate in a global community. The corporatization of the information economy, beyond the ability of any government to control it, has also undermined the power of both individual nations and global institutions. (For a longer discussion of these processes, see Rana Dasgupta’s article, “The Demise of the Nation State”, published earlier this year.)

In the world of the Centennal Cycle, that system has been replaced with something called micro-democracy. (Infomocracy implies that the entire world operates within this system, but in Null States it’s revealed that only some parts of the world are participating in the micro-democracy experiment, and that some nations—chiefly China and Russia—maintain their old national borders and sovereignty.) All participating territories have been divided into centennals, each home to a hundred thousand people, which constitute a distinct political entity. Any political party can run for the leadership of any centennal in the world. So government entities can have non-contiguous territories (which are subject to change with every election), and neighboring streets can have different laws and government services. While some prospective governments are still organized along national or ethnic lines, others are more purely ideological, or even corporate. The world of these books is thus both a single political entity, whose citizens enjoy universal rights and (mostly) free movement throughout its territories, and a series of sovereign entities each about the size of a city.

It should be acknowledged at the outset that this is not a system that makes any sort of practical sense. Even if you ignore the question of how you could get from the world’s current geopolitical makeup to micro-democracy in less than a century (given the level of upheaval such a change would involve, it would probably require an economic and/or environmental crisis on a scale that would make the globalized system described in the books virtually impossible), it’s hard to imagine how the world’s economy could operate under the conditions described. How could supply chains function if instead of crossing half a dozen borders and customs points from manufacturer to customer, they switched political entities and legal systems at every traffic intersection? How can governments promise a certain level of services when they can’t be sure of the size and makeup of their tax base from one election to the next? What happens to natural resources, or production bases, that are situated far from population centers?

Even in areas more closely attended to by the series’s worldbuilding, there are weird lacunae. The question of immigration between centennals, for example, is largely handwaved, even as we’re told that governments can choose to expel any citizen from their territory. And while the government that wins the most centennals worldwide appears to have some special powers—it is referred to as the supermajority—these powers are very vaguely defined, and it’s never clear whether the supermajority is the world government, or if there’s any form of global parliament. (In fairness, the fuzziness of the supermajority concept is acknowledged to have been a flaw in the system in State Tectonics, with some of the original architects of micro-democracy admitting that while they never intended it to act as a world government, that is how it has ended up being perceived.)

The point of the Centennal Cycle books, as I see it, is not to offer a plausible alternative to our current democratic system, but to encourage us to ask questions about how that system is organized, and whether we could make different choices that could lead to better outcomes. The idea of a non-contiguous political entity, for example, one that is united by shared policy preferences rather than ethnic or national identity, is an intriguing one. So is the notion of expanding the concept of political parties past national lines (though on a darker note, it also has its echoes in discussions we’ve had on this site about the trans-national nature of many far-right, supremacist movements). It’s not so much that you’d want to pursue any of these ideas in the real world, as that they provide an interesting thought experiment with which to expand your understanding of what government is and can be.

More importantly, the worldbuilding in the Centennal Cycle allows Older to ask important questions about what draws people to political parties and forms of government in the first place. One of the major political players in the books is Policy1st, an underdog party that prioritizes policy solutions over appeals based on personality, nationality, or corporate identity. It’s a superficially attractive idea, but many of the books’ characters are skeptical about its feasibility. And indeed, by the time we get to State Tectonics, in which Policy1st has been the supermajority for a whole term, it’s clear that the party has been infected by politics as usual, giving more space to bigger personalities and placing more emphasis on its own longevity than on testing and refining its policies.

In other parts of the world, corporate, nationalistic, and strongman governments often outpace policy-based ones, reminding us that people’s reasons for casting a specific vote are often not rooted in their material best interest, but in emotional and cultural factors. The micro-democracy system is intended to short-circuit impulses towards tribalism and conquest, but some participating parties do their best to skirt the limitations on, for example, expansionist language in their campaign materials, and try to appeal to voters by resurrecting national prejudices and barely-dormant disputes.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about the Centennal Cycle books—and which is obviously rooted in Older’s experiences with NGOs and large bureaucracies—is how much of their storytelling is concerned with the elaborate structures necessary to maintain global systems. These are books that get that governments are huge, complicated edifices, and that this is not a bad thing. In Infomocracy, our heroes are Ken, an election worker who believes deeply in Policy1st’s approach to government but is increasingly disgusted by its internal politicking, and Mishima, a secret agent charged with ensuring election integrity who finds herself growing more and more cynical about the capacity of micro-democracy to reflect the will of the people (or whether that will is even worth respecting). The heroine of Null States, Roz, is the head of a mission welcoming a new centennal into the micro-democracy system, working to incorporate the new polity’s existing social and political structures into micro-democracy’s conventions and expectations. These characters recur in State Tectonics, where they’re joined by Maryam, an engineer who finds herself on the front line when activists opposed to the micro-democracy system attack its technological infrastructure.

All of the series’s heroes are cogs in enormous machines. A lot of the novels’ storytelling involves detailing the painstaking data-collation and analysis work that their jobs involve, and how they are each only one person in a vast army of people doing the same sort of work. But this doesn’t make them mindless or thoughtless. On the contrary, it gives them the needed perspective to acknowledge the flaws and problems in the system they’re working for, while also reiterating their belief in it.

(Another thing I appreciate about the books is the space that Older leaves in all of them for relationships and romance. In Infomocracy, Ken and Mishima are almost immediate drawn to one another, but wonder whether their extremely different lifestyles and personalities could ever make for a stable relationship. Roz falls in love with the leader of the centennal she’s shepherding, and Maryam worries over her new relationship with a soldier whose social set she doesn’t quite fit into. It’s an emphasis that not only gives the books a grounding in the familiar and universal, but reminds us that politics is as much about the personal as the global and communal, about questions like where you want to raise your family and who you want your neighbors to be.)

The second major concept that governs the world of the Centennal Cycle—and whose viability is the core question of State Tectonics—is Information, the organization and technological innovation that makes micro-democracy possible. Information is an all-encompassing system of surveillance that allows everyone in the micro-democratic territories to access every bit of knowledge about every other person, organization, and thing within them (allowing for certain basic privacy protections; citizens are able to choose which information about themselves to make public, though they can’t lie). Information holds a monopoly on news, and scrupulously fact-checks every bit of data it propagates. More importantly, it administers the elections and oversees campaigning, which means that all reporting on politicians, and all political statements, pass through its channels. In one of the key scenes of Infomocracy, a political debate is not only moderated by Information, but live-checked by it. A team of analysts pores over every statement made by the candidates and annotates it for accuracy and context. False statements are flagged and pulled from the system so they can’t propagate.

That might sound like heaven to us right now, but in the world of the Centennal Cycle, there are significant reservations about Information, which is perceived, in many quarters, as autocratic and invasive. Many characters observe that Information functions as an unelected global government, hemming in not only the various parties’ freedom of expression, but placing outer limits on the types of policies they can propose and pursue.

On the other hand, other critics of the micro-democracy system argue that Information fails to place those limits just where they’re most needed. A subplot in State Tectonics involves a high-level analyst who is accused of bias in her reportage on a white supremacist party standing for elections in a North American centennal—in the world of these books, this is a crime that carries a moderate-length jail sentence. But, Information’s critics argue, isn’t racist, anti-democratic ideology exactly the sort of thing that micro-democracy should set itself categorically against? Isn’t the fact that Information tolerates fascist parties—the argument made internally is that it’s best to let them collapse into dysfunction as they inevitably do—proof that the entire system is a crock?  Doesn’t it demonstrate that people are being encouraged to participate in a democracy that doesn’t really matter, because all the real decisions are being made by the unelected functionaries in Information?

State Tectonics gives us a closer look at that internal bureaucracy and its byzantine politics. I found myself reminded of stories I’ve read about the workings of the mid-century BBC (or, for that matter, mid-century MI6)—a tangled, insular system that often seems more concerned with propagating itself than how it interacts with the world outside. In one scene, a high-ranking functionary laments that the original Information charter only placed data communications under its control, and didn’t include utilities such as energy. Another complains about the vagueness of the supermajority concept, which has allowed for the pursuit of global terraforming projects despite reticence on the part of Information’s leadership.

While Information agents—including Mishima, Roz, and Maryam—bristle at the notion that they are a (not-so-)secret world government, it’s hard to deny the increasing sense that many people within the organization would like political decisions to be made primarily by unelected wonks rather than politicians. It seems obvious that the micro-democracy system could easily devolve into little more than local politics writ large, with citizens’ votes influencing only the running of their own centennal, and Information managing all global decisions.

More importantly, the focus on Information raises a key philosophical question, for these books and our world: where does the line lie between giving people accurate information that allows them to cast their vote for the right reasons, and pushing them towards making what you think are the right decisions? In other words, what is the purpose of democracy? Is it ensuring that everyone is free to make whatever choice they want, even if it’s a stupid, mean, destructive one? Or is it creating a world where the largest possible number of people are safe and happy, even if in order to achieve that you have to curtail their freedom, or give them a mere illusion of it? Can you really solve fundamental flaws in human nature—such as the willingness to believe the unbelievable so long as it validates your political affiliation—by giving people the most accurate information possible, or do you simply need to write some people off in order to create a better world for everyone? And is it the case that you have to choose between those two options?

In State Tectonics, various groups opposed to micro-democracy and Information have lit on ways to destabilize the system. Specifically, they’ve found ways to break Information’s monopoly on news, introducing multiple alternative data streams. Several characters in the novel have exactly the same reaction to this development that most of us probably would:

“You don’t remember what it was like before Information … Competing data sources tore down any idea of truth; people voted based on falsehoods. We didn’t invent surveillance; there were plenty of feeds and search trackers, but they were fragmented and firewalled by governments and private companies. The surveillance was used to propagate falsehoods.”

The reaction that characters in the novel, most of whom have grown up with Information and don’t know anything else, have to this argument can feel a little sanguine if you’ve just finished reading chilling tales of how ordinary citizens are so radicalized by Facebook that they completely lose their grip on reality. Their arguments for an open media market—Information is too centralized, too open to misuse at the top; it could very easily be turned into a propaganda outlet; the system needs to evolve to serve the needs of the populace—feel more than a little naive. In particular, I found myself wishing that Older had lingered a little more on the outsized influence that powerful individuals can have on political systems. The reason for our balkanized media landscape isn’t that the people as a whole wanted it that way, but that particular individuals and corporations—Murdoch, Zuckerberg, Sinclair—made concerted efforts to push it in that direction, in order to increase their wealth, political power, and influence. There’s little acknowledgment in the Centennal Cycle that such individuals probably still exist in the books’ world, and that breaking Information’s monopoly is exactly the sort of thing they would set as their chief goal.

All that said, State Tectonics leaves us with one unavoidable fact: breaking Information’s monopoly is the will of the people. Literally so—a question about it is added to the election ballot, and the results are a landslide in favor of multiple media streams (though, in fairness, the way the question is phrased makes it a total push-poll). It is possibly the most democratic moment in all three books, and like many democratically-made decisions, it remains to be seen whether its consequences will be to increase or decrease the greater good.

I’ve touched on only a small subset of the myriad interesting, thorny ideas raised in these books, and despite the reservations I’ve raised here about individual plot points, I absolutely do urge you to read them. In a genre that still tends to view politics as a sort of magic (a dark magic, usually), and political change as rooted in simple-yet-grand gestures, it’s enormously refreshing to come across a vision of the future that is complicated, multifaceted, and most importantly, that leaves space for people like us to step in and make a difference.

Next time on APHotF: we’ll be discussing Aminder Dhaliwal’s cartoon Woman World, about a world with no men, and more generally, the role of gender in visions of the future.

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