Sci-fi meets the political thriller
In the future imagined by Malka Older ’99, author of Infomocracy and its new sequel, Null States, the inability to distinguish narrative from reality has become a medical diagnosis, officially codified as “narrative disorder.” Older describes the condition as a rewiring of the mind in a world shaped by shared narratives. “On the one hand, there’s an addiction to narrative content, to wanting to distract ourselves with stories,” she says. “But this is also changing how our brains work. We’re changing our expectations of what’s going to happen and the way people act and the kinds of characters we’re likely to meet, and by changing those expectations we end up changing reality, because people act on those expectations.”
Older’s series takes place sometime during the 2060s, 20 years after the collapse of national boundaries has produced a global pax democratica. Save for some “null states” that opt out of the system—Saudi Arabia, China, Switzerland—most of the globe is carved into plots of around 100,000 people, or “centenals,” each electing its local government from among dozens of political parties. The most popular party then controls the global government. The system, called “micro-democracy,” relies on enforcement by “Information,” the massive organization that runs the world’s internet, elections, and intelligence gathering. “Through elections and relatively free immigration policies, people vote in this marketplace of ideas and innovation,” Older writes, tongue-in-cheek. (Her chatty, often breathless prose can be unexpectedly funny and sardonic—of one character, she writes, “She’s sick of feeling like a teenager in luv.”)
In exchange for relative stability, citizens have accepted a complete breakdown of privacy, with virtually all their public actions recorded by Information’s cameras and the details of their lives accessible through its search engines. They’re also exposed to an overwhelming stream of data from Information’s feeds.
Almost as a corrective to the incoherence, this society has developed a collective addiction to fiction narratives, produced by teenagers in content-creation sweatshops. The sensory overload also results in individuals like Infomocracy’s Mishima, who was diagnosed with narrative disorder as a child. The condition often leaves her unable to treat people as individuals, rather than characters—as when, misreading her lover as a spy, she stabs him in the leg. But it also empowers her to anticipate real political events—a veiled threat to go to war, a party leader bombing her own people—before anyone else can, and so only she can untangle the election-stealing scheme that’s emerged within Information.
Older says she’s thought about symptoms of narrative disorder since she was in college (citing Don Quixote as the classic example), though the idea coalesced only after she had the opportunity to travel widely. She’s spent most of what she calls her not especially well-planned years since Harvard hopping among different humanitarian and development projects in Sri Lanka, Darfur, Indonesia, and elsewhere, first as a field worker and then in consultant and management roles. “Because narratives, and the sort of things that people think are worth reading or watching or listening to, are very culturally determined,” she says, “living in different societies helps you get out of narrative disorder.” Concepts like romantic love and heroism in war, she argues, are shaped by narratives, and reproduced in reality.
Null States is concerned with a different type of narrative: the collective ones that animate ethnic and regional conflict in the era of nation-states. The sparsely populated desert of what used to be Sudan is transitioning to micro-democracy when the head of the governing DarFur party, Al-Jabali, who’s been calling for his people to embrace a larger government uniting all oppressed ethnicities, is assassinated. “Nothing makes nationalists so fast as persecution,” one analyst remarks. The Information establishment appears so earnest about the promise of a post-national world as to be willfully blind to the reality that nationalism and ethnic-based identity still exert a strong pull within the micro-democratic system.
So far in the series, the former United States gets hardly a mention (aside from a snide remark in Infomocracy about how it remains embroiled in a polarized party conflict)—and deliberately so, Older says. If the series has any center of gravity, it’s Tokyo, where the main Information hub is based. She started writing Infomocracy while in Japan, working in emergency response after the 2011 tsunami: “Being in Japan is a good reflection of a kind of patchwork future,” she says. In that regard, her series shows the influence of cyberpunk, a noir-ish sci-fi subgenre often taking inspiration from that country’s technological scene. But instead of relying solely on cyberpunk’s heavily urbanized landscape, Older’s writing is informed by the full breadth of her experience abroad. She wanted the novels to reflect a truly global system in which people on different sides of the planet still have difficulty understanding one another despite real-time translation technology. “It was really important to me—and really fun for me as a writer—to draw from Jakarta, and Singapore, and show a global system that’s also local and premised on being decentralized.”
“In the second book,” Older continues, “I was able to get more into rural places that are less important from the perspective of a global election, but still really interesting to me in terms of how they deal with micro-democracy.” In resource-poor rural regions like western Sudan, geography—and not just the size of the voting population—still matters, she points out; as a result, groups clash over territory and destabilize the larger system. Today’s developing countries are still poorly networked and skeptical of tying their fates to a new global order; old religious and geopolitical allegiances still basically hold. At bottom, though, her series seems less interested in modeling a dystopia, or promoting some fixed ideology, than in observing the clash of the characters’ worldviews.In one pointed scene, when an Information agent investigating Al-Jabali’s murder asks his mistress why he’d never taken her as a second wife, she replies, “He didn’t marry me because I wouldn’t marry him.” In the other woman’s smile, Older writes, the agent “detects a little And they say these foreign women are so liberal smugness.”
“Narrative disorder is certainly something that I myself suffer from,” the author says. To counteract the impulse in her work, and avoid clinging to genre conventions, she mostly doesn’t plan the plots of her novels. As for the rest: “The way I plan my life is kind of the same deal,” she jokes—though now that she’s living in Washington, D.C., raising two children, and finishing a Ph.D. from the Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris, Older’s life has become more settled. About two-thirds finished with what will (probably) be the final book in the series, she admits, “I still don’t know a lot of what’s going to happen. Maybe don’t tell my editor that.”