Malka Older - The Interview

Set in a world very much like our own, utilizing familiar structures and struggles, Malka Older's Centenal Trilogy - Infomocracy, Null States, and State Tectonics (forthcoming in 2018) - takes what we know and re-works the code and functions of society, and how we experience, mold, and rebel against the world via technology.

Large sections of Older's world have embraced "micro-democracy", a form of government made up of Centenals, areas containing 100,000 citizens. Those citizens vote on which political body will govern them, from corporates like WilliamMorris and Coca-Cola, to Policy1st, a government that eschews the rather widely accepted practice of putting a pretty face out to sell the politics of personality rather than, you know, actual policy.

See. It's very similar to our world, nudged every so slightly in the direction of science-fiction. That genre applies, but the unique blend of political intrigue, intriguing but realistic technology and its varied uses by any and everyone makes the Centenal books more like poli-sci-fi, or poli-cyberpunk even.

Micro-democracy is overseen and guided by Information, a company that is almost like if the internet incorporated, or even if a certain social media network we all know too well got way bigger (if that's possible). Information has cameras everywhere, they supply live annotations of people, places, things and even language (non-verbal included), and can broadcast directly into your vision, a nice subtle touch Older adds without a single info dump, demonstrating her deft world building. Across the first two books readers are taken into dusty and neon underworlds of political planning (sabotage!?), as well as the buttoned-up board rooms, lands who reject Information and its technology, plus areas struggling to determine if they should.

The covers were designed by the outstanding Will Staehle, making the Centenal Trilogy the ideal book for your shelf: beautiful and inspiring, filled with adventure and investigations into who we are as humans.

Ms. Older answered questions via email about her writing process, the strange sensation of seeing reality mirror her stories, and the failures of the "us versus them" mindset in politics. The Centenal Trilogy is published by Publishing. Ms. Older can be found tweeting regularly here.

Ledger: There are a lot of similarities between parts of Infomocracy and what's happened in the real world since its publication. Rather than ask about them all, can you tell us about one or two that were truly surreal to witness?

Malka Older: The one that most sticks with me was while I was working on Null States. I wrote the "secession from the supranational system" subplot and then the Brexit vote happened.

Ledger: Micro-democracy is the system of government turning the gears of plot throughout the Centenal Trilogy, and you build the world up around it wonderfully. Did you need to write - or at the very least outline - events leading up to the creation of a nearly worldwide shift in government, and what was seen as “normal” to everyone?

MO: I found it really liberating to give myself a pass on that, actually. When I started writing I was just imagining something that I thought was possible - technically feasible - and probably more sensible in a lot of ways if we could get there. As I continued writing I thought a little about it, and there are some hints in the book. Ironically (I guess), recent events have made it more easy for me to imagine the sort of break or reinvention that could take us to a different system. I have since then written most of a short story about the transition, but I really don't think it's necessary. We could change today if enough of us, or those of us with enough power, wanted to.

Ledger: At first I saw Information as a version of the internet that had been incorporated. It didn’t take long before I replaced that idea with Facebook being the closest thing we have today. Can you tell us about the genesis of how Information came to be?

MO: One of the inspirations was the lack of anything like Information in our public discourse, the fracturing of information sources that make it difficult to have discussions with those who disagree with us. But there were also some positive influences. Maybe the most important was from a time I was working on a disaster response in Indonesia. As an NGO worker, I normally don't have a whole lot of time for the UN in emergencies (sorry to all the good UN emergency workers, but that's really not what the UN is built for), but I do appreciate UNOCHA, the coordinating branch, and on this response they had an Information Management Officer, and it was so useful. They managed the maps and inputted everyone's data and made it available, to the best of their ability, to everyone. That really got me thinking about information, and information management, as a public good. And that's what we're missing right now.

Ledger: How has your work around the world as a humanitarian affected your sense of what “home” means? Not only to you, but to everyone else. Also, what role does that play when crafting the Centenal Trilogy narrative.

MO: It's easy to imagine that we can only live, that we can only belong, that we can only relax, in a context like the one in which we grew up. Traveling and spending lots of time in places very different from where I grew up has made me see that awareness of the possibilities of other ways of living as very important. But traveling or moving can be difficult for many people, for a wide variety of reasons.

It also got me thinking about what makes a place home. Is it the location? The nation? The details specific to the human environment that inevitably change over time? 

Ledger: You list risk and local government in the acknowledgements of Infomocracy as two important themes. Although it’s obvious to see where that carries over into Null States, tell us about shifting the thematic focus from novel to novel, and specifically how important shaping themes is during editing.

MO: When I was deciding whether to write a sequel, it was important to me that it be really different from the first novel. I figured that if I was writing about a system of government, I had to move beyond elections. I wanted to slow it down a little, nuance it. I thought about Infomocracy as emergency response, so I wrote Null States as development work instead: tricky, long-term, very blurry, lots of colonialist overtones, but also the possibility for really great connections and relationships. I also really wanted to look at the places that Information didn't cover, the cracks in the system.

Ledger: And going into places Information doesn’t cover allowed you to move the readers away from the “Worst day ever, again” trap, which can show up in book series focusing on only one or two main characters. Although certainly some people in Null States may feel it’s their worst day ever, it isn’t a hovering, planet-wide disaster we’re witnessing. When did you know you would open the book with Roz, rather than Ken or Mishima?

MO: As I said, I wanted the books to be really different. Roz was compelling to me for a number of reasons, one of them that at the end of the first book (mild spoiler, I guess?) we learn that not only she someone who is good at number crunching, she also goes out into the field and does in-your-face information provision with the Special Voter Action Tactics (SVAT) team. That duality was really appealing to me, both from personal identification and from a narrative perspective. In fact, the bigger surprise for me was how much Mishima got into Null States; I originally thought she'd have a much smaller role but at some point as I was writing she just muscled her way in and I was very happy to see that she'd be there, with POV, as a major force in the story.

Ledger: I think tribalism is a massive theme in the books. The micro-democracy system seems to inhabit a very precarious position between splintering communities irrevocably, and offering much broader choices for citizens for how they choose to be governed. At one point the idea of “nano-democracy” is even mentioned, and that no one will be happy until government and the governed are winnowed down to a single person. What ways do your books show forward for defeating the “winners vs. losers” mindset of governance?

MO: We're living in a transitional period - possibly a very long transitional period - moving from a feudal way of thinking about allegiance and identity, through nation-states, and hopefully into something better. It's too easy for nationalism to simply replace tribalism in in-group/out-group thinking. I hope in the books to show that simply changing the system of government is not enough, although it is perhaps a start. We have to work to stop using facile proxies for deciding whether someone else is "like us" or "like them.

Ledger: That reminds me of the conversation Suleyman and Roz have about tradition versus progress. Suleyman says it’s not an “either-or” thing. What makes humans get so hung up on binary options, and how did you work that into creating your characters?

MO: Usually when you see a perfect dichotomy it's a sign of fiction, and so I try to avoid it in my work so as not to tip the reader off too much. I didn't want these books to be utopias or dystopias. Domaine and Mishima (for example) believe in and fight for very different things, and they're both at least partially right (it's possible that one of them is more right than the other but I at least haven't decided which yet). There are a lot of ensembles - Roz's SVAT team in DarFur, for example; the people Ken works with at Policy1st - and that's both because I feel like a lot of work in the real world happens in groups and also because it allows for lots of different view points, not just two.

Ledger: As you mentioned, a lot is transforming currently. Information showcases some possibilities of our future, as it requires there to be “feeds” in order to annotate things (objects; people; language), and it seems to have moved society into a complete surveillance state. Technology has shifted our real world perceptions of privacy, and some would argue it has destroyed it completely. What kind of privacy are characters finding in the Centenal Trilogy? Also, how should privacy evolve with technology?

MO: The status of privacy in the book is only marginally "worse" than it is right now, with one important difference: now, most of the surveillance and data collection that goes on funnels that information to a company that can then sell it or sequester it for their own private (and presumably profitable) use, while in the book it's all public. So the characters don't think about it that much more often than we do. Non-public places (e.g., inside your house) are generally private, except in cases of celebrities, when they're contested (much like today). There are also exceptions for proprietary information, although that's much more tightly defined than it is today. People use encryption to evade publicizing their communications but mostly they try to hide in plain sight, assuming that until, for example, they become mega-famous, or come to the attention of someone important, no one will be watching them out of all the possible people they could pick to watch at that moment in time. 

As for how privacy should evolve, the important thing about that question is that it DOES evolve. Our idea of privacy now is not the same as it was 10, 20, 50, 100 years ago - or in a different place - and it's not unidirectional (e.g., cities provide a kind of privacy unimaginable for people who live in small towns). And the lessening of privacy is not always a bad thing. When I lived in a small town in Japan around the turn of the century (yes, this century) I had to through my garbage and recycling out in clear plastic bags (different colors for different types) and write my name on them. Not only does this lead to a whole new level of taking the trash out at the last minute, it was way of exerting social pressure for people to correctly separate their recycling. Invasive? Sure (when I was given approximately 20 pounds of good bye notes from the students I taught, I couldn't figure out how to get rid of them). But also communal responsibility for something with communal impacts. Anyway (\digression) we should be as explicit as possible about how privacy changes and how technology interacts with it, rather than burying it all in impenetrable user agreements.

Ledger: At one point in Infomocracy you use the image of Ozymandias from the Watchmen graphic novel as a reference for media consumption, but also awareness of culture. It foreshadows a lot of things in the novel, though for me it was a subtle way to incorporate Narrative Disorder [from which several characters in the novel suffer]. Is the planet becoming increasingly molded (and governed) by people with too much knowledge of dramatized stories, and therefor expectations and assumptions about reality?

MO: Yes - except when it's by people with too little [knowledge]!

Ledger: What are some of your favorite recent reads that help you maintain the balance of knowledgeable, but not narratively dysfunctional? 

MO: Okay I ALWAYS have trouble with this question but at the same time I want to give shout-outs to authors I've enjoyed so: Provenance by Ann Leckie, the entire Murderbot series (starting with All Systems Red) by Martha Wells, The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley, An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon, the Tensorate series by J.Y. Yang, Sue Grafton's Alphabet series, Elizabeth Bear's books, and I'm sure there are more I'm forgetting. 

Thank you to Malka Older for answering these questions, and for supplying the world with books tackling important questions, while also giving us memorable settings and characters, and focusing on the world outside of the books too. If you're into sci-fi, cyberpunk, and politics, you might dig these books. Pick them up and let me know what you thought over at @LedgerBooks or @austinRwilson on Twitter, or the About page up there at the top of this site. There will be more interviews on the way, so keep your eyes on this space. Thanks!