There’s something undeniably timely about a book tackling privacy, security, the role of the government, and the dangers of placing institutions in untrustworthy hands. But then, isn’t there always?
While there is a beating, human heart beneath the surface of Malka Older’s Null States, she never looks away from the harsh realities that come with a story set in a world engulfed in political upheaval and paranoia. In returning to the world of Infomocracy, her remarkable 2016 debut, Older further unpacks the implications of an eerily plausible near future in which micro-democratic states called centenals—groups of 100,000 people who vote as one to determine which government they support—have replaced sovereign nations, and politics operates subject to the oversight of Information (think the Internet on steroids, mixed with a benevolent surveillance state). Information wants you to be able to know anything at any time, and thus, needs the required access to provide you with it. It’s a system rife with moral complexity, and having built this conceptual edifice in book one, Older wastes no time pulling it apart and putting it back together in the sequel.
This is a book obsessed with looking outward. Where Infomocracy was heavily invested in the interior—what made Information tick, how the micro-democratic elections work, who might sabotage them for their own gain, and how—Null States flips the camera around, giving us a view from the outside in. The null states of the title are countries that have chosen not to engage in micro-democracy—and, therefore, to contribute to Information. It is these rouge nations that are the focus of the novel, alongside a few new centenals on the fringe of micro-democratic politics.
Political reputation-maker Roz and her team take on the job of building up the reputation of a small centenal in what was once Darfur, with the aim of helping them make an impact on the world stage—only to see the burgeoning state’s leader assassinated out from under them. The leaders of Policy1st, the new supermajority, are struggling to keep control of their term as null states along the Chinese border threaten centenals between them. Meanwhile, another micro-democratic government is threatening the entire system, and election official Mishima (a key player in Infomocracy), must infiltrate the group and play the spy in order to determine whether it’s a feint, or a larger strategic move. In-between, and just out of view of the cameras, other forces at work to bring the whole system tumbling to the ground.
By bringing us outside the world so painstakingly constructed in the first book, Older is able to build a more complex thriller narrative without getting lost in the weeds. While Infomocracy’s characters hardly needed to explain to one another systems they are experts in navigating, some of Null State‘s key players barely know what Information is, let alone what it isn’t. As Roz works frantically to teach neophytes about the processes, institutions, and regulations of governance, the narrative rubs up against oppositional groups who deny the authority of those very systems. There are mysteries to unravel, and criminals to catch, in environments the protagonists are unsuited for, whether null state or fringe centenal. In this way, Older puts a human face on the politicking—vagaries of global politics aside, these are very real, very human characters struggling to save the world, often without the aid of the structures they’ve relied upon forever.
And this is where the real trick is revealed: Null State‘s stakes aren’t on the world-shaking level of Infomocracy‘s—in fact, those moments of global change are almost incidental to the action. Instead, Older wants to show you the real win, which comes only when people put in the work—when they stay up until the wee hours crunching numbers, or when they reexamine evidence for the hundredth time, when they take a risk and cross into uncharted territory, or suck up their pride and reach across the aisle. Big Idea prognostication aside, these meticulous moments of work and hardship are what make the global change possible, and that boots-on-the-ground dedication to the work is what drives this narrative, and reminds us of the precarious nature of the real world we all inhabit: without those thousands and thousands of people who put the time and the sweat and the love and the work into the system, true positive change isn’t just unattainable, it’s unimaginable.
If Infomocracy showed us a world of progress and turmoil, Null States shows us that the work never truly ends, and that, in a way, is the most hopeful message of all. We just need to be willing to do the work. Its balance of humanity and policy kept me riveted from start to finish. If you’re looking for a little light in these turbulent times, let Malka Older lead the way.