State Tectonics, the third volume of Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle trilogy, is simultaneously a riveting political thriller and the very best kind of science fiction: a book that makes you think differently about the future and the present.
Five years after the events of Infomocracy, just as the centenals—those geographical areas of 100,000 inhabitants that have replaced most of the nation states across the world—are set to hold another round of elections. As before, shadowy forces inside and outside Information—the powerful, seemingly benevolent organization that holds a monopoly on the gathering and sharing of data in the centenals—seem intent on disrupting, or even overthrowing, the system.
The story spans the globe, switching between locations, plot threads, and multiple characters, most of whom we’ve met before. Former super-spy Mishima, now a mother, has been reluctantly thrust into celebrity stardom and a political career after the dramatic events of Null States. Maryam is sent by Information to investigate a series of attacks on data information stations. Roz is tasked with uncovering the truth about a network of previously unknown tunnels that hint at clandestine connections between centenals and the few remaining nation states. And Mishima’s assistant Amran sets out on her very first assignment as a spy as she investigates some peculiar political ads—a mission that takes a rather dramatic turn.
Older expertly ratchets up the tension as these story-lines begin to intersect and a larger, yet more complex pattern of treachery and subterfuge is revealed, increasing the danger to both the characters and Information as a whole. This volume offers more on the early days of Information and the emergence of the centenal system, and introduces us to some memorable new characters, including 89-year-old Taskeen Khan, one of the original creators of Information’s system of data pathways. Khan has withdrawn from the modern world, and when Maryam is sent to meet her, we gain new insights into why and how Information was created, and why it might now be in peril.
Like the earlier books, this one is a pleasure to read: tight, taut, and suspenseful, and set in a future close enough to our present-day to feel chillingly familiar, as cameras watch over everyone and everything, and constant access to data and communications skews perceptions of reality. Beyond these touchstones, however, the political system Older has developed feels genuinely futuristic—while nation states as we know them are not completely gone, the rise of the centenal system has radically reshaped global politics and the loyalties of people across the planet.
Notably, these novels do not strive to paint the future as either dystopian or utopian. Instead, their future feels real—flawed, messy, and complicated by the messiness of human ambition. And the politics truly matter: much of science fiction focuses on how new technology might reshape the world, but Older takes the opposite tack, investigating how politics can both be shaped by, and shape, technology. Most of the characters care passionately about politics: about policy, about how the political system functions, about legitimacy, about who is elected and how. There are lingering hints of cynicism, but there is also a belief that our personal political choices can shape and reshape the world.
Beyond those heady concerns, the books are a delight on a sensual level. As the narrative hops across the globe, Older (who has lived and worked in countries around the world) paints each new locale in vivid detail: food, smells, people—the local “flavor,” in every sense of the word. More than once, her writing made me crave food I’ve never tasted (in State Tectonics, it was tlayuda), and dream of visiting places I’ll probably never go.
State Tectonics brings the Centenal series to a satisfying and dramatic end, skillfully bringing together characters and events from earlier books in a dramatic finale that will make you question whether Information, and the centenal system itself, can or even deserves to be saved. Loaded with gripping intrigue and insightful observations about how the world works, and how it might work under different circumstances, it can be enjoyed equally for the twisting plot and for its thought-provoking consideration of the way access information can change the world, and manipulation of information can bend those changes toward the aims of those who control it.
Though this is billed as the concluding volume to the series, there are tantalizing hints in Mishima’s story that there may be more to come. I can only hope.