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Title: Null States

Author: Malka Older

Publisher: MacMillan Tor/Forge

Copyright: 2017

ISBN13: 978-0-765-39338-8

Length: 432

Price: $25.99

Rating: 100%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

Null States continues the storyline Malka Older inaugurated in Infomocracy, where a substantial number of the world’s countries have adopted microdemocracy, a system based on groupings of 100,000 citizens called centenals. Centenal governments include easily recognizable proxies for existing conservative, liberal, green, corporate, and national entities. This book, Older's second novel, is a well-written near-future thriller with action that ranges throughout the world, encompassing states that adopted microdemocracy and those that did not.

One hallmark of microdemocracy is the adoption of Information, a version of the contemporary Internet that includes easy access to fact-checked information and video feeds from almost every public area within the system. Countries, or segments of countries, that chose not to adopt microdemocracy are called null states. As the book's title suggests, the action in Older’s sequel includes states that chose to stay outside Information’s coverage.

Middle of the Action

The action starts in a city within a centenal within the former DarFur region of the former Sudan. The DarFur government, which controls several centenals, only adopted microdemocracy for the most recent ten-year election cycle. The focal characters, who are different than the leads in Infomocracy (though they do show up later in the book), are part of a Specialized Voter Action Tactics team sent to support the new government. The governor gets blown up on his way to meeting in the town and the action starts.

Null States is a well-written near-future thriller with action that ranges throughout the world, encompassing states that adopted microdemocracy and those that did not. Older brings her experience as a relief worker to the fore, capturing the physical environment and cultural sensibilities of peoples outside the developed world. For example, even though DarFur adopted microdemocracy, neither the government nor the people have fully embraced it or, critically, Information.

This distrust, which provides substantial leverage for the story’s antagonists, invokes themes of cultural imperialism, long-burning conflicts that transcend national or centenal borders, and fierce independence. Switzerland, for example, has remained unaligned and outside the reach of Information’s nearly omnipresent video feeds. Older captures the feeling of unease and threat when Mishima, the female protagonist from Infomocracy, travels to Switzerland to investigate a lead. Outside of Information coverage and easy contact with her usual support team, she’s on her own in unfriendly territory.

Null States also addresses the language of the developed and developing world. At one point in the novel, a character gently corrects a colleague who used the term “null states”, saying that it’s demeaning. The original speaker disagrees, arguing in effect that it’s a neutral descriptive term, but Older’s comment on using the word “null” to imply that otherness equals irrelevance or, worse, non-existence, is spot on.

Conclusions

Null States is a terrific novel by any measure, made more so by the author’s deft handling of cultural issues based on her extensive experience as an aid and relief worker. If you’re new to Malka Older’s books you should read Infomocracy first so you understand the milieu, but be sure to pick up Null States at the same time so you don’t have to wait to see what happens next. I recommend both books without reservation.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

 

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