Infomacracy: A Novel

Sometime in the near future, Nation-states will cede powers of election to a ‘Google’-type organization called Information that tracks and disseminates information on everything and anything to everyone. We all exist under the political umbrella of micro-democracy, grouped into Centenals (100k people), and the 2nd global election is about to take place.

Into this election whirlwind we meet Ken, working as a agent for Policy1st (a idealistic policy based government) whose emotional and social awareness I would call typical of a dude; who meets Mishima a special agent for Information, who also has ‘narrative’ disorder and sees connections and conspiracies everywhere. Love blooms, Ken and Mishima must learn to trust each other professionally as well as romantically, as a global crisis unfurls surrounding the election.

I really did enjoy Malka Older’s Infomacracy, it isn’t nearly as pedantic as my above description implies, I was just contouring your perspective….I did end up with a lot of questions, which is probably the point of the book.  Damn I googled a lot of things for this review….

cover art infomacracyInfomacracy

by Malka Older

Published: Tor.com (June 7, 2016)

Hardcover: 384 pages

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “The sign on the defunct pachinko proclaims 21st CENTURY, but the style – kanji in neon outlined in individual lightbulbs?”

Oh boy, this book fell behind my bed from the ‘to be read’ pile, and was put back into the ‘read’ pile a while ago (but wasn’t read), only to be uncovered in a spring cleaning. There is a sequel out, which is good cause I am shipping Ken and Mishima. Tons of reviews on this book, it’s a Blade Runner meets etc., it’s so timely with US politics and the debate around Globalization versus Nationalism.  These are true, but I have other questions that must be answered, this is gonna get gritty.

First, I have to ask how did this whole thing happen? How did Information get into the position it is? It’s mentioned a couple times about over-burdened Nation-States and some sort of bureaucratic black-mail by officials and nukes and the UN forcing the change over to Centenals and Information? I mean how does this all work? How free is movement between Centenals? I’m a citizen in one Centenal and I want to go to another, do I just walk over and say ‘I live here now!’?  If I’m in a poor or less desirable Centenal do my neighbours say I can’t switch into theirs? I don’t really want the details in the novel about this, but I still am a little fuzzy about this new system.

To continue on micro-democracy also, thinking of where I live now, I’m not sure I would gain more ‘democratic’ power with my singular vote every 10 years.   I’m Canadian, and I live in a city about the size of a Centenal right now.  So today I get to vote for my ward Councillor (neighbourhood) and the City Mayor. Then I get to vote for the Regional Councillor (which is like 5 Centenals), also I get to vote for my Provincial Member of Parliament and my Federal Member of Parliament.  Each position I vote for has Local, Regional, Provicial, and National level governing powers and policies that reflect their level of government. I get to vote more often and vote for local issues as well as Provincial and National issues. Futhermore, how do goods and services flow between Centenals? Is it all free trade?  Trade has become a huge issue in 2017 with Brexit and the US pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  Currency also seems to be absent in this new system, other than it’s digital and universal? Alright, so I live in a very democratic place…and a ton of the world doesn’t have these rights…I guess I can give up some democracy…for the world to get more…ugh.

Okay, enough with the politics, let’s think about everyday life in a micro-democracy.  First and foremost – there seems to be a serious amount of texting and driving going on, or augmented visual feeds and driving going on.  Also, travel seems way cooler, I want to see what a crow looks like…public transport seems better all around.  Looks like some crazy hyper-loop stuff is coming available.  I do really like Older’s take on the technology in Infomacracy, she hits it home quite a bit, especially with Ken and later in the crisis and Roz; you can have all the technology you want but it usually comes down to boots on the ground to get sh#t done.

That brings us to the multiple crisis’ in Infomacracy and it raised in my mind a comparison, how do we in respond to large disasters or disasters in general now, compared to in the micro-democratic system?  Again, this depends on where you live now, what you and your government do in a crisis and disaster relief.  With local crisis management, Ken’s walk in Tokyo highlights the different responses of Centenals from top-down management, to distributed networks.  Preparation and contingency planning contrasted against ad hoc centralized aide.  Was micro-democracy any different or better at disaster relief?  The typical logistical problems of information and resource dissemination seemed to be present, even with better technology.  Hoarding in Centenals seemed worse, but then I think of the past year (2017) of hurricane relief in the US and the different levels of response in Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico. Crisis management and disaster relief are massive topics that Older is an expert within, I’m not sure I caught how micro-democracy responded differently than the many pronged/uncoordinated National and trans-National responses of our times.

Finally I come to the question of redundancy of infrastructure systems. What do you think would happen if the entire internet went down? It seems implausible that we would not have redundant systems? This isn’t a new issue (thinking Y2k) nor have we not had large scale failure in an industrialized area (East Coast blackout, North America 2003). What I am getting at is the crisis in Infomacracy seems together too vast (complete outage) but also too small in terms of consequences.  If everything is tied into Information, then what about banking? Trade? Power plants and sewage treatment? It’s like their ‘phones’ went down but much more should have, maybe the attack was more targeted than I read?  Also, things seem super dependent on being ‘online’…an airplane should have back-up software in case of internet/link outage?

Finally, we get to Mishima and her narrative disorder tied into the coming signs of war or conflict.  First, on ‘narrative’ disorder.  I have a couple issues, one is that narrative disorder is an actual problem, but it’s the opposite of Older’s description.  Usually onset through developmental disability or PTSD, it is the inability to reconstruct or recollect a story or narrative linearly or sequentially.  The symptoms Mashima displays (creating fiction around events, or uncontrolled fantasizing tied with paranoia) are more typical of someone with psychosis.   So, if Infomacracy‘s narrative disorder is becoming more evident it seems that more psychotics are being produced in the future.  A troubling trend we see recently world wide, not more psychotics per se, but definitely more issues around mental health in general and the post-modern online world.  I’m not read up enough to put out any facts, but I tend to have a feeling about rising populations and density tied to mental health in general, and the emergence of extreme mental disorders, but again not enough research.

To put this review to bed and get onto the sequel Null States (Tor, 2017), Older definitely got the back of my neck hairs crawling about ‘signalling’ and ‘dog whistling’ prior to conflict or war.  What were the signals being sent and how do they compare to today?  The creepiest ideas of the book are on information manipulation…pretty timely eh? Looking at you Facebook and Russian Trolls!  To quote an unnamed evil guy from the book, ‘We find that people that hate each other as much as that rarely view the same types of Information.”, first the word ‘information’ is capitalized, so the people have full access to all information but ignore it, second I direct you to a post from Bryan Alexander on access to the internet and voting  to make it worse.  Infomacracy ends with this topic up front, how can we get more people access to information and participating?  Will this change anything? I certainly will find out in the sequel.

Maverick Out!

 

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Chandler Klang Smith – The Sky Is Yours

The cover art of the hardcopy I picked up of The Sky Is Yours immediately drew me to this purchase.  I really didn’t know what I was getting into but that seems to be in tune with this novel!

My head still wanders a bit (which happens quite often in the book) thinking about the path the characters take in The Sky is Yours.  I say path because Chandler Klang Smith impossibly throws and pastes (not spins or weaves) utter chaos mixed with bumbling incompetence to propel her main trio in The Sky Is Yours, yet still keeps the events and happenings disturbingly relatable. A late teen, his even younger teenage mistress, and his betrothed fiance descend into the insanity of the relic of unchecked and unremorseful capitalism, anymore description would be too long or incomprehensible.

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the sky is yours cover art

The Sky Is Yours

by Chandler Klang Smith

Published by: Hogarth (January 23, 2018)

Hardcover: 464 pages

My rating: 7.0/10

First sentence: “This is the story of what it is to be young in a very old world”

 

I will be honest I found this book uncomfortable in many ways, and obviously that is the point!  What made it more uncomfortable than most is the recognition, something familiar about our time today and their time.  When I read ‘speculative’ or ‘creative’ science fiction or fantasy, it is usually in a setting or period where I can say to myself, ‘huh, that’s unusually graphic but hey we’re in space, it’s harsh’ or ‘wow, did not see that [insert taboo sexual stuff] coming, but you know it’s the future’.  What is jarring and disturbing is Smith’s ability extend our post-modern issues to extremes by just taking down everyday predictability just a bit; remove that certainty that the sky won’t fall and see how society copes with it.

This uncertainty seems to be a common theme in this new-to-now genre of near future speculative science fiction (see the ‘Where are we going…it’s aaaa list’ post below of similar themed books).  Most authors in the list point to a world becoming less stable, less certain, and more polarized (though Doctorow pulls out the optimism in Makers). Again Smith really nails that point of polarization, and just when you think the literal protagonist is figuring things out or progressing…well you can read it, cause it won’t be what you expect.

I rated this book 7/10 because I felt like the conclusion was rushed and not satisfyingly explained.  The drug ‘chaw’ phenomena seemed really cool but how and why? Is it natural or man-made? Is it an allegory for escapism? Is it linked to the tooth issues? The the whole ‘Secret of NIHM’ (if you don’t get the reference google it…worth) storyline needed more explanation or exploration at some point.  I had a lot of questions, but I guess that’s the point, no one knew; you read it and tell me what you think!

 

 

G. Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen

I began to read Alif the Unseen in 2016 and I didn’t get around to posting…anything for a while, so this great book is getting its much deserved review.  When I originally read Alif the Unseen the Arab spring had yet to turn into the conflicts seen in the Arab region today.  G. Willow Wilson gave me, as a Western reader, a fascinating and exciting view into the Arab world. The story is superb, an adventure that bursts with romance, politics, theology, history, legend, and magic.  Where is the science fiction? That is the best idea and surprise of all; it is a must read!

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cover art - Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen: A Novel

by G. Willow Wilson

Published by: Emblem and imprint of McClelland & Stewart, division of Random House if Canada ltd., 2012.

Paperback: Second print 433 pages

My rating: 9.0/10

First sentence: “The thing always appeared in the hour between sunset and full dark”.

My gosh that first sentence should get you into this novel right away! This is a novel that takes a great idea about the power of language and combines it with the modern idea of computer programming to merge ancient legend with modern society, specifically Arab society.  G. Willow Wilson places her protagonist Alif in an Arab world where he is half in and half out…of everything.  He is in love, but he is not in love. He is half-Arab and half-Indian. He lives half-online and half-IRL.  He is Arabian, but also worldly.  One thing he is not half-minded about is computer science and programming. His programming consumes him to the point where he might not be coding in our world anymore….

Quite literally this book is one of the best I’ve read for the raw adventure, mixed with amazing characters, and an exciting world.  The story of Alif, from the perspective of a Western reader for me was incredibly interesting and compelling from his home and family, to his personal relationships, to his political views and reality.  The story of Alif is of the recent tradition of Harry Potter, Golden Compass, and Stardust mixing a period (usually modern times) with a parallel reality – typically magical.  The difference with Alif the Unseen is the complexity of adding modern political and religious elements intertwined with the legends of Arabian culture and a pinch of ‘magic’ empowered by the ancient idea of the power of language.

I am literally looking at ways to social media stalk G. Willow Wilson so I don’t miss anything she does.  A must read!

Lev Grossman – Warp: A Novel

I ended up reading Warp: A Novel the reprinted 2016 copy on a bargain pick-up at a discount book warehouse.  I read the back cover and thought, a first work of a now acclaimed author, sounds cool.  More than cool, a very deep but quick walk back in time, the feelings generated from this novel will definitely resonate with anyone born in the late stages of Gen X and the newly named Xennial generation.  The novel is a period piece set in the early 90’s, those years just prior to the internet when hints of the interconnection to come were appearing, a time that felt like we were all on the precipice of change.

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Cover art - Grossman - Warp

WARP: A NOVEL

by Lev Grossman

Published by: St. Martin’s Griffin (1997, September 2016)

Paperback: Second print 176 pages

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: “I’m trying to think who the girl reminds me of,” Hollis said. “Somebody famous.”

The novel is inspired by the author’s years in Boston as a University student.  The fictional character of Hollis moves through an existential crisis over a pivotal 24 hours, precipitated by his last semester and all the anxiety and expectations that can accompany that time.  As the book develops and the existential crisis of Hollis becomes more evident the author deftly weaves in the mixed emotions of angst with hope.  The malaise that some feel when looking back on the pre-internet age can be keenly felt throughout the book.  The popular culture and technological references are amazing in the early chapters and you get that sense of the pop hangover from the 80’s and the darker and angrier grunge/alternative of the 90’s.

My favorite quality of the book is the character interaction, especially the aspect of Hollis’ inner world commenting on his reality.  This on-going inner-monologue highlights a defining aspect of Gen X and Xennials, that they were the first raised in the post-modern era where technology can make you feel as if you are the star of your own movie, social media channel…or ugh blog.  Hollis’ inner-monologue helps define and develop characters (Hollis’ classmates and the mysterious Xanthethroughout the novel and you definitely get the same wonderful John Hughes journey that The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off provides.

A brave first novel, I gave it a lower score because it is short (I wanted to languish more in what I look upon as the best years…our young adulthood).  Or maybe we look upon it as the best because it is our most egocentric years?  The novel is brave because it has a daring final chapter and an ending that leaves the reader responsible for deciding Hollis’ state in the end.

Although a ‘period’ piece, as the back cover synopsis states perfectly “Warp is for anyone (and everyone) who has ever felt adrift in their own life.” I would recommend that you power through Warp: A Novel quite quickly over a weekend, or on a business trip (it’s short!).  Reading it all at once enhances the emotional ride of this novel and if you are feeling adrift or at a point of decision it can definitely make you think.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Time

Children of Time starts with a prologue of sorts that sets up two different story lines (humans versus spiders). As Peter F. Hamilton’s cover endorsement nails, “evolutionary world-building” is the key theme Children of Time, with an emphasis on evolution.

Children of Time starts with a prologue of sorts that sets up two different story lines (humans versus spiders). As Peter F. Hamilton’s cover endorsement nails, “evolutionary world-building” is the key theme Children of Time, with an emphasis on evolution. To achieve this the author indulges in large time gaps regularly for the humans (in hibernation) while the spiders happily evolve up the intelligence ladder.

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Children of Time coverCHILDREN OF TIME

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Publisher by: Pan; Main Market Ed. edition (May 19, 2016)

Paperback: 608 pages

My rating: 8/10

First sentence: “There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility – rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind.”

The last remnants of the human race left a dying Earth, desperate to find a new home among the stars. Following in the footsteps of their ancestors, they discover the greatest treasure of the past age – a world terraformed and prepared for human life.

But all is not right in this new Eden. In the long years since the planet was abandoned, the work of its architects has borne disastrous fruit. The planet is not waiting for them, pristine and unoccupied. New masters have turned it from a refuge into mankind’s worst nightmare.

Now two civilizations are on a collision course, both testing the boundaries of what they will do to survive. As the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, who are the true heirs of this new Earth?

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The choice of insects (spiders, ants, and others) is interesting with many readers probably suffering from a spider aversion or who are downright arachnophobic. The author clearly has done his homework on spider anatomy/biology/ecology and the perspective of the spider characters as they develop is a really positive aspect of the book. The author achieves a uniquely inhuman perspective in the spiders, ants, and other insects. One of the most thrilling and terrifying parts of the book is the interaction of humans with the evolving insects and the visions of baseball sized ants chewing through your abdomen. The author captures the visceral terror quite well, while not overdoing the graphic violence.

The human side of the story covers diaspora from a more familiar science fiction trope. Humans have ruined Earth and the remnants have to leave to find a new home. The also familiar trope of a descendant race of humans is all that is left of a glorious more advanced previous civilization(s) creates the driving motivations of the surviving humans. The main protagonist ‘classicist’ struggles with the need/desire to rediscover the old civilization’s knowledge and specifically technology, while at the same time yearning to pave a new path for humanity. Underlying this is the doubt that all has been discovered and done before and that a new path is futile.

Tchaikovsky does well with building tension and keeping the reader guessing and mostly in the dark in the human story line. It is a slow build in tension between characters with some very good dialogue between the protagonist and the other leads. Unfortunately the characters are very one-dimensional, literally each displaying one trait such as cowardice, over-aggression, psychopathy, sociopathy, and so on.

The spider story line takes on more Asimov-like large scale world building. The author tends to the third person to explain much of spider society and events, while the mute spiders intersperse dialogue in italics. The author roughly wields large themes in building the spider society that mimic large societal struggles such as religious conservatism, progressive technological development, warfare, and individual rights. Not much is subtle and much seems glossed over, or that the author is ‘talking at’ the reader to get points across. Because of the format it felt like watching a National Geographic documentary that has turned into a History channel show starring spiders, leaving me not very invested in the actual characters.

By the last section of the book I was very tired of generations of spiders being referred two by three names instead of individual spider characters. Worse so, the spiders evolution seemed to have stagnated and the characters really didn’t have the depth to be differentiated between multiple generations. What does work is the idea of spider space exploration and their ability to build, extrapolated to the extreme.

The overarching theme throughout the novel is communication and what it means between intelligent beings. Although a building undercurrent throughout the entire novel, especially on the spider story line in the second section, the author basically ‘talks to the reader’ in the final pages about this theme. The author lays out all the questions about forms of communication, the failure to communicate, and how limited our ideas can be when we don’t communicate. The biggest science fiction leap and near-science idea of future communication are understandings (as the author names it). In the end the author waxes about empathy and the ability to see yourself in others that allows for progress and growth. I left the final pages wondering whether understandings are a form of communication or more of a brainwashing.

I felt the characters were weak throughout the novel and so did not feel invested in either story line; I didn’t really feel compelled to root for one side or the other. This fact aside, I never got tired of the ideas throughout the book and that is the major strength of Children of Time. The imaginative world of the spiders is fantastic and the issues faced by both species keeps you thinking throughout.