In the near future technology and social change has largely brought an end to the nation-state. Instead, new groupings via for loyalty among people (some based on corporations, some based on ideals) while individuals shop around for systems of laws that suit their lifestyle. Amid this world where people hop easily between continents, shadowy elements are seeking to upset this new order in a bid to bring back to the world the spectre of war.
The underlying set up for Malka Older’s Infomocracy and Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, are fascinatingly similar. However, the actual stories both in style and plot are so utterly different that the books are not easily comparable. Infomocracy is a taught and often economical thriller that makes clever use of cyberpunk conventions. Too Like the Lightning uses the lens of Enlightenment-era France to examine broader political and cultural change. In particular, Palmer’s narrator is such an unusual character and has an overtly archaic view of the world (and manner of speech) that the futuristic setting is partly obscured. It’s not that the actual world in Too Like the Lightning is deeply different than Infomocracy but that we don’t get to see it the way its inhabitants do.
Infomocracy’s scope is more limited than Too Like the Lightning and that enables a tighter plot and also a clearer focus on the issues raised. The focus on manipulation and control of information within electoral processes as a proxy for warfare is particularly timely. The motives of the antagonists in Infomocracy are simple but hidden and the individuals are secondary to the various groupings they belong too. The political ideas of the Heritage and Liberty factions are not explored in depth but there is a sufficient sketch of their approach to getting a sense of what these factions represent.
Intentionally, Too Like the Lightning is concerned with a ‘great men’ perspective of history. Broad social change, shaped by economic and technological change is occurring but our narrator is a man obsessed with how powerful individuals shape the world around them, whether by political power or by divine intervention. The world seems much weirder and exotic in Too Like the Lightning even though it is really not very different than the world of Infomocracy. The overtly fantastical elements (specifically Bridger) also make the novel feel quite different from its nominally near future setting but coupled with a potentially unreliable narrator (in lots of ways) it is hard to know what the world is like for non-Mycroft people.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest one is better than the other as the pair are so different in style and focus as to make a simple comparison ridiculous. Having said that Too Like the Lightning is essentially an incomplete story and needs to be read with its sequel, whereas Infomocracy is more self-contained. Both stories offer a vision of a way forward for our fractured world without endorsing or condemning the alternative offered. The mechanics of Infomocracy‘s micro-democracy which combines local government and global politics is more clearly articulated than Hive system of Too Like the Lightning. However, the Hives have a more detailed backstory and history that makes it easier to see how and why nation-states gave up their grip on political power. Yet of the two, it is Infomocracy that has a stronger sense of realism and air of plausibility.
Too Like the Lightning is the more fantastical work — it answers more questions but those answers require more active suspension of disbelief. Infomocracy skates past the history that might have brought its political system into place but in doing so keep the world plausible and focused.