Review: The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older

Comprising three books (Infomocracy, Null States and State Tectonics), the Centenal Cycle examines a near future world with a radical form of global democracy. With most of the globe carved up into roughly equal population sized mini-states, Older’s thought-experiment novels takes the ‘marketplace of ideas’ seriously with a world where people might move a few blocks in a big city to change their government. The grout in the tiles of worldwide micro-democracy is information and Information. The latter is an organisation that is a cross between a nationalised Google, a surveillance state, a non-partisan civil service, the ‘deep state’ and a benevolent version of a Wikipedia of everything.

The premise of Information feels like a set-up for a dystopian novel: aside from poorer nations and the opt-out ‘null states”, people live in a state of near constant surveillance. However, Older shows people who have made the same kind of Faustian bargain we all make with our current technology: paying for information about others with information about ourselves. The books are not a deep dive into the ethics of surveillance but rather address a different question: who controls truth?

Calling a writer’s technique a ‘trick’ might sound dismissive but I note that I do it a lot. When I say ‘trick’ I usually mean that it is something simple but not immediately obvious. Older’s trick is to focus on characters who work for Information but not at the very top. By doing so the inherently sinister aspects of Information are undermined by revealing its more mundane aspects as a workplace, with workplace intrigues, romances and frustrations. Instead of a dystopian novel, the books present a cracked-Utopia. Information as an organisation represents less the fear of being constantly watched and more the desire in confusing times to have a single source of truth — somebody to take away our burden of having to sift through competing claims ourselves, a fact-checkocracy.

That the system can’t survive is clear from the first novel (Infomocracy) but by having sympathetic characters struggling against conspiracies and violence creates sympathetic stakes. Of course, many (all?) the best spy thrillers involve agents who work for morally ambiguous governments and Older neatly ensures that it is ambiguous the degree to which espionage and sabotage aimed at the global system is part of a coup or part of a revolution (or both or neither). Rather than didactically outline clear villains, even in the climax of book 3, there is a sense of multiple strands of thought in those working against the status quo with both progressive and regressive forces acting in similar ways for different reasons.

In an earlier post, I compared Infomocracy with Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books. There’s also a comparison to be made with Neal Stephenson’s brand of science-fiction. Older’s series doesn’t flesh out the detail that Stephenson would (which depending on your tolerance of infodumps can be good or bad) but they share the same capacity to be speculative fiction about domains of human activity beyond technology. Older invites us to consider alternatives to the nation-state without endorsing the model she explores. The deeper question of who fact-checks the fact-checkers is not resolved but by presenting the most benevolent-but-realistic version she can of Information, she shows that even in the best of circumstance a single-source of truth is also a concentration of power.

I suspect this might just be me because the connection is not obvious but the books also reminded me of Iain Bank’s Culture novels. Obviously, the settings are very different but there is a common current of optimism amid the acceptance that political power is corrupting. Progress is a maze of twisty turns paths, full of dead-ends and the potential for wrong turns. People acting in good faith make poor choices and are prone to manipulation by people acting in bad faith or deceptively.

I found that each of the books worked best for me when I could read them in longer sessions — better suited for my weekends than commuting. In part, this was due to the chapter structure which would move rapidly between different point-of-view characters (approximately three per book). That style cleverly mimicked the competing demands for attention in an information rich society but didn’t always work well when I was trying to read it against the actual competing demands of our actual information rich society.

The other aspect of the books that I appreciated but which made me prefer reading them in long stretches, was the way they provoke you into thinking. Everything from how the centenal borders would work, to how the ‘lumpers’ might function, to voting systems. Older is parsimonious with details and I think that is the right choice. She sketches enough to make the society feel credible without getting stuck in infodumpy details. It is hard to imagine how the status-quo in the novels came about but it is also not a particularly interesting question. The novels explore the possibility of a more-or-less benevolent source of reliable facts and a near-criminalisation of ‘fake news’ and how that ultimately doesn’t really work out.

I’m always going to enjoy clever, competent characters who have to navigate life, loved-ones, colleagues and science-fictional problems but I also enjoyed these novels beyond that.

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Centenal Cycle by Malka Older

  1. I finished the third and really enjoyed it as well, though I thought the most engaging of them was still the first book. Still it felt like the writer took a concept and interrogated that concept and all its potential faults and flaws through multi perspective narratives which made it a really enjoyable thought experiment, though I would’ve preferred had the final book had a larger perspective written from within one of the anti-information camps. Also I felt odd in that I feel like the end of the third was fairly anti-climactic though at the same time liked how it didn’t treat it as the good guys who are right versus bad guys who are wrong, but as an evolution of concepts.

    I will always enjoy it for having narrative disorder as a thing though.

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