Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that, “We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”
Malka Older’s debut science fiction novel, Infomocracy, imagines a new path for democracy. Penned by a governance researcher who spent more than a decade working in humanitarian aid and development, the book challenges many of the assumptions we so easily take for granted. Sparkling with big ideas, this cyberpunk political thriller sits smack dab in the intersection of policy wonk and science fiction geek. The story blazes through a world that is neither utopia nor dystopia, but rendered in shades of gray. It deserves the praise heaped upon it by the New York Times, NPR, Lightspeed, and the Washington Post. Like all good literature set in the future, Infomocracy sheds light on the present.
Older was kind enough to answer a few questions about the inspirations behind the book, what she hopes to achieve with it, and how she went about writing it.
Eliot Peper: Where did Infomocracy come from? What inspired you to write the book? What’s the big idea behind it?
Malka Older: Infomocracy came very directly out of two experiences. The first was that of living and working in many countries with secessionist movements — Sri Lanka, Sudan, Spain, Indonesia, for example — mostly violent, and thinking about the impulses that lead people to fight for their own country or, conversely to fight to keep people within a country when they don’t want to be there.
The second was the 2012 U.S. presidential election, and in particular conversations I had with friends and acquaintances in which I found it harder and harder to discuss legitimate policy disagreements because of a lack of common basis in fact. We talk a lot about the post-factual world now, but in fact these techniques have been around for a while — remember the swiftboating in 2004? — and of course misinformation more generally has been a part of politics since, well, politics. But it did feel like it was getting more pervasive and at the same time more pernicious, more difficult to name, describe, and clarify. The mire was getting deeper, and it was harder to find the bedrock of common fact at the bottom, and even when you did some people refused to believe it.
The big idea, then, was really a combination of two big ideas, two out-there what-if solutions to these two frustrations. First, instead of nation-states we would have much smaller units, determined by population, not geographical size (which in the modern world is much more accurate in terms of economic and political power), and each of these units could vote for whatever government it chose, leading to governments with constituents scattered all over the world. To manage this system, and take care of my other peeve, I invented Information, a giant bureaucracy descended from the United Nations by way of Google and charged with information management and dissemination, including fact-checking and data-sourcing. I called the system formed by these two components micro-democracy.
By the way, when I say out-there and what-if, it’s not that either of them is particularly difficult to implement. In terms of technology, both political and digital, we could manage either of them right now. They are far-fetched only because they would counteract current power structures.
Eliot Peper: The world Infomocracy describes reflects a deep interest in and understanding of political science. What research did you do to inform the story? What were the most counterintuitive things you discovered? What surprised you most?
Malka Older: I didn’t have to do too much research for Infomocracy, because I was really describing the world I live in. I do have a Masters in International Relations and Economics (after doing my undergraduate in Literature — don’t let anyone tell you that’s a useless degree!) so I had some academic background, but most of the knowledge and ideas in the book came from years of living, traveling, and observing overseas, while staying engaged in politics in my own country. I set the story in places I had lived in, or traveled to, and imagined how those places might evolve five or six decades into the future. Most of the actual research I did while writing had to do with population estimates — to figure out how many 100,000 person centenals a given city might have, for example — or trying to figure out how much time it might take to travel from point A to point B given the hypothetical new technology I had invented that travels in a direct line but somewhat slower than an airplane.
I did do a lot of thinking about how the systems I had invented might work out, trying to play things out to their logical conclusions in my head. I didn’t expect micro-democracy to work perfectly: I wasn’t trying to invent a utopia, just suggest some alternatives and point out some of the problems in our current systems. But I had a lot of fun dealing with some of the difficulties, like the issue of service provision in a city divided among multiple governments, or long-haul transport under the same circumstances.
Eliot Peper: String hoppers. Please discuss.
Malka Older: String hoppers, or indi appa, are thin rice noodles, a variation on the staple that traditionally accompanies curries in Sri Lanka (and I imagine southern India, but my experience with them is strictly from Serendipity). Personally I prefer the (other than nomenclature) unrelated hoppers or (nom) egg hoppers, but string hoppers are still excellent, especially for breakfast with some parippu and coconut sambal. [Takes snack break, sadly not in Sri Lanka.]
In the book, string hoppers make an appearance as part of a Sri Lankan take-out meal in Doha. Because of the global nature of the book, food was an important tool to anchor the characters and the reader in the different locations, (although I think it also came up a lot because I was writing about places I miss, and food is one of the big things I miss from them). But it was also very important to me to note the different currents of migration — temporary and permanent, for work and for refuge and for study and for preference — that traverse the globe. Foreign workers make up 91% of the population of Qatar. One of the main characters in the book is of Japanese descent but born in Brazil, which has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. The microdemocracy system facilitates these flows, but they are a big part of the global context now.
Eliot Peper: In today’s fraught political climate, what are the most common public misunderstandings about the structure of democracy? What are the subtle variables that we too often overlook? What does the world need to know?
Malka Older: I think there’s a misconception that democracy is one thing, and we’ve got it, and we don’t need to worry about it any more. There are many different varieties of democracy in the world, and none of them is perfect yet, but we’re still working on coming up with more. Our semi-democratic political system, specifically, is a work in progress. It is changing and evolving all the time; to take just one procedural example, there were different rules in the primaries this time. That has an impact on the result. Holding primaries in the order that they are held has an impact on the result. Holding primaries at all has an impact on the result. We tend to think of these procedures as fixed, as if they’ve always been that way, and changes are often made at an internal party level that doesn’t get a lot of press, but many of them are recent, and can be changed. These are decisions, and if we the people are not paying attention, those decisions will be taken by those in power, and aimed at keeping it (because these are complex systems, such decisions sometimes backfire, but still).
Also, democracy by itself is not enough. It is not an end in itself, but a means to achieving a government that is participatory and ideally equitable or “fair”; we can further hope that that leads to other positive outcomes, like peace and prosperity. But democracy by itself is not necessarily equitable or just. It allows too easily oppression by the majority, particularly by majorities that are in no risk of becoming minorities. To achieve our goal of good governance we need, at a minimum, a commitment to human rights. We have one example of this already in the Bill of Rights, and we’ve added to it through various amendments over the centuries, but we may need more: a commitment to environmental protection, for example, or a principle on inequality. Believing that the institution of democracy in and of itself is enough for us to rest on our governmental laurels (let alone brag about and go around trying to impose on the rest of the world) is a dangerous misconception.
Eliot Peper: Infomocracy is a novel that wrestles with sometimes painfully timely themes. Why didn’t you write a piece of nonfiction that analyses the issues explicitly instead of a story that wrestle with them implicitly? What does fiction bring to the table that other approaches miss?
Malka Older: I find for myself, and I think for many people, narrative, and specifically fictional narrative is a more effective way of internalizing information and stimulating thought about new ideas. People learn in different ways, and I have some friends who read non-fiction almost exclusively, so that works for them as a way of relating to the world, but for a lot of us it’s through fiction. Studies have shown that fiction is an important way of developing empathy for others; similarly, imagining oneself in a situation with complex moral and political problems is a means of confronting those issues and also, potentially, making the leap to consider how they apply in the real world.
I address this in the book through the idea of a syndrome, medically defined and diagnosable in this future, known as narrative disorder. This comprises both the addiction to narrative content that has made, say, Netflix such a success (and long before that serial narratives on radio and in magazines, and before that bards and other purveyors of oral history) and the sense that the narratives we ingest affect how we interpret the world, what we expect to happen, how we stereotype the people we meet and their roles in our lives, how we ourselves act. For Mishima, the character with the most pronounced case of narrative disorder, it is both a disability, because it can cause her to misinterpret the real world around her, and if she manages it an advantage, because sometimes it offers an intuitive leap about how people will act. However, it’s understood that almost everyone suffers from this to one degree or another — which is why I think fiction is an effective way to transmit ideas.
Eliot Peper: Can you recommend any favorite novels that excel in entertaining even as they deliver a powerful message? What’s on your reading list?
Malka Older: In no particular order: To Kill a Mockingbird. The Color Purple. Maurice, and for that matter Howard’s End. Toni Morrison — take your pick. Octavia Butler — ditto, but especially the Parable series. Salvage the Bones. The Hunger Games, which I thought was more realistic than dystopian. An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine. Eduardo Galeano, if we can include entertaining, novelistic non-fiction. Mario Benedetti — I’ve been thinking about Gracias por el Fuego a lot lately. Les Miserables. Nada (Carmen LaForet). Sefarad by Antonio Muñoz Molina, and quite a few of his other books too. The Bone People. Housekeeping and everything else by Marilynne Robinson. A Fine Balance. The Silent Minaret. The God of Small Things. The Ancillary Justice trilogy. Nuruddin Farah. Mia Coutu. Season of Migration to the North. The Goblin Emperor. Margaret the First. The Last Days of New Paris. Everfair.
On my reading list [checks Overdrive queue]:
Not enough, really. The Lazarus Project, which I got from An Unncessary Woman. Rabih Alameddine’s new book, The Angel of History. I’m working my way through Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Max Gladstone’s latest. There’s a new Javier Cercas book out I’m interested in. And now I’ve been told to read Buchi Emecheta, so I’m looking for something of hers. But I also balance with a lot of lighter, more escapist readings, especially during tough times like these. Lately I’ve been reading some Fred Vargas and J.-F. Parot mysteries that I brought back from my last trip to France. I have Passing Strange and The Drowning Eyes queued up on my Kindle. And I’m thinking it might be time to reread Watership Down.
Eliot Peper: What did your creative process look like for Infomocracy? Did you outline the plot in advance? How much did you flesh out the characters, setting, and story before getting started on the rough draft? How did the book evolve along the way?
Malka Older: I don’t outline; I like the organic feeling of plots that grow as I get to know the characters and the setting. I often start with a couple of images, or atmospheres, because they’re usually more than just visual and include a mood or an emotion. With Infomocracy I had the idea for the world system, and then I had the initial image in the book, a pachinko parlor called “21st Century” that I saw over and over again driving to and from disaster sites in northeastern Japan. That gave me both a setting in the future and a feeling of urgency, some degree of bleakness, isolation. The book doesn’t stay in that mode long though: I knew I wanted there to be a feeling of fast-paced, global action: I was thinking both of the campaigning scenes from the West Wing, particularly seasons 6 and 7, and also of my own experience and that of my colleagues traveling from place to place for disasters or other jobs. Then, I had one particular hinge scene in the middle, and a very very general idea of where I wanted it to end up, the sense of exhaustion and the idea someone had of making centenals even smaller, democracy even more customized. The fun was in getting from point A to B to C. Once I knew my characters and setting well enough, I pretty much just had to let them play in my head and see what they would do.
Eliot Peper: What did you learn writing Infomocracy? Do you have any specific personal or professional takeaways now that the book is out in the world?
Malka Older: While writing it I learned a lot about working quickly, which I had practiced during Nanowrimo for many years, but it’s a little different for a longer novel. It was my first time working with an editor on a full-length novel, and I learned a lot from that about collaboration.
My main hope for the book was that it would get people thinking and talking about the issues I brought up, so I’ve been very gratified by the response. I have found it very interesting how some readers and reviewers classify it as dystopian or cynical, while others find it optimistic.
Infomocracy by Malka Older
Published June 7, 2016; Reprint August 8, 2017
Malka Older is a humanitarian worker and Ph.D. candidate at the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations studying governance and disasters. In 2015, she was named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and has more than eight years of experience in humanitarian aid and development.
Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. His books have been praised by Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, and Future in Review. Eliot an editor at Scout, maintains a popular reading recommendation newsletter, and advises entrepreneurs and investors on technology strategy.