Book reviews / Science Fiction

Book review: Null States

Null States is the sequel to Infomocracy by Malka Older. As I reread that book review, I realise it hasn’t really captured how good I thought that book was.

It remains one of my favourite books from recent years and one which the characters and world remain sharp and in focus in my memory. It is often one of the books I recommend to random people on the internet and people I know (and my copy is currently out on loan to one of the product managers at work).

It was both a realistic imagining of what the future could be in a technological sense (if not in a micro-democracy sense) but also because it captures how difficult it is to make things work. Especially big things like international relations, what is ‘real’ in the sense of news, and basically how great or awful people can be. So it feels so grounded in its story telling and the world building.

I think I like it even better in retrospect since my work in general has become so data focussed. I wish I had the reach and analytical capability of Information. I want Information to exist and I want to work for them. That is now my dream job.

Anyway. This is about Null States right?

Well, it’s glorious. It gets to be more precise and articulate about the problems with the world and the actors within it than Infomcracy. We know what Information is, we know what micro-democracy is. We know that there are problems – for where there is the diligence of Information, there are also external actors messing with the system. And we don’t always know what their intentions are, which is where we are left at the end of Null States. But not in a horrible cliff-hanger way that some of these books can end, which is a relief.

Anyway, this book follows some of the same characters as Infomocracy with some having more page time than others. Mishima (who is still badass and amazing) is there, with Ken having a cameo. However, the focus is mainly on Roz, one of the other Information workers in the Infomocracy. We’re taken to a remote, new micro-democratic centenal where there is a political assassination and a local population that, while not hostile to Information, is certainly suspicious of them.

It’s a slow burn, mainly through the lack of data to track down the problem at the centre of the plot – which of course ends up being larger than just that centenal. Then there is an actual war near China that becomes larger throughout the narrative as well.

What you get to see is the humanity of these Information workers, contending with their own issues but also trying to make micro democracy work and solve a mystery. You get to see their flaws but also their brilliance and intuitive skills. I think I really enjoyed the competence of these characters. They were just all so dedicated, skilled and smart. It was a delight to spend time with them. And while we don’t get quite the sense who the baddies are yet, they seem equally formidable. There’s no cutting corners on either the main protagonists or those who they are trying to uncover or combat.

It was also really interesting to have the world building to expand to the some areas of the world where Information are not ubiquitous. We get to see the limits and limitations of the Information and micro-democracy. It makes is all lovely and messy and interesting.

But what was also just excellent was the subtle weaving of the larger, external issues outside the main plot. The various plot points were meticulously woven throughout the entire book, issues dropped in here and there throughout conversations or side plot. But it all winds together at the end, hopefully setting up book three, which I will be excited to read. Where I have had problems in the past, reading overly long books with side plots that went nowhere, nothing was wasted in Null States. It made the last 100 pages or so a rush to read. All the threads being teased together, with splashes of action.

Honestly, I’m still just sitting here in amazement at how well all the different story arcs started to blend together. How the ways the characters changed between books helped make the geographical jumps plausible. It’s just so we’ll done and I’m just completely in awe of Malka Older’s ability to articulate it all in a fun and compelling way.

I still can’t recommend both these novels highly enough. I love science fiction but you have to forgive it for over-reaching in plot and substance in some cases. Both Infomocracy and Null States are so well balanced. You don’t have to forgive it for anything – other than making you compulsively want to read it. I hope it becomes one of the classics of the genre. If you haven’t read either, treat yourself to them. Not only are the stories and characters brilliant, it still has some of the most beautiful cover art I have seen.

Like I said earlier. Glorious.

Trying to find some balance in this review, but it is very difficult. One of the best books I’ve read this year, and I have liked an awful lot of the books I’ve read this year. Go. Buy it. Read it. Then tell everyone else you know to do the same. Just a wonderful series.

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