For a while, I’ve felt that, when it comes to politics, science world-building has been stuck in the past, fixated on stories about galactic empires or rebellions against totalitarian regimes. Governments in science fiction almost never resembles the messy democracies of our world. By contrast, in Malka Older’s Infomocracy, the protagonists are political operatives and central threat is a conspiracy to manipulate an election. This is perhaps the first science fiction story I’ve read that takes electoral institutions seriously and makes them central to the story (not surprisingly, Older is a political scientist).
Infomocracy takes place far in the future under a radically different political regime called the centenal system. Centenals are population units of roughly 100,000 people, and each gets to choose whichever government it wants. If 100,000 people in Massachusetts like the Socialist Party’s welfare system in Oslo, they can vote to join that government. If farmers in Chile find they have more in common with farmers in rural Kansas than with Chileans in Santiago, they can vote to join the Kansan government. It’s microdemocracy on a global scale.
Unlike most science fiction stories with “world governments,” the centenal system is not managed by a single international body, and it’s certainly no utopia.
I doubt Infomocracy represents our future. In both America and much of the rest of the world, we’re currently witnessing a resurgence in nationalism and skepticism towards cosmopolitanism. However, in the tradition of great science fiction, it’s a thought experiment – a “what if?” question – that shines a light on problems in our current political system. The centenal system is, first and foremost, a way to get around the fact that people who live within the same geographic area do not necessarily share the same political preferences. There’s something increasingly artificial about how state or national boundaries define political communities. As political commentators have long noted, the central fault line in America is the urban-rural divide, not red vs. blue state. New Yorkers have far more in common with Londoners and Parisians than with fellow Americans in rural Idaho. By contrast, the centenal system lets people join the government that represents their interests, regardless of geography.
I respect Older for not making the centenal system a utopia. Although most voters in Infomocracy seem content with the system, it’s not immune to the problems that plague our current democracy. Indeed, the protagonists bemoan the fact that voters are poorly informed and easily swayed by charismatic politicians. Infomocracy‘s future might look more appealing than our present, but it also acknowledges that there’s only so much institutional change can accomplish.
Overall, Infomocracy is a refreshing attempt to use science fiction to think creatively about political problems in our world. Definitely recommended for science fiction fans who are also political junkies.