The Micro-Governments of Infomocracy

Real politics these days is exhausting. And sometimes the utility of trying to keep up with the news — especially in terms of my mental health and energy — is a bit dubious. So, maybe it’s not a surprise that I’ve been thinking about a book that looks at the merits and issues of a completely different vision of governance.

Malka Older’s Infomocracy takes place in a world several years past where we are now. There are few country borders left, and instead former political structures have been replaced by “micro-democracies” of 100,000 people each, who vote as a block called a centenal. Each centenal decides who they want their government to be out of the thousands of political parties that now exist.

For example, centenals where environmental issues are important — referred to as “eco-centenals” — can decide to ban cars from their small geographic area and set up technology that causes car wheels to pop if vehicles enter the area. Another centenal may choose to focus on having really strong transit and infrastructure. Others are headed by corporations, like the PhilipMorris party, in whose centenals of course smoking is always legal.

Central to this new world is the role of the agency Information, a giant bureaucracy which provides up-to-date facts about everything possible  from the current doings and pollings of political parties, to background facts on someone you just sat next to in a cafe. Here’s an example of a tool created using facts from Information:

“Citizens can even see a personalized grid with specific outcomes of each government for them: how much they would pay in taxes, for example, or changes in the funding projected to go to their kids’ schools, or the probability that their local bar will be shut down. [..] It’s a popular tool, and surveys last decade showed that a plurality of citizens used it to decide their vote.”

Obviously, votes can change fast based on the Information updates, and political parties do their best to take advantage of them. There are a lot of relevant references to our current state of media oversaturation, as ads for various political parties frequently pop up on the characters’ vision while they navigate different centenals.

I couldn’t help but see parallels to the way modern-day conservatives use rhetoric and advertising to get the votes of middle America:

“In the first election, Information leadership was naive and idealistic […] They thought that providing data about each candidate government would be enough for people to make informed, more-or-less sensible choices. […] That did not work out so well. The new Heritage coalition of wealthy, experienced global corporates ignored the accessibility of Information, produced their standard glossy misinformation, and not only took the Supermajority but won centenals where, analysts agreed, it was demonstrably not in the interest of the people living there to vote for them.”

On the other side, you have a clear example of the elite liberal archetype through Information, whose wealth, power, and Ivory Tower detachment from the public makes political parties and average citizens dislike those who work there.

You also have the massive party Heritage, which to me symbolizes American Democrats and Republicans alike, who have the incumbency advantage that lets them dominate the political environment. All other players look tiny in comparison.

It was fascinating to see the ways that Information tries to address the potential corruption and scandal of the political system, particularly at election time. Debates, for instance, are audio-only, so that hypothetically voters can’t be overly influenced by the looks, appearance, or mannerisms of any particular party. Some parties, like Policy1st don’t even believe in having candidates. Instead they rotate out various spokespersons so that the policies, and not the leaders, can remain the focus.

I was pretty impressed with the creativity of this world. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read something that does tackle the entire world as its subject matter. Characters fly from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Qatar and beyond as the story unfolds, and you do feel the possibility of what the world would be like without borders in the same way that we have them today.

Then there’s the drama of the characters. We have Ken, who works for the supposedly idealistic Policy1st party, as a sort of spy of the goings-on of other parties. He falls for Mishima, a downright cool high-level expert at Information, with a talent for ferreting out unusual — and often politically illegal — data anomalies, such as those in the big election that is coming up. (It’s just the 3rd election of this new world order.)

We also have Domaine, who provides a strong counterpoint, since he hates the current system and is doing his best to disrupt it.

Overall, there’s a lot of political wonkyness and intrigue, but also suspense, mystery, and a bit of romance.

While it definitely took some time to work myself into the world that Older created here, it was completely worth the effort. I loved seeing Older’s background as an international humanitarian professional clearly influencing the expertise and scope of the plot in Infomocracy.

P.S. Malka is the sister of Daniel José Older; talk about a talented family…















Post-VONA Reflection

I’ve always been someone who struggles not to silence herself.

I fought a little internal skirmish in trying to decide whether it was “worth it” to post anything about my VONA experience, when I felt sure my words would fall flat. I fear trite words, over-generalizations, and cliches in describing such a profound space. But I am a learning writer, and you can’t grow without falling flat a few times.

Besides, that’s what VONA is all about, isn’t it? Risking. Learning. Growing. I knew I had to say something to mark it’s completion.

VONA/Voices is this crazy, beautiful experience where writers of color from all over the country, and the globe, come together to create, talk, share, and live in their identities as worldbuilders and conveyors of spirit. My tribe this time was speculative fiction.

Workshop notes
Just a few notes from workshop.

It hit me like a truck, absolutely leveled me, to understand for a few precious days how much we as writers of color have to say. You forget, when you read and see only the bestselling POC authors that there are actually way more than one or two narratives on any particular trauma, issue, identity, you-name-it story. There are infinite narratives, in fact, because every single one of ours is different.

I feel humbled. I feel graced. I feel like I’m in a whirlwind right now trying to figure out how I want to move forward with this beautiful gift of being a part of, being seen, being heard.

I’m especially thankful that VONA piqued my curiosity again about my own work, at a time when I’ve been struggling with the weight of the daily grind, and with losing sight of my “why.” I’m reminded that I do this because I want to get to know myself as a writer. I want to hear and fall in love with my own voice, and I want to be part the conversation and community of others looking to do the same. We build something bigger and stronger together.

To be honest, I’m still spinning. It’s going to take some time for me to settle back into my fiction practice, my self-care practices, and my routines. But I think that’s what I need to do ultimately — pour this energy back into my writing.

After all, it’s the way we move.



5 Reasons Why I Watched Netflix’s ‘3%’ Series

Three PercentSource:

I stumbled onto “3%” the same way I find out about a lot of Netflix shows — by previewing the shows recommended to me by its algorithms. Often, I’ll try out a show for an episode or two and decide it’s not worth anything further, but this one got me hooked, and I wanted to spend some time thinking about why exactly that is. Here’s what I decided:

1) It’s super entertaining.

I loved The Hunger Games series, and I have to admit that what initially attracted me to this show was a similar premise — young adults competing against each in a unequal, dystopian world to escape their circumstances of material poverty.

The show follows several characters as they try to reach the end of The Process — a system of puzzles and challenges that determines who will become a part of the elite three percent of the population that lives in the rich Offshore.

The main protagonists are Michele, who is haunted by the loss of her brother to The Process and committed to ideals of justice, and Ezequiel, who is a part of the three percent and runs The Process every year. But one of the strengths of the show is actually its large cast of characters, each of whom has his or her own storyline and background.

To make matters more interesting, there is also a mysterious rebel force known as The Cause that is trying to infiltrate The Process to spy on the Offshore and ultimately take down their system of governance.

I have to give a caveat that 3% is not your typical Hollywood-produced movie. It’s clearly on the low-budget end, but the filmmakers do a lot with what they have.

2) It’s not about the U.S.

As Beth Elderkin says in her Gizmodo article about the show:

It’s vital to support international science fiction in the US. It widens our perspective of how the world is, and more importantly, how it could be.

Watching “3%” reminded me how American and Eurocentric most of my TV-watching habits are. Even though the show isn’t about modern-day Brazil, the cast is clearly Brazilian, and the communities that the “candidates” come from seems to resemble favelas, with their crowding and sanitation challenges. Additionally, there’s an overall pacing to the show that feels different from what I normally watch on TV.

I also enjoyed hearing the Portuguese dialogue, and I’d recommend watching the show with the original audio and subtitles, rather than the dubbed version.

3) It’s diverse.

While Brazil is a highly diverse country, it still struggles with colorism. I imagine it might be an appealing prospect for filmmakers to build a primarily light-skinned cast. I was happy to see that didn’t happen with “3%” for the most part. There’s diversity among both the actors who play the marginalized Inland residents, as well as among the Offshore leadership. (I am giving a little side-eye, however, to the Netflix banner showing most of the darker characters in the back row and out of the light. It’s also worth noting that the biggest roles, Michele and Ezequiel are light-skinned.)

There’s also diversity in terms of gender, class, and physical ability (one character, Fernando, needs a wheelchair to get around). One point I really enjoyed is that Fernando isn’t desexualized the way that many characters with physical disabilities often are. He’s part of a romantic subplot in the show. He’s also not portrayed as an object of pity or as one-dimensional. He clearly has his own strengths and weaknesses outside of his physical body.

4) It shows ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as complex.

One of my pet peeves in fantasy/sci-fi is when characters are made simplistic, with the heroic people on one side and the evil characters on another. “3%” acknowledges that in real life, people have complex motivations for the actions they take. Pretty much every character has a secret or two that impacts why they do what they do and who they are drawn to connect with.

Ezequiel, who seems most clearly to be “the bad guy” at the outset of the show, is revealed to have a heart and his own principles, however twisted. And The Cause, which seems to be a network of underdogs at first glance, also develops nuance as the series progresses.

5) It makes you think about society.

One of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to dystopia as a genre is that it pushes you to think about the founding principles of the society we live in now, as well as how the world would be better or worse with certain changes. It allows you to take reality and ask the question, “what if?”

There is clear commentary in “3%” on wealth inequality, through showing the poverty of the Inland juxtaposed with the elite social life and high living standards of those who live in the Offshore.

Through including the element of The Cause, the show also seems to say that no situation so unequal can hold forever. Mass discontent will always push to the surface, no matter how many surveillance cameras or armed forces the government commands. It felt like there were harkenings to the Arab Spring, current class tensions in the U.S., and other modern-day political pressure cookers.

Perhaps Former President Obama put it best when he said, “Democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.”

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Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood Were Ready for a Trump World

skyscape fog

“After everything that happened, I’m not reading 1984, I’m not reading Fahrenheit 451, I’m not reading A Handmaid’s Tale. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I feel like if we’re looking for any answers or where we’re going, it’s definitely in Octavia’s work.”

That’s what speculative fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor had to say about what book to reach for in the age of Trump.

Having read Parable of the Sower, I recognized some reasons why Okorafor would point readers to Butler’s work. There’s the portrayal of a world where climate change has progressed enough to cause major problems to habitability and economies. There’s the way that people have split off into walled off communities. How countries have shuttered their borders to other nations.

But I was particularly struck by Okorafor’s reference to a character in Butler’s sequel, Parable of the Talents, whose stated goal is to “make America great again.” As a feminist, I was also interested in reading Atwood’s famous The Handmaid’s Tale. So I picked up both.

Ultimately, I agree that Butler’s works seem to resonate more fully with the current times. The unexpected political success of presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarret in Talents struck a pretty eerie chord with Trump’s win while using the same tagline. It’s an incredibly layered novel with strong themes of power, purpose, community, and religion all coming together in one story.

But I think The Handmaid’s Tale is worth a read too for different reasons. It’s a meditation on gender roles and a purposeful exaggeration of society’s obsession with commenting on and controlling women’s reproductive choices. The world of Atwood’s story feels much tighter to the protagonist as you navigate her fearful and constrained reality alongside frequent flashbacks to the way things were “before.”

The full video from Al Jazeera on dystopian literature in the modern age is definitely worth a watch if you have time:

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Living Alternate Histories with Underground Airlines

Angela Davis

My grandmother once told me a story that stretched the limits of my understandings of racial fear. Years ago she was relocating with her family for my grandfather’s job. They planned to drive to their new home and considered taking a detour through the South as an add-on to their trip.

At this time however, Angela Davis had just been added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and the entire country was focused on the story. My grandmother, who is a light-skinned black woman that used to wear her hair in an Afro, was afraid of being mistaken for Davis, particularly in the South, where they perceived greater hostility. So after some deliberation, she and my grandfather decided not to travel through the South after all, bypassing it on their journey.

Now, aside from being light-skinned, I personally don’t think my grandmother looks anything like Angela Davis. When I first heard the story I had a hard time understanding what it would feel like to be alive and black during that period in time. Because of the relatively safer and calmer context I grew up in, it is almost impossible for me to fully relate to that generalized sense of racial fear. To really understand my grandmother’s story, I had to imagine a completely different world from the one in which I came of age. (Though as #BlackLivesMatter shows, racial fear is still alive and well in the world. Unlike my experience, all too many young black people grow up quite aware of it.)

Underground AirlinesReading Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters reminded me of my grandmother’s story because it is also about using the imagination to understand another world. It’s about using the tool of speculative fiction to cultivate empathy for what it can be like as a black person living in a geography of racial fear. The particular context here is slavery.

Underground Airlines is told from the perspective of the main character, who goes by Victor. Victor lives in the modern-day U.S. with one big difference — slavery still exists in four states. He’s a black man who works for the U.S. Marshall Service to help find and return escaped slaves from the slave states. As the story goes along you learn more and more about seedy things that have been going on in the background of reputable organizations on all sides. Victor has to face his own past and what he’s willing to do to keep his personal freedom.

Underground Airlines, though a thriller at its core, explores deep moral questions. Winters leads you to think about what you would do to preserve your own safety in such a compromised society. The people you would betray. Those you would manipulate. Just as interesting is the exploration of corruption among modern-day abolitionists. Winters plays with what the desire to be a “savior” can do to the psyche, and how it can corrupt. He suggests that individual people can begin to matter much less than the cause as a whole. The book is a fascinating look at what happens when who we are collides with who we imagine ourselves to be.

I’d be remiss not to mention Octavia Butler’s Kindred in reviewing Underground Airlines. In Kindred, a black woman is involuntarily trapped in a cycle of going back in time to the plantation where her ancestors were enslaved. The book explores the very real and painful ways in which the institution of slavery corrupts all morals and good intentions. Kindred was a groundbreaking mashup of the modern world and the old establishment of slavery, and Winters’ work follows in that tradition. Constance Grady’s article in Vox captures some important ways that Winters draws upon Butler’s cannon.

I am white, and I wrote this book because I think it is incumbent on white people, white authors very much included, to think about racism, to grapple with racism, and to engage with it.
Ben H. Winters

One of the great strengths of speculative fiction, is that the literal worlds it forces you to consider are often based on real world “what if” questions with current day implications. Just as the world of my grandmother’s story pushed me to expand my understandings of what her life experiences encompass, speculative fiction can take you to a new mental place, to a new body. It can play with your world in subtle ways to make you consider new possibilities and perspectives. We have to leave our entrenched beliefs behind a little when reality gets slightly warped. We don’t always know who we would be in the story.

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Note: I received an advance reading copy of this book from the publisher for review.

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