Democracy Won’t Die (Not if Malka Older Has Her Way)


Not long ago, time in a slice of Sri Lanka ran fifteen minutes off from the rest of the country. The area was ruled by the Tamil Tigers, who fought for decades to defect to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and so followed the Indian clock, choosing a lover’s schedule over a spouse’s. The small but telling betrayal captivated the writer Malka Older.

An American, Older worked in Sri Lanka on peace-building efforts for a local nonprofit. When the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit the coastline, she shifted into disaster response.

Postings followed, with global organizations such as Mercy Corps, in countries known for crisis. Sudan, naturally. Indonesia, to an eastern province rocked by conflict. Insurgencies she observed linked to a map of subtler signs from her years of travel: The Galician backpacker who, during a college trip of Older’s, identified herself as “from Spain but not Spanish.” The neighborhood where Older ate while living in Beijing, a place run by Uighurs, the Muslim minority fighting for sovereignty. Even European holidays revealed local efforts to split from the whole — from the Scots to the Basques.

Older understood the logic of borders, but not, as she thought deeper, the damage done defending them. A question posed itself, of the sort one might put to a possessive husband. Why force an unhappy partner to stay?

In considering such questions, Older’s first book, Infomocracy, seems designed for the riddles of this fall, of fragmentation and the value of democracy. Countries, we tend to think, are bonded as if in marriage, into a unit, against the outside.

Now the myth of nationhood feels broken, perhaps more than ever before. Americans may not use clocks as symbols, but our map tells a breakup story in red and blue: in how we vote, what we think about guns, what jobs we keep, and which faiths, races, and sexualities we respect. (Even the use of “we” feels strained.) Some Americans might share more with English farmers than with their neighbors, who might find closer matches in Swedish schoolteachers. In Texas, a drive can be a rollicking political journey: through the dry county of Richardson — with its immigrant families and modest homes — to the bars of Addison and, later, the Republican parlors of Highland Park.

When a country cleaves into pieces, should our president be theirs? Theirs ours? Older’s book revolves around a global election in the late 21st century. What if the Highland Park burghers could link with peers around the world, under a single political party? In Older’s version of our century’s end, they could.

In Infomocracy the planet is governed according to a system of “microdemocracy,” with a handful of parties vying for the votes of dispersed “centenals,” each a collection of some 100,000 citizens, each with its own regulations and mores. One has no beggars and a love of law and order. Another allows for street musicians. This is the drive through red-blue-and-purple America, projected decades into the future.

Countries still exist in Infomocracy, but their geographic borders matter less than multinational political lines. “Information,” a Google-on-speed search engine, has replaced much of the media, centralizing data collection and harvesting facts. Parties cherry-pick data from Information servers to spin into “advids,” versions of pop-up ads that invade real life.

Politicians are still politicians — still in the business of suppressing and cultivating information as it benefits them — but no Trump analogue beams out falsehoods. And humans seem content policing themselves, without worrying what their neighbors are doing. If this seems optimistic, it’s because Older’s vision is largely utopian, part of the sci-fi subgenre of wish fulfillment, hopeful about how the world could be organized.

Thinking about what a world can look like comes naturally to Older. Rootlessness is part of her story, as it is in so many Jewish families: Her mother, a professor of Spanish, emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in the 1960s. Older’s first name is Ashkenazi, a nod to the Ukrainian lineage of her father, a city planner born in Baltimore. Her brother is the fantasist and young-adult author Daniel Jose Older.

An undergraduate English-literature major, she continued along a different route, completing a master’s degree in international relations and finding a footing in crisis management. It’s not a bad track for a writer of speculative fiction in a time of global upheaval. One of Older’s inspirations is The West Wing, whose pace feels familiar.

“Everyone’s running around drinking coffee, working incredible hours,” she says, comparing the show’s election episodes to disaster work as well as the atmosphere she tried to evoke in the book, which follows a group of operatives working to sway the election for the Supermajority, or ruling party. There is a twisted pleasure to the high-stakes-and-stress frenzy, something like finals week for an overachiever. Action feels at once futile and potentially pivotal. Disaster brings meaning, all the more if you are involved but not affected.

Working in Sri Lanka during the tsunami, Older came to know the human side of crisis. When the waves came, she was deep in the country’s interior, on her way to visit a priest for research for a Fulbright grant she eventually gave up on. A friend offered to teach her to ride a motorbike. She recalls her relief that her parents didn’t know how dangerous her choices were right then, as she steered an old bike with no ability to reverse through a jungle thick with wild elephants.

That was actually the safer option, as it turned out; she’d declined an offer that weekend from a group of friends to go surfing. “Would have been much more dangerous,” she told me wryly. As it was, she exited the wild to hear of a tragedy so large it was broadcast to the world. By that point, she was used to terrible things happening and no one hearing of it. This time, “for weeks, everyone in the world was looking, and hurting, and wishing they knew more and understood it. Sending thoughts and money and sweaters.” The implications of the “kind of celebrity” that attends emergencies with global headlines did not escape her. “There’s something about being in the center of something that’s urgent and important, or at least looks that way to people,” she says. “It’s not the prettiest of motivations.”

We were speaking via Skype, myself in New York, she in Paris. Timing the interview felt both easy and hard; Older, now 39, keeps both the promptness and tight schedule of someone who’s overachieved during her fair share of finals weeks. At the moment she, along with her partner and child, splits her time between France — where she’s completing a Ph.D. in governance and disaster at the famous Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris — and Boston. She is also at work on Null States, the sequel to Infomocracy, set to go deeper into the workings of microdemocracy.

Of the characters in Infomocracy, the standout is Mishima, a red-haired woman of vague ethnicity (a triumph of the book is how it registers diversity without fanfare, often via context clues). An employee of Information, Mishima gets into bed early on with Ken, who works for the do-gooder Politifirst movement — a sort of Green Party with a stiffer spine and a will to win. Hookups, Older told me, are “a tradition in emergency response.” Mishima and Ken’s relationship feels attuned to the particular romance of political crisis, when isolation and a shared project enable the solace of companionship, no strings attached. Mishima brings a cyberpunk flair that has inspired comparisons to the work of William Gibson.

If eras give rise to new relationship modes, this one feels of our time, too, in how it blurs excitement with fear, cynicism with romance. Mishima and Ken’s connection is at once unsexy and intense, born of a basic need. In the real world these days, there is likewise a tinge of desperation. The republic seems worth fighting for, the American experiment urgent. We are forming new partnerships, based on the survivalist idea that the like-minded need one another and should beware of others.

“Sci-fi says more about the present than the future,” as Older put it to me, echoing a genre truism. Institutions are remixed, but people still vote for ideals and care about one another. (And politicians still lie, and corporations — some of which run political parties — seek profit.) For readers sensitive to the country’s divorce pangs, any projection of a future government that’s not dystopic may feel like a comfort. Everything won’t end. Democracy, in some form, might last — or even, eventually, improve. Mom and Dad may never get back together, but the promise of love doesn’t have to die once they split.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the background of Older’s grandparents.