Saturday, 7 April 2018


(December 2017)

The first of Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, the last of which comes out this summer. Given all the other trilogies I’ve still to catch up on, starting a new one seems like a bit of a leap of faith, but I’m very glad I did. The “relate it to what the reader knows” tagline would be something like “Snow Crash meets The West Wing,” in that Older takes the almost throw-away concept of micropolities from Stevenson’s book and then explores that through the slightly melodramatic viewpoints of young political operatives working behind the scenes. The two main PoV characters are Ken, a fixer for the broadly progressive Policy1st party, and Mishima, a security chief for Information.

Following a worldwide conflict of some sort (Isn't it always?), the world's governance has been reconfigured into a kind of global first past the post system. Each constituency is an even 100,000 people, which obviously mans that they're packed very tight in urban areas and cover large swathes of wilderness. In major cities the laws thus change from block to block, à la Snow Crash. There are global elections once every decade, and campaign for the third such is in full swing. These are policed by Information, which is essentially Google with its own police force, and the closest thing this world has to a global bureaucracy.

There's a tonne of interesting stuff going on here, but I'm going to hang my thoughts off the main characters' names. "Ken” is almost a cliché among Anglophones with connections to Japan, as it’s one of the few boys’ names that exists in both traditions. It wasn’t so long ago that practically every middle-school English textbook would have a character of uncertain ethnicity by the name, fulfilling the tired role of mixed heritage characters in fiction everywhere of being simultaneously both relatable and different, of being safely other.

So I was slightly wary of similar tropes cropping up here, especially once it’s revealed that this Ken is also mixed heritage, from "all over." However, one of the key concerns of the book is the resilience of national identity—a significant sub-plot is the increasingly militaristic rhetoric of a Japanese nativist Party—and Ken’s positioning as the personification of some of these concerns arguments is handled with a merciful degree of nuance.

Which brings us to the monomonikered Mishima. This is usually a Japanese family name, perhaps most (in)famously of Mishima Yukio—author, bodybuilder, failed coup instigator, suicide. His Wikipedia page is well worth a read, and once you’ve done so you’ll see why Older’s choice to give the penname of this arch-nationalist to the effective head of a post-national, global police force piqued my interest. This Mishima also skirts very close to some rather tired tropes (kick-ass Asian lady with distinctively coloured hair, specifically), but is once again the conduit for some of the book’s wider concerns. She’s also eventually revealed to be almost charmingly neurotic, which certainly punctures the slightly tired cool facade and helps lift her off the page immeasurably. I liked it when she stabbed Ken.

There is a third PoV character, who’s largely uninteresting, exists mainly to act as a foil for Mishima, and whose name I’ve completely forgotten, which is where the pattern of this post rather falls down. This is a dense book that takes a while to get into (back to Stephenson again), but which I ended up enjoying greatly. It was also, sadly, and through no fault of its own, quite depressing. It's still new enough that I'll mark the reason why with SPOILERS. At the end of the book, when it turns out that the election's been rigged, then there's a bit of frantic kerfuffle and then it's all put right (or at least, not wrong) by the powers that be in a matter of days. Given what we now know about only one (or, it's increasingly looking like, both) of the big elections that took place in 2016, that now seems painfully optimistic. Not Older's fault, of course, but you can't read the climax and dénouement without it being hammered home in the most uncompromising manner that you are, in fact, and unfortunately, reading a work of fiction.

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