Please welcome Malka Older to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Infomocracy was published on June 7th by Tor.com.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Malka: Thank you! Great to be here. I’ve always written. In elementary school I folded paper to make eight- and ten-page books with construction paper covers. In high school I wrote a novella or proto-novel, I don’t remember exactly how long it was but it had chapters and the intent was a novel. Shortly after college I finished the first novel that I considered “real” in some sense. And I’ve been writing novels ever since.
As far as the why – I always read a lot, and so narrative is one of the key ways I interact with the world. It is natural to me to reflect that back through my own writing.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Malka: A pantser, with some plotting when necessary. My novels usually start with a few phrases, images, or partial scenes that are largely emotional or thematic in import, and the novel accretes around them. Once the characters are clear enough in my mind, I can let them play and watch what they do. Some of my novels I’ve been able to find the entire plot that way; for something like Infomocracy, which has a lot of moving pieces, and the sequel Null States, which has even more, there were points at which I needed to write a few plotting notes to make sure all the gears meshed, but I try to keep that minimal. I love the feeling of plot twists emerging and surprising me as I learn more about the characters, and in reading as well as writing I prefer books that feel organic.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Malka: Wonderful things happen during editing, but I definitely do not feel the same drive to do it as the writing.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing? How does your background in disaster response and humanitarian aid influence your writing?
Malka: My writing is influenced by a lot of different factors, firstly all the books I’ve read, and then of course other experiences, conversations, interactions. Disaster response and development work are a big part of that, because they’ve been a big part of my life. One element of this is the fascination with different cultures and different places. Another is the concern about how seemingly abstract, political decisions impact people’s lives in very concrete ways. For Infomocracy I was thinking a lot about the pacing and feeling of professional disaster response, meaning not just responding to one disaster, but doing it consistently: always on call, traveling constantly, putting out metaphorical fires more often than literal ones. I wanted to give some of that combination of urgency and routine to the election workers in the book. Also, when an earthquake occurs in a novel by a disaster responder, it’s not deus ex machina – it’s something that was predicted by geologists, bound to happen eventually, and probably should have been better prepared for!
TQ: Describe Infomocracy in 140 characters or less.
Malka: Global microdemocracy! Flamethrowers! Spies! Data analysis! Anarchists! International intrigue! Katanas! Elections! Sabotage! Blood glitter!
TQ: Tell us something about Infomocracy that is not found in the book description.
Malka: Infomocracy takes place in rural northeastern Japan, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Singapore, Addis Ababa, Naha, Tokyo, Lima, Kobe, Amami, Manila, Chennai, the Maldives, Doha, New York City, Paris, and Beirut.
TQ: What inspired you to write Infomocracy?
Malka: It was a combination of several things. I’d been thinking a lot about the nation-state and geographical borders, and the terrible wars of secession that occur because some populations within a state don’t feel represented and those in power don’t want to lose territory. I’d lived or worked in a number of these states – Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Sudan, but also Spain and Italy, which had secessionist movements trying to break them up even as they joined the EU and became a part of something larger. I was also feeling very frustrated with the slipperiness of politics, particularly around the 2012 elections in the US. Lying in politics is pretty much par for the course, but it felt like we already had the tools necessary to cut down on that significantly, and instead the confusion multiplied. It wasn’t just that one politician or another was lying as a way of getting ahead; what bothered me was more how difficult it had become to have a policy discussion with someone I disagreed with, because the supposed data we based our arguments on was so often contradictory. So with these two, related frustrations I came up with the interacting components of micro-democracy and Information. There was also another element: I’d been working in Japan after the 2011 disaster, which contributed a lot to the tone of the book but also the first scene: an old and run-down pachinko parlor called 21st Century. The thought of how that name had once seemed exciting and futuristic and then became both a statement of fact and an admission of age helped me make the leap into the future.
TQ: The novel has been called Cyberpunk and a Political Thriller. Do you agree with these genre labels and, if yes, what appeals to you about these genres?
Malka: Both those labels fit. The future described in Infomocracy is made possible by virtual communications and big data, and it also owes quite a bit stylistically to the cyberpunk genre. A political thriller is what I set out to write. I hope it is both a thriller about politics, in that there are a lot of chases and explosions and fights and other thrilling activities in the pursuit of political goals, and a book that makes politics – the scheming, the leveraging, the stakes, the possibilities – thrilling to read about.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Infomocracy?
Malka: Most of the research I did was fact checking, confirming or looking up details. Almost all of the locations in Infomocracy are places where I have lived or at a minimum passed through, so I had a good sense for them already. Their future incarnations are based on my understanding of the place in the present and my thinking, in various contexts (academic, practitioner, speculative) about the context and the pressures and incentives. I had to pay a lot of attention to population figures, because the administrative unit in the book, the centenal, is based on a population of 100,000, so I spent a fair amount of time with population predictions and a calculator. I also do a lot of reading of random articles – in magazines/newspapers, on the internet, etc – and if I come across something that is interesting and/or makes sense to me, like a future technology or a prediction about international relations, it may find its way in there.
TQ: In Infomocracy who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Malka: It was important to me that all of the characters have clear and relatable motivations in the complicated intrigue of the book, and maybe because of that I didn’t find any of them particularly hard to write. Probably the hardest was when I had to write someone’s public political speech, so it had to be fairly bland in the way of political rhetoric but also still indicate their leanings. There isn’t too much of that in the book, but there were a few times I had to do it. I did really enjoy writing the two main characters, Mishima and Ken. Both are a lot of fun, and they are very different, in ways that made them good foils for each other, and I enjoyed showing the ways they interpret the same situation from different perspectives.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Infomocracy?
Malka: I’m not sure how I would separate social issues from a story, particularly one that involves worldbuilding. For one thing, as a sociologist, everything is a social issue. To give an example from my field: the way we experience what is often referred to as natural disasters is entirely based on the social constructs they interact with. If buildings fall down during an earthquake, that is a social issue, because it has to do with how construction is funded and regulated and incentivized. How you find help afterwards depends on social relations, both your own immediate ones and the social factors that determined what kind of organizations are set up to assist you, how they are funded, what kind of assistance they think is appropriate, and how they decide who gets it. An earthquake that doesn’t interact with society is not a disaster. If that’s the case for something we consider “natural,” so much the more so for politics, economics, family life – everything is impacted by social issues.
Then again, as a humanitarian, if I consider social issues as ways in which some people are less integrated into society – considered less human – than others (which I think is what is meant by “social issues” here), that’s a paramount concern. It needs to be seen, written about, and acted on.
As a novelist, there are two answers. It’s really hard for me to imagine a world without “social issues” (although I suppose that could be the premise for a speculative story that would be either very interesting or very boring); for the sake of verisimilitude, for the sake of representing humanity, they have to be in there. Secondly, social issues are the source of a lot of conflict and deferred desire, so they are important drivers of narrative.
TQ: Which question about Infomocracy do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Q: I found the issues raised in the book really compelling and relevant to the world today. Where can I learn more about them or get more involved myself?
A: Wow, I’m so glad you asked! As a matter of fact, I’m donating a percentage of my earnings from the book to the Accountability Lab, an organization that works on improving governance and accountability from the ground up. You can learn more about them and support their work here: http://www.accountabilitylab.org. You can support them in non-financial ways by participating in their projects and getting ideas for how to promote accountability in your own local context. Other organizations are Transparency International (http://www.transparency.org) and Global Integrity (http://www.globalintegrity.org). And of course you can engage with your own governmental processes in whatever way is safe for you wherever you are. Learn all you can about the choices you are offered. Discuss them in substantive ways with people, even and especially with those who disagree with you. Vote and help to get out the vote if that’s relevant in your country, and pay attention to local elections, not just flashy national ones.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Infomocracy.
“Mishima has no idea what she’s going to do to stop the crow from in here, armed as she is with five shuriken and a stiletto. Even so, she can’t just stand here and watch. Mishima grabs a cool tube of fluoron, smooth as an antler and the perfect circumference for a comfortable grip. She inhales, steps over the platform rail, and lets her legs swing forward, reaching ahead to seize another loop with her other hand.”
TQ: What's next?
Malka: The big exciting news is that there will be a sequel to Infomocracy! The title is Null States and it will come out from Tor.com in 2017. I also have a story up at Capricious and another (non-speculative) coming out from Reservoir Lit this summer. There are a few other novels in the pipeline, speculative and non-speculative.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Tor.com, June 7, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages
It's been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global micro-democracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything's on the line.
With power comes corruption. For Ken, this is his chance to do right by the idealistic Policy1st party and get a steady job in the big leagues. For Domaine, the election represents another staging ground in his ongoing struggle against the pax democratica. For Mishima, a dangerous Information operative, the whole situation is a puzzle: how do you keep the wheels running on the biggest political experiment of all time, when so many have so much to gain?
Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and PhD candidate. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more a decade of experience in humanitarian aid and development and has responded to complex emergencies and natural disasters in Sri Lanka, Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali. Her doctoral work on the sociology of organizations at the Institut d’Études Politques de Paris (Sciences Po) explores the dynamics of multi-level governance and disaster response using the cases of Hurricane Katrina and the Japan tsunami of 2011. Malka Older’s writing can be found at Leveler, Tor.com, Bengal Lights, Sundog Lit, Capricious, Reservoir, in the poetry anthology My Cruel Invention, and in Chasing Misery, an anthology of writing by female aid workers. Her science fiction political thriller Infomocracy is the first full-length novel from Tor.com, and the sequel Null States will be published in 2017.