Exclusive Interview Null States Author Malka Older
Science fiction stories have a long history of injecting politics into their plots. The latest example of this is Malka Older’s new novel Null States (hardcover, digital), the second book in her Centenal Cycle after 2016’s Infomocracy (paperback, digital). Though in talking to her about both novels, it seems America’s most recent election, as well as other political events around the world, didn’t have as big an impact on her novels’ plots as you might imagine.
To begin, what is Null States about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book in this series, Infomocracy?
Null States takes place about two years after the end of Infomocracy. While Infomocracy is very election-focused, with Null States I wanted to look at how the system of micro-democracy and information would play out in terms of governing, not just campaigning. At the same time, it looks at places that, for various reasons, are outside or on the margins of this future global system.
Where did the original idea for this series come from, and how different was the original idea from the final version?
The idea came from my frustrations with certain elements of our current political system. On the one hand, nation-states, and all the associated difficulties that come with fetishizing territory and trying to fit a pluralist democracy on this idea that the people should somehow align with the borders. On the other hand, the ways that information is used and misused and the increasing difficulty of drilling down to a solid fact among competing claims.
I knew I wanted to write something exciting, stylish, and both action- and suspense-based to explore these issues. I used my experience working in international relief and development for a lot of the texture, so I wanted the feeling to be like that world: global, diverse, multilingual. And I had cyberpunk in mind for some of the styles. Overall, I feel it came out more or less as I envisioned, though with some surprises along the way, of course.
When in relation to the 2016 presidential election did you write Null States, and how did what happen in the election impact the story?
Infomocracy was finished by mid-2015, so solidly before the election really got going. The set-up did, however, have a lot to do with the previous three or four U.S. presidential elections.
As for Null States, it was mostly written in late 2015/early 2016, though I was editing until just after the election itself. It was challenging because I kept seeing things I had come up with before they happened but would seem like they were reactions to current events. For example, the idea of secession was written before Brexit happened.
But I don’t think I changed anything significant. For one thing, Null States is much less election-related than Infomocracy. For another, I was reluctant to draw too directly from current events, given the long time-delays in publishing and how fast things were moving. I try to work more with larger geopolitical or tech trends that I think will be relevant in fifty years. If I do get ideas from the headlines, it’s usually for more of a throw-away line or minor subplot.
That makes sense. So at what point did you realize this story needed to be a multi-book series, and what prompted that decision?
Infomocracy was conceived as a stand-alone novel, and it wasn’t until after it was finished and sold that I started to think about extending into a series. The main reason for doing it was that I felt there was a lot of the world and the system left to explore.
So how much of this series do you have figured out? Without spoiling anything, do you know how many books it will be, how it will end, etc.?
Nope, I’m a total pantser. I’m about 80% through Book3™ now, and there are still things I don’t know about how it’s going to end. Or, more accurately, how it’s going to get to the ending. I often know, and write, the end before the late middle. Part of what I enjoy about writing is the sense of discovery as I work forward from what I know about the characters and the constraints of their world to find out what’s going to happen and how.
Wait, is the book actually going to be called Book3™?
Ha! No, Book3™ is a joke. We have a tentative title but it hasn’t been announced yet.
Some of the best science fiction is about social or political issues. Did you write Null States and Infomocracy in hopes of making a point or did you just want to write a good story and it ended up with a political bent?
I definitely wanted to make a point, though it was a kind of open-ended one. I wasn’t trying to describe the perfect political system, but rather to suggest, through a thought experiment about a technologically plausible but politically radical alternative, that there are many possible variations on our global system, a whole spectrum, and lots of changes and tweaks we could be considering.
What writers and which of their books you see as being the biggest influences on Null States and Infomocracy, both in terms of what you wrote and also how you wrote them?
[Neal Stephenson’s] Snow Crash and The West Wing were the most important influences.
In writing Null States, was there anything you wished you did differently in Infomocracy?
Mainly I wished I’d had the forethought to use the phrase “null states.”
On the flipside, was there anything that did in Infomocracy that, at the time, wasn’t a big deal, but ended up becoming much more important in Null States?
The lives of some of the side characters evolved in interesting ways. It’s one of the nice things about the two-year gap between books: you can see how what looked like an ending was just a chapter break so to speak, in someone’s story.
Speaking of Infomocracy, it was recently released in paperback. Is there anything different about this edition from the original hardcover?
No, no additional materials, just a convenient smaller lighter packaging.
So, has there been any interest in turning Null States and Infomocracy into a movie or TV show?
There’s been some early talk but nothing confirmed yet. But I think TV could be more fun in that it would allow for more exploration of the world, as opposed to just adapting the books.
If that happened, who would you like them to cast in the main roles?
In general, I’d prefer unknowns. Movie stars bring a lot of baggage to the roles they play. That said, a recent review of Null States suggested Mahershala Ali [Hidden Figures] to play Suleyman. I could get behind that.
Finally, if someone really enjoys Null States and Infomocracy, what would you suggest they read next?
I already mentioned that Stephenson’s Snow Crash was a huge influence on Infomocracy — if you haven’t read it…just do — and most of his books are good bets, but Cryptonomicon and Anathem are also standouts in terms of data and politics. Also, The Cobweb, which Stephenson co-wrote with J. Frederick George, is not exactly science fiction, but it is a great political thriller and hugely relevant now, even though it’s set in the recent past.
Neuromancer by William Gibson is a fundamental cyberpunk text and a great book; I’m also fond of his novel Pattern Recognition.
Ursula K. Le Guin is amazing throughout her canon, but The Dispossessed and The Left Hand Of Darkness are both amazing on politics and big ideas and human interaction across cultures.
Similarly, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series [Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy], while normally classified under space opera, is also, I would argue, a big-ideas political thriller, and an amazing one.
There’s also some very cool writing about political structure in the fantasy genre, and Max Gladstone’s smart Craft Sequence is a terrific example.
N.K. Jemisin…I’d suggest you just read all her stuff, but in terms of recommendations, I was thinking particularly of The Dreamblood Duology [The Killing Moon, The Shadowed Sun].
Lastly, you should also read all of Octavia E. Butler, but I think the Parables [Parable Of The Sower, Parable Of The Talents] are particularly relevant to Null States and Infomocracy.
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