In State Tectonics, an explosive ending for the future of democracy

An omnipotent data infrastructure and knowledge-sharing tech organization has spread across the planet. Global conspiracies to disseminate propaganda and rig elections are ever present. Algorithms determine what people see as objective truth, and terrorist organizations gird to bring down the monopoly on information. Malka Older faces a problem few speculative science fiction authors face in […]

An omnipotent data infrastructure and knowledge-sharing tech organization has spread across the planet. Global conspiracies to disseminate propaganda and rig elections are ever present. Algorithms determine what people see as objective truth, and terrorist organizations gird to bring down the monopoly on information.

Malka Older faces a problem few speculative science fiction authors face in their lifetimes: having their work become a blueprint for reality. The author, who began formulating her Centenal Cycle series just a few years ago, now finds that her plots have leapt off the page and have become the daily fodder for cable news programs and Congressional investigations. Her universe is set decades into the future, but history is accelerating, and decades into the future can now mean 2019.

So we arrive at the third and final volume of a trilogy that began as a single work called Infomocracy and has proliferated into Null States and now State Tectonics. Ending a trilogy is rarely easy, but State Tectonics does what Older has always done best with her works, smashing together ideas about the future of politics with a medley of thriller styles to deliver an ample helping of thought-provoking nuance.

Older’s world is built on two simple premises. First, through a project called microdemocracy, the world has been subdivided into 100,000 person governing units known as centenals, and every citizen in the world has the right of migration to choose the government they want. This creates strange artifacts — for instance, in dense areas like New York City, citizens can change governments from a corporate-backed libertarian paradise to a leftist environmental oasis in as quick as a subway stop.

Second, to ensure that citizens can make the best choices for themselves, a global organization called Information (a hybrid Google, United Nations, and BBC) tirelessly works to provide objective information to citizens about politics and the world, verifying claims about everything from election promises to the taste of items on a restaurant menu.

Together, they allow Older to explore a world of information manipulation and electoral strategy while meditating on the meaning of objective truth. Across the trilogy, we follow a crew of Information staffers as they uncover political plots and intrigue around a series of global elections. This structure allows Older to create paced thrillers without losing the intellectual spirit of speculative fiction.

While in her last work Null States, the focus was on inequality and lack of access to information, in State Tectonics, Older interrogates the meaning of Information’s monopoly on … information itself. In this microdemocratic world, it is a crime to provide unverified information to people, and yet, Information hardly has infinite knowledge about the world. A shadowy group starts to purvey local information about cities and people outside the normal Information channels, and that raises profound questions — who ultimately “owns” reality? How do we decide what objective truth even is?

In the background of this central question is a trial for an Information staffer accused of the crime of algorithmic bias, of adjusting reality to suit her own ends. Sound familiar?

As a work of speculative fiction — particularly about a subject as complex as the future of democracy — State Tectonics is superlative. Older is striking in her frenetic ability to weave together idea after idea into vignettes that caused this reader to constantly stop and wander in thought. In just this book, we have discussions on the future of politics, mental health, infrastructure finance, transportation, food, nationalism, and identity politics. The dynamic range here is exhilarating.

Unfortunately, that enormous range forces Older to sacrifice depth, not only in the sophistication of some of these topics, which are often only conceived in slight brushstrokes, but also in the characters themselves. After three reasonably hefty books, I still don’t feel as if I truly know the characters I’ve spent so much time with. They are like friends in a transient city such as New York City, people to hang out with on weekends, but not worth a followup once they move on.

More pejoratively, the book feels constantly weighed down by extraneous details that at times can feel more like Wikipedia than assiduous worldbuilding. In this regard, Older has actually matured as a writer from her earlier works, as the detailed digressions are fewer and far between, but they remain as distracting from her core plot, and take time away from the needed work of fleshing out her characters further.

State Tectonics, like its earlier siblings, is the best and worst of fusion cuisine: the brilliant items on the menu can inspire us to think radically beyond our traditional categories and beliefs, but the vast majority of the dishes end up being mishmashes that are ultimately ephemeral and forgotten. The novel is brilliant in discoursing on the future of democracy, and if that is a topic of keen interest, few books will satisfy that urge like this one will.

In Bad Blood, a pedestrian tale of heuristics and lies

In a world where thousands and thousands of startups are started in the Bay Area every year, becoming a name that everyone recognizes is no small feat. Theranos reached that summit, and it all came crashing down. The story of the fraudulent rise and precipitous fall of the company and its entrepreneur, Elizabeth Holmes, is […]

In a world where thousands and thousands of startups are started in the Bay Area every year, becoming a name that everyone recognizes is no small feat.

Theranos reached that summit, and it all came crashing down.

The story of the fraudulent rise and precipitous fall of the company and its entrepreneur, Elizabeth Holmes, is also the singular story of the journalist who chronicled the company. John Carreyrou’s tenacious and intrepid reporting at the Wall Street Journal would ultimately expose one of the largest frauds ever perpetrated in Silicon Valley.

Bad Blood is the culmination of that investigative reporting. The swift decline of Theranos and its protective legal apparatus has done this story a lot of good: many of the anonymous sources that underpinned Carreyrou’s WSJ coverage are now public and visible, allowing the author to weave together the various articles he published into a holistic and complete story.

And yet, what I found in the book was not all that thrilling or shocking, but rather astonishingly pedestrian.

Part of the challenge is Carreyrou’s laconic WSJ tone, with its “just the facts” attitude that is punctuated only occasionally by brief interludes on the motivations and psychology of its characters. That style is appreciated by this subscriber of the paper daily, but the book-length treatment suffers a bit from a lack of charisma.

The real challenge though is that the raw story — for all of its fraud — lacks the sort of verve that makes business thrillers like Barbarians at the Gate or Red Notice so engaging. The characters that Carreyrou has to work with just aren’t all that interesting. One could argue that perhaps the book is too early — with criminal charges filed and court trials coming, we may well learn much more about the conspiracy and its participants. But I don’t think so, mostly because the fraud seems so simple in its premise.

At the heart of this story is the use of heuristics by investors and customers to make their largest decisions. Theranos is a story of the snowball effect blown up to an avalanche: a retired and successful venture capitalist seeds the company, leading to other investors to see that name and invest, and onwards and upwards for more than a decade, eventually collecting a cast of characters around the table that includes James Mattis, the current Secretary of Defense, and Henry Kissinger.

Take Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire owner of News Corporation (and by extension the Wall Street Journal), who invested $125 million into Theranos near the end of the company’s story. He met Holmes at a dinner in Silicon Valley:

During the dinner, Holmes came over to Murdoch’s table, introduced herself, and chatted him up. The strong first impression she made on him was bolstered by [Yuri] Milner, who sang her praises when Murdoch later asked him what he thought of the young woman.

….

But unlike the big venture capital firms, he did no due diligence to speak of. The eighty-four-year-old mogul tended to just follow his gut, an approach that had served him well …

He made one call before investing $125 million.

To some readers, that might be a breathtaking sum, but it really is something of a pittance for Murdoch, whose reported net worth today is roughly $17 billion. In the denouement of the Theranos story, Carreyrou notes that, “The media mogul sold his stock back to Theranos for one dollar so he could claim a big tax write-off on his other earnings. With a fortune estimated at $12 billion, Murdoch could afford to lose more than $100 million on a bad investment.”

For Murdoch, a bad heuristic around the company cost him roughly 1% of his net wealth, and with the tax loss, may not have cost him much of anything at all.

That’s the challenge of the book: for all the fraud committed by Theranos and its founder, its financial losses were ultimately borne by the ultra-rich. This is not the 2008 Financial Crisis, where millions of people are thrown out of their homes due to the chicanery of Wall Street fat cats.

If there is a lesson in all of this, it is that the right heuristics would have helped these investors to an extraordinarily degree. Take for example the rapid turnover of Theranos’ workforce, which could have been checked on LinkedIn in minutes and would have signaled something deeply wrong with the company’s culture and leadership. It doesn’t take many questions to discover the fraud here if they are the right questions.

Beyond the investors and workers though, the harm is even hard to track to patients. There are perhaps no more serious consequences around Theranos’ fraud than for patients, who took tests on the company’s proprietary Edison machines and received inaccurate and at times faked results. Yet, Carreyrou strangely hasn’t compiled a compelling set of patients for whom Theranos caused morbidity. If any industry comes out positively in this book, it is the doctors of patients who reorder tests and ask additional questions when results didn’t make sense.

Ultimately, Bad Blood is a complete book about an important story. I’m reminded a bit of the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, in which the filmmakers travel to Indonesia to have the killers of the 1965 communist genocide recreate the murders they perpetrated. The director’s cut is long and at times remarkably tedious, and yet, that is in many ways precisely the point. As a viewer, you become inured to the murder, bereft of emotion while waiting for the ending credits to roll.

Bad Blood is the same: its direct, to the point, and relatively sparing in any deep thrills. And that is its point. The book gives us a pinprick in our belief that Silicon Valley’s vaunted investors and founders are immune to stupidity. If you didn’t already know that before, you certainly now have a one-word household name of a startup to reference.