INFINITE DETAIL by Tim Maughan (Book Review)
“Well, what did you think was going to happen? After you broke everything? Really? What did you think? That everything would magically take care of itself? That this network of yours would provide all the answers?”
Tim Maughan’s debut novel Infinite Detail (2019) delivers that shock to the system that only the best speculative fiction can. Reading it reminded me of discovering Jack Womack’s Random Acts Of Senseless Violence (1993) or Octavia Butler’s Parable Of The Sower (1993) for the first time. As those novels did, Infinite Detail uses the lens of speculative fiction to talk urgently about the world now, creating a near-future nightmare that one has to keep checking hasn’t already happened.
Maughan has made a name for himself with his short fiction and non-fiction, examining the overlap between technology, class, race and globalism, and how these things are changing the very fabric of our lives, frequently without us noticing. Infinite Detail picks up these ideas and themes and runs with them. Split between two timelines, the novel examines a future so near you can almost taste it of smart cities, augmented reality goggles and complete internet surveillance, and contrasts it with a world after a global act of cyberterrorism has fried the internet completely. The end result is a novel that is unflinching in its exploration of the interface between humanity and digital technology, the freedoms we are unthinkingly throwing away in the name of convenience and our increasing dependence on these decentralised networks of algorithms none of us really understand. Full of wry humour and brutal satire, Infinite Detail is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying.
Infinite Detail opens in post-apocalyptic Bristol, in a scene reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s classic Dr. Bloodmoney: with a special character whose abilities to see another world give them unusual power in this broken world. I feel this is pertinent for two reasons. Firstly because it draws the connection between Maughan and Dick’s post-apocalyptic scenarios: whereas Dr. Bloodmoney is Cold War post-nuclear paranoia writ large, Maughan’s apocalypse, the leading technological anxiety of today, is a world in which the internet has ceased to function. It’s easy to be trite about that but Maughan points out that everything from the world’s banking systems to international trade to communications to emergency services increasingly relies on a digital infrastructure; removing all this would indeed cause worldwide devastation. Secondly, it draws a parallel between Dick’s psychic clashing layers of alternate realities and the digital realm. Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality operate by asking us to interact with a digitally overlaid reality which is not in a physical sense “there”. By comparing it to Dick’s competing realities, which frequently have metaphysical overtones, Maughan is making us conceive of the digital realm as another plane of existence, an afterlife or half-life that can only fleetingly interact with the material world. Even more so than Dick, the answers revealed by Maughan’s puzzles imply that anyone looking for salvation in the metaphysical realms of the digital has truly been duped.
The novel is mostly set in the Croft, a district in Bristol. By the 2020s, the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, a group of countercultural artists and anarchists, has rebelled against corporatisation and Big Data by blocking off the internet. Within the Croft, people are free from internet surveillance and have developed their own network, the Flex, masterminded by Rushdi Mannan, which operates in a ground up manner and does not interface with the outside digital infrastructure. After the crash, the Croft’s digital isolation has protected it somewhat, and is now run by Grids, a gangster who is in charge of the Croft’s black market. Anika, ex-artist turned freedom fighter, returns to the Croft seeking a solution to the brutalisation of the people by the fascistic Land’s Army.
Infinite Detail shares with cyberpunk a fascination with the ways that virtual reality and augmented reality can interact with the real world, frequently to the benefit of corporate control. However, rather than replaying a ‘hackers versus the government’ corporation scenario from the 80s, Maughan explores how technology such as smart cities or internet goggles can be used to further entrench the existing hegemonies of control. New York’s state-of-the-art smart city dustbins scan in the codes of recycled goods as they are disposed of and credit the deposit back to the user, thus undermining the livelihood of “canners” like Frank who make a living collecting coins in return for discarded recycling. Thus a digital system to make recycling more efficient in big cities has the possibly intended side effect of further disenfranchising anyone who doesn’t have credit. Similarly, when Rush is travelling through US immigration, he is racially profiled by the border security and subjected to a vicious beating when he tries to access the internet via his glasses, a stark reminder of the treatment of people of colour at border crossings in the US. Infinite Detail is not concerned with paranoid visions of the future but measured extrapolations of existing trends in tech and culture.
Maughan writes a diverse cast of characters; his heroes are frequently people of colour from a working class background who have to find their own way in a society that favours the rich and the white, allowing him to examine the ways in which racist and classist ideals in society are perpetuated through technology designed by rich white people. In a memorable scene before the crash he explores how technology is used both by Black Lives Matter protesters and the riot-gear-clad cops sent to control the crowd: the former to subvert systems of control and the latter to enforce them. Much of the novel’s most brutal satire comes from the scenes in which Rush, visiting his boyfriend in New York City, is dragged along to the parties of vacuous white Wallstreet speculators. Rush and Maughan’s contempt for these sheltered privileged elites is palpable.
Infinite Detail at its heart is concerned with ideas around technology and responsibility. Dronegod$, the online community of hackers that source the devastating virus that knocks out the internet, point out that, rather than becoming a tool of emancipation, the internet has turned its users into products whose worldview is controlled and determined by a series of algorithms that no one really understands. Much of the evil perpetuated by the internet can be conceived of in terms of reducing people’s agency, both on an individual and societal level. The cyberterrorist destruction of the internet is a violent reaction to this, an attempt to regain self determination. However, as Grids points out, simply destroying the digital infrastructure is itself irresponsible. Social orders have collapsed and many people have died in the ensuing struggle, many more have been displaced and have had their ways of life upended. Without any positive plan to fill the power vacuum, people like Grids, who can run their areas like gangsters, or the fascist Land’s Army, are what rise up to take the place of the existing systems of control.
However, Infinite Detail is not without hope. The Flex, a way of networking that is built from the ground up rather than from the top down, and without the concerns of capital and advertising at its heart that reduce people to a product, is able to still function after the crash. This suggests a new, more egalitarian form of the internet that might be able to live up to the revolutionary potential of the original idea. Whilst Maughan remains cynical about whether or not humanity is capable of dealing with being digitally networked, through this he suggests a way out of the terrifying future he has put before us.