It’s rare for me to be as excited about a new release as I am about Tim Maughan’s excellent debut novel, Infinite Detail. I don’t recall exactly who put me on to Maughan’s work—someone on Twitter, surely, as that’s where I’ve gotten most of my book news and recommendations for close to a decade now—but I read Paintwork in 2016 and felt like I’d finally found the kind of science fiction I’d been looking for, and which the genre seemed determined not to give me.
For those who haven’t encountered Maughan’s fiction before I’d probably say that it combines William Gibson’s remarkable ability to see right to the heart of now with the politics and analysis of someone like Adam Greenfield and the weird narrative prototyping of design fiction,1 although that doesn’t seem quite right. Jay Owens might call it kitchen sink dystopia, which applies to much of his short fiction, but Infinite Detail doesn’t really fit there. We could try some comp titles. I could tell you that I recommend Infinite Detail if you liked Warren Ellis’ Normal, Madeline Ashby’s Company Town, or Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, although none of those quite hit the mark either. Infinite Detail isn’t trapped by genre the way Ashby’s book is, forced to change the stakes and throw away hard-won character development in the face of convention. Maughan also has more than just a surface-level understanding of how class actually functions, the lack of which cripples Doctorow’s writing; you’ll be getting the real thing from Maughan, a world where the “lower” classes aren’t just start-up brogrammers who can’t find work. Warren Ellis’ Normal might be the comparison that works best, though while the two writers are about on par with their prose chops, Maughan seems to care less about the clockwork machinery of his stories and more about the people. Or maybe it’s closer to a stripped-down version of what Nick Harkaway was doing in Gnomon? That comparison has problems, too. Tim might yell at me if I bring up Charlie Brooker. There honestly aren’t all that many touchstones. This a good thing.
Infinite Detail is about network effects, about tracing the impacts that enormous systems—systems that are human made but beyond the scale of any individual human’s understanding or control—have on individuals and communities. And it’s about what happens when somebody says “enough” and burns those systems down. The novel is split into chapters that jump back and forth between “Before” and “After,” referring to the event that brought down the Internet and dropped the entire world into the kind of proper dystopia that many in the global south already live in.
Initially I found myself more interested in the “Before” chapters, with their insightful, if occasionally blunt, dissection of the tradeoffs we make when we ask for convenience from the network and the unintended consequences of those tradeoffs that we are usually willfully oblivious to. It was a bit of a thrill to follow Rush through those early chapters as he tried to make a modern life for himself but still resist surveillance capitalism using tools and skills that have limited value—or at least limited immediate value—outside that context. One of my favourite bits from these chapters is actually available to read online.
As the novel progressed I found myself more and more drawn to the “After” chapters, however, and not just because it became increasingly obvious what the “event” was that the “Before” chapters were leading up to. It’s been clear for some time now that capitalism isn’t sustainable and that something needs to change. What isn’t clear—what can’t be clear—is what’s going to happen next, and how we’re going to get there. I have books on the subject, some I’ve read and some still in the stack, and I have friends who are even writing books about alternate structures that might offer a hopeful transition. Mostly I’m skeptical: there are reasons power and privilege aren’t surrendered without a fight, and the various flavours of anarchism and libertarianism I’ve seen offered up as de-centralized, non-state alternatives strike me as just different mutations of the same species of magical thinking. There are mysteries in the “After” chapters: who is Anika? What’s up with Mary’s “ghosts”? What happened to Rush? But it’s ultimately Maughan’s anticipation of my kind of skepticism that drives that part of Infinite Detail, and his answer is real and raw—Grids’ speech about self-determination later in the book should be required reading for anyone who thinks or writes about these issues. People are going to die. There will be power vacuums and violence, famine and disease. People will be crippled by memory and by the loss of memory after decades of externalizing it. But there will also be music, and art, and hope, people taking responsibility and charting new paths.
It’s fascinating to me that one of the most hopeful moments in the entire novel, which occurs near the end of the extended epilogue, has its origins in an act of love, but that it, too, is compromised. I won’t get into too much detail—surely discussing events in the epilogue counts as “spoiling”—but I will say that the hope created by that act of love winds up not only enabling violence, but what is created also seems to require violence to keep it from falling apart or being overwhelmed. In Walkaway, Doctorow suggests there might be room for a bloodless revolution; Maughan knows that isn’t possible. It’s oddly satisfying, in a way, that it’s so goddamn messy and compromised.
That being said, don’t come to Infinite Detail expecting a thrill ride full of gunfights or hacker battles or whatever else. It’s not that. It’s a slow burn, and the plot doesn’t hinge upon or resolve via violence. Maughan’s writing doesn’t need those things to be interesting, and I’d honestly have been disappointed if that was the kind of novel he’d produced. The strength of his work has always been in his ability to weld the science fictional to the everyday, and through that process reveal what is both exhilarating and terrifying about now and about us. Infinite Detail has that in spades and fully lives up to both my expectations and the positive press it’s been receiving. Maughan has written a bold and unsettling first novel that is nothing short of magnificent. I only just finished my first read through this morning, and this post has only scratched the surface of what’s interesting about this book. I expect I’ll be thinking about and returning to Infinite Detail for quite some time.