So You Want a Revolution: On Tim Maughan's Infinite Detail
Tim Maughan | Infinite Detail |372 pages | MCD x FSG Originals | March 5, 2019
Tim Maughan’s debut novel, Infinite Detail, examines the world as we inhabit it as well as a post-infrastructure society, asking which one of those worlds is dystopia. Chapters alternate between two chronologies, the “Before” and “After” of a major event that irreparably fries the globe’s internet structure. Before, a ragtag collection of anarchists have banded together to create a community that is off “the grid,” a self-sustaining network unencumbered by the weighty demands of a worldwide technocracy in Stokes Croft, Bristol. After, that same community becomes a haven of sorts, an abandoned war zone. A place whose craters and graffiti tells the story of what once was, and what is now.
Themes of revolution, surveillance, loneliness, and even a love story loom heavy in the minds of Maughan’s two main narrators, Rush and Anika. Rush is a cyber-networking genius, powered by suspicion and realism and often betrayed by his own softness of spirit. Annika is a guerrilla-art “curator” hard-wired for altruism and anarchy, even as the world crumbles around her until she’s not sure if those things can co-exist anymore. We see the world Before through Rush’s calculating, paranoid perspective, and the world After through Annika’s disillusioned eyes. There’s also Mary and Tyrone, two children of After who narrate the fallout of a war they aren’t old enough to remember.
When the global network falls, the little commune in Stokes Croft is overwhelmed with waves of people looking for a new infrastructure -- one that hasn’t been corroded by malignant operators. There’s a moment of triumph, of sovereignty, when the connections fail all at once, and Maughan nails the description of our collective online fever dream breaking at last:
“[There was ] a very real sense that something had ended, had gone, something huge and fundamental. The feeling that a structure -- a way of life, something nobody could really imagine changing -- had collapsed. The end of being watched. The end of being tracked. The end of being indentured to it all. The end of capital. The end of security. The end of knowing. The end of safety. The end of being reassured. The end of being connected. The end of friendships. It was all there, in that crowd, sprayed across faces that had been denied sleep and electricity and communication for days -- the fear, the uncertainty, the excitement, the thrill. The relief.”
But the things that Stokes Croft stood for, like artistic freedom and self-determination, are soon co-opted by newcomer’s greater concerns for physical safety, shelter, and food to eat. The commune becomes a staging area for a bloody conflict between the failing old guard government, desperate to retake control, and a cast of newly minted outlaws who don’t stand a chance.
A message board manifesto that narrates the hopes and desires on the frustrated millennial in a tone that only the Reddit-acquainted may be equipped to fully understand crystallizes the novel’s defining tension: What is the problem with the internet? Maughan’s cyber-terrorists put it this way:
“We used to think that we could own it, that we were fighting to build communities for ourselves. That it was ours for the taking. To stake a claim for a place we could control and belong, a fight to make “safe spaces” for ourselves.It was a noble thing to think, that we were fighting for our own spaces, but we were kidding ourselves. We never owned these spaces, we never could. They were never ours to own, never ours to control. Instead we watch our battles turn into spectator sports, our revolutions turn to infighting. We watched our new communities dissolve into civil wars. We watched our political activist and community leaders become celebrity brands, our tech-utopian visionaries bow to capital and shareholders.”
We know something has gone deeply wrong, but is the same thing that’s corrupting our connections also corroding us inside? Would any story of a global infrastructure end the very same way -- talking nonsense to each other until it rings hollow in our ears, an inescapable Babel brought to life? And what if -- what if -- that cataclysmic severing, that cycle of forced disconnection, wasn’t the worst thing that could happen?
The spectres who build their lives in the internet-scarred civilization left in After hold their humanity close. Under this kind of cultivation, they are cable-tied to their own frailty, their own instincts, their own strengths. They are “human meanings, unreliable, fragile, and malleable.” Over a decade out from the day the internet was “eaten,” Anika encounters the network again and slips into a memory that’s not quite nostalgic. “Shadows realign, the sky changes. The world is full of ghosts, crowded around her. Pixels thrown at her retinas by twitching laser lenses. It’s both instantly a rush, that transportation to another time, and instantly familiar… Infinite fucking detail, just like the last time. It makes her think of biting into her favorite childhood candy, only to realize it’s both too sweet and too hard.”
If we are, indeed, accelerating our march toward dystopia, Infinite Detail provides a road map of interrogation to probe our narrative: what we should hope for, what we should resist, and ultimately, who our technology has shaped us to be. There’s no turning back in Maughan’s cyberpunk black-market cultural rebirth -- but even in the darkest places lurks a throbbing, ancient, insistent human energy. That energy is a glimmer of light in the otherwise dismal landscape of Infinite Detail, the sun dawning over the horizon, the belief that the same human failings that devastate us could be the ones that bring us back to life.