January 16, 2023

Tim Maughan — Infinite Detail (2019)

It’s a curse of our current vantage point, that we feel compelled now to assess works of speculative fiction published immediately before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, against our lived experiences these past three years. Tim Maughan’s 2019 novel, Infinite Detail, is concerned with a very different worldwide disaster: one which is ‘viral’ in a digital sense, rather than in a biological / epidemiological one. Nevertheless, the allegory bears fruit by virtue of the extent to which Maughan is interested in the secondary effects of isolation, scarcity, and precarity. Separated into ‘Before’ and ‘After’ chapters, the novel’s fulcrum is an act of technological terrorism that results in the complete collapse of the internet. Maughan — who has written for outlets including the BBC, New Scientist, and Vice on ‘cities, class, culture, technology’ etc. — uses this pivot as means to explore both our current (over-)dependence on networked systems, and the potential shape of consequences to their collapse. For those of us who, not long ago, queued to get into supermarkets, where a mix of fear, greed, and straining infrastructure had already rendered shelves mostly empty, there are passages here that have grown eerily familiar in the years since the novel’s publication.

Maughan draws characters well enough, incorporating voices recognisable from the south west of Britain, in which large portions of the novel are set. Things are a little less sharply rendered with respect to the through-lines of characters’ motivations, and the architecture of the novel’s overall plot. The alternating ‘Before’ & ‘After’ chapter headings have the unfortunate effect of casting the technological catastrophe as the narrative’s center point. And when it comes (in the form of a pseudo-manifesto more than half way through the text), it is underwhelming, largely comprising such edgelord bons mots as ‘we let ourselves become nothing more than the content between adverts’ and ‘SkyNet is real, and it wants to sell you shoes made by child slaves’.

Perhaps, however, this is Maughan’s point: this is an act of terrorism perpetrated by people who consider it an act of liberation via vandalism, and whom prove shamefully ignorant of the extensive consequences. To his credit — and the novel’s benefit — less focus is spent on the mechanics of the collapse (settling for hand-waving talk of viruses, worms, and floods of junk data) than on how people — and collectives of people — cope. In mining this vein of narrative, Maughan is commendably unromantic, even-handedly exploring the undeniable negatives of commercialised hyper-connectivity, but also the ways in which forced disconnection could be worse. I enjoyed these passages where they occurred, even if I came away wishing that the novel overall had committed to a thesis — something which I found a little lacking.

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As a side note, there is a thread of Infinite Detail that concerns the digital preservation of a particular location in the form of a temporally-manipulable virtual space. Donning AR glasses (‘spex’, in the parlance of the novel), characters are able to virtually explore a recorded time period in the history of the space that they are physically inhabiting. This rekindled my long-held desire for a digital experience akin to attending a piece of Punchdrunk’s elaborate, immersive theatre. I found myself repeatedly ruminating on the possibilities represented by The Croft of Maughan’s novel as setting for a non-combat, exploration / mystery video game, following in the footsteps of titles like Return of the Obra Dinn (2018) and Umurangi Generation (2020).