In science-fictional worlds and the real one, we often look to technology to solve the problems that plague us as a species. The chilling events that unfold in the future of Tim Maughan’s dystopian cyberpunk debut Infinite Detail make a convincing case that tech might not be nearly enough to save us.
Set in both a near future in which interlinked algorithms and data collection have infiltrated every part of our lives, and a farther future, some 10 years after an apocalyptic network blackout destroys the digital infrastructure worldwide, it posits that our reliance on technology may hurt more people than it helps—both in the uneven distribution of privilege in a highly-networked world, and due to the mass chaos, should the modem lights even go permanently on the blink. It’s not, however, the cynical anti-technological screed you might be expecting. For a novel of the technopocalypse, Infinite Detail manages to approach its subject with a certain guarded optimism; stripped of the connectivity that defines our modern lives, are we not still al… human?
Founded by an iconoclast named Rushdi Mannan, the Croft was supposed to be the solution for an over-networked world: a blacked-out section of Bristol with its own private, decentralized network, it was imagined as a unplugged utopia, a haven for people who yearned for an existence independent of a smart-networked world culture in which every human action is catalogued and algorithmically quantified. But 10 years after a cyberterrorism attack collapses civilization, the Croft has become a squatters’ village run by gangsters, multiple paramilitary factions have declared martial law across the land, and Rushdi has vanished. In the midst of chaos, a young woman named Mary hires out her supposed gifts as a medium; she professes to be able to show people the fates of loved ones killed in the initial panic. Meanwhile, a crime boss named Grids searches for info on a missing musician, and Anika, a terrorist with ties to the Croft, makes her way back to Bristol for her own shadowy reasons. Each of them has a part to play in the future of the Croft and the world outside of it, but will it be a future worth rebuilding?
The narrative is divided between event “Before” and “After” the fall of the global networks, each alive with interesting detail: During a demonstration in the Before, the masked protestors’ signs are all augmented-reality readouts projected above their heads of the masked protesters; “After” builds a grimier, yet more vibrant world, imagining the Croft as a thriving marketplace, moving to the soundtrack of pirate radio DJs, the air rich with the scents of Grids’s spice farm. As the narrative reveals what happened to turn the Croft from utopian hacker space to a thriving squatters’ village slowly come together, the threads connecting the timelines pull tighter; the result is a truly convincing vision of a plausible future.
So far, so cyberpunk? Perhaps on the surface, but Maughan’s take is far more nuanced and complex that a mere reordering of familiar tropes. If it’s easy to paint technology as a sinister force, it’s vilification also does harm. The idealistic founding of the Croft gentrifies an entire neighborhood and forces long-term residents to adapt to Rush’s weird designs, and far from freeing humanity, the blackout paves the way for martial law, gangs, slave labor, and resource control.
People prove as difficult to classify. Grids might be a crime boss lording over a former utopian collective, but he clearly cares for many of the residents. Rush may have had the world’s best interests in mind when he proposed we wean ourselves away from he digital drip, but seems blinkered at times by his own cynicism, self-interest, and contempt for those who don’t share his ideals. Anika fights a totalitarian militia, but also struggles to reconcile the violent actions of her past. This two-pronged exploration of what’s to come finds flaws not in “the system” or “the people,” but in the places where the two intersect, or don’t; in short, the real problem may be our inability or unwillingness to see the big picture.
Infinite Detail is bleak, but its guardedly optimistic message about the possibility of repairing a broken world filled with broken systems without resorting to broken solutions feels deeply necessary. From the wreckage of the damage caused by the dreams of tech-savvy revolutionaries, Maughan constructs a convincing argument that the tools we’re engineering right now to save ourselves can’t leave people behind. It’s a book whose time has come, and one that raises questions that will hopefully linger in the minds of readers for years to come.
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