Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Microreview [book]: Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan

Gibson would be proud

What if all the digital technology that we increasingly rely on just...shut down? What if suddenly there was no Facebook, Google or Spotify? No working cellular towers, automated processes of access to the databases that are rapidly replacing libraries of all kinds? We'd be screwed, right?

Now add twenty or so years of current trends to that tally, and imagine the level of screwed-ness we would experience if it all just went...blank.

This is the premise of Tim Maughan's debut novel, Infinite Detail, and it's as terrifying as it sounds. But not necessarily how you might think. Maughan recognizes the threat inherent to such a collapse - to states, social structures, health outcomes and so forth. And the future he imagines is bleak, populated by hardscrabble anarchist communes in the cities and forced collectivization in the hinterland - neither providing much in the way of life outcomes.

Maughan's ultimate targets, though, are the tech giants and increasingly militarized governments of today; Infinite Detail argues that our increasing dependence on them, as well as their interdependence on one another, is producing both dystopia and a "digital bubble," so to speak, which in turn primes us for a catastrophic collapse. Infinite Detail, in short, attempts to shine a light on our increasingly worrysome relationship to information technology - by extrapolating present conditions to their logical conclusion.

In doing so, it represents an important new contribution to an important tradition within science fiction, one most commonly associated with cyberpunk. But as much as Infinite Detail is a spiritual descendent and legatee of cyberpunk, it stands in rather sharp contrast to superficial aesthetic homages to Gibson, Sterling et al. that have proliferated over the past decade. The critique does feel a little too direct sometimes, but I chonestly an't think of any near-future SF that does a better job of both grasping the deeper truths of Neuromancer and moving past them.

Infinite Detail takes place on two timelines: before the crash event and afterwards. Before chapters center on Rushdie Mannan, a digital anarchist of sorts who mistrusts the tech giants and so creates an intranet within the Croft area of Bristol so its residents can use an alternative. These chapters focus on Mannan's love interest in New York and are, to me, the weak point of the book. It's not that the story is bad, but it does feel a bit tacked on. There are some other Before passages, though, that really stuck to me - like one about a homeless man in New York who can no longer collect cans for recycling  reimbursement because the city has transitioned to a fully automated smart system (which locks the homeless out of a crucial means of subsistence).

After chapters center on a few characters in and around the Croft. Mary is a teenager who has visions of those who died just after the collapse; Grids runs the black market; Tyrone, who seeks out records of dubstep and drum n' bass amid the detritus of collapsed Britain; and Anika, a militant dedicated to insurgency against the Land Army - the dominant force in the countryside, and one responsible for a rather hideous campaign of forced collectivization. I liked these a lot more - they are as absorbing as they are disquieting.

Overall, Infinite Detail is top-notch near-future SF. I'm often frustrated at how little SF really grapples with the implications of our present. This is why I've always been so drawn to cyberpunk. Infinite Detail is not cyberpunk, but to me it couples the core themes of cyberpunk with a gaze that is thoroughly and unmistakably that of 2019. Highly recommended.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for this is really smart, forward-thinking stuff; +1 for channeling the spirit of cyberpunk rather than retro aesthetics.

Penalties: -1 for it feels a little too on-the-nose at times; -1 for the Before chapters sometimes feeling tacked on.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.