Imagining a world without the internet is a tempting proposition these days. Even as it has become a necessary tool of daily life and a source of connection, it’s also a toxic stew of anger, disinformation, and manipulation that has had a corrosive, corrupting effect on everything from mental health to western democracy. What if we could just turn it off? If Tim Maughan’s scintillating Infinite Detail (2019) is any indication, we might want to be careful what we wish for.
Infinite Detail ricochets back and forth over an information apocalypse in the near future. In the “after” times, the novel explores a dystopian scenario wherein the internet’s collapse has destroyed the global supply chain, creating a harsh, disonnected world of fragmented survivalism. In the “before” tracks, the events leading up to this cataclysm are charted, depicting a vivid near-future within breathing distance of our own. The story revolves around one Rushdi Mannan, a revolutionary hacker and one of the founders of “the Croft,” a collective community in Bristol, England where he and his like-minded colleagues have established their own off-grid network free of the polluting influences of the global web ecosphere. The Croft ends up being the perfect viewpoint for an examination of the many issues a metastacizing, world-warping internet have had on our world, how its collapse might disrupt it, and the ways in which something new might be built to replace it.
As temporally disjointed as Infinite Detail may be, it reads very quickly, a stylish and compelling visit to a pair of equally memorable stages of the future. Conventional storytelling may take a back seat to thought-provoking tableau, but Maughan’s finely crafted alternating tracks do ultimately paint an intriguing picture that first builds and then solves the mystery of a world-transforming turning point. Along the way, sympathetic and well-drawn characters give thoughtful voice to the problems of the wired world we’ve created, and the ramifications of its removal, particularly as a tool of political control and for the regulation of late-stage capitalism. It’s impossible to understand our current moment without considering the impacts of the internet on every facet of our lives. Infinite Detail may be the perfect science fiction novel for readers seeking to muse on that elephant in the room, a convincingly drawn and thought-provoking meditation on the web’s far-reaching effects.