This piece originally appeared as part of my weekly newsletter, The Full Lid on 8th February 2019. If you liked it, and want a weekly down of pop culture enthusiasm, occasional ketchup recipes and me enjoying things, then check out the archive and sign up here.
Rush built the Croft’s network to be the exact thing the internet isn’t; a resource defined by the community using it instead of the other way round. Before the collapse, The Croft was a refuge for artists, creatives and people who wanted to step out of the net in every sense. After the collapse, its another Bristolian commune full of walking PTSD cases, all struggling to make it to the end of another, small, quiet, desperate day.
Apart from Mary. She can see the dead. Sometimes.
Tim Maughan‘s work, as a journalist and an author, is essential. He’s one of the few people who understands the supply ecology of the world from the ground up and his combination of bitingly laconic humour, total and unironic love for his subject and hard won compassion makes everything he writes shine. Infinite Detail, by some distance, is his best work to date.
There are three big reasons for that and the first is Tim’s cheerful refusal to embrace any of the traditional post-apocalyptic tropes. The post-collapse communities are largely stable and have found equilibrium that keeps them pretty much out of each other’s way. Tim makes it clear that this is a hard won fragile peace but it’s peace and peace grounded in the artistic roots of The Croft. One of my favorite elements of the novel is the reveal that Grids, the revolutionary and (sort of) gang boss who runs The Croft uses spices as his principle trading resource. The description of his growing facility, 3D printed plant tubes patched with shopping bags, is one of the most vivid images in a novel redolent with them. The world has ended. This is what happens next and what happens next plays out with a mixture of John Wyndham’s hard-won pragmatism and the occasionally troubling sense of village stasis that defines UK culture far too often.
The structure impresses too, and does so in a manner that’s never once showy or flamboyant. Tim uses Rush’s relationship with his New York-based boyfriend Scott to show how ubiquitous, and useful, the infinite detail of the internet is. At the same time, their different viewpoints on it help give both men depth and nuance. Rush’s constant paranoia is annoying, and ultimately, justified. Scott’s good nature is understandable, attractive and ultimately complacent. Neither is entirely right. Or wrong. That complexity, and the closeness and immediacy a long distance relationship can have, is one of the novel’s strongest elements and the one that hit closest to home for me.
But most of all what works here is the people. Tim’s characters are some of the most complex, nuanced and likable you’ll encounter anywhere in the field and there’s a very deliberate sense here of this being an ensemble novel assembled from countless small threads. Mary, how and why she can see the dead and the price she pays for it, is a major component, as is College, who inherits Rush’s tech. Their stories are all wrapped up in their responsibilities and how in College’s case especially those responsibilities are a band-aid slapped on the screaming wound of how the world fell. Everyone here is more than one thing and every character makes choices you’d make and choices that mystify you. Rush is a hero and a villain depending on where you stand. Grids is a Kingpin or a tragic figure hiding his fractures beneath his reputation. Everyone you meet is someone who feels familiar, not as a trope, but as a person. You’ve known these people. You’ve been a couple of them, odds are. I have.
Infinite Detail is built from these people, in the exact way the internet likes to think it is and too often is anything but. It’s a meticulous exploration of a possible future, a deeply hopeful and world-weary look at what happens to us as individuals and as networks. It’s the most human novel I’ve read in the last couple of years, an extraordinary piece of genre fiction and a lock for every award I vote for next year. Get it.