A LOCUS AWARD FINALIST FOR BEST FIRST NOVEL!
The Guardian's Pick for Best Science Fiction Book of the Year!
A timely and uncanny portrait of a world in the wake of fake news, diminished privacy, and a total shutdown of the Internet
BEFORE: In Bristol’s center lies the Croft, a digital no-man’s-land cut off from the surveillance, Big Data dependence, and corporate-sponsored, globally hegemonic aspirations that have overrun the rest of the world. Ten years in, it’s become a center of creative counterculture. But it’s fraying at the edges, radicalizing from inside. How will it fare when its chief architect, Rushdi Mannan, takes off to meet his boyfriend in New York City—now the apotheosis of the new techno-utopian global metropolis?
AFTER: An act of anonymous cyberterrorism has permanently switched off the Internet. Global trade, travel, and communication have collapsed. The luxuries that characterized modern life are scarce. In the Croft, Mary—who has visions of people presumed dead—is sought out by grieving families seeking connections to lost ones. But does Mary have a gift or is she just hustling to stay alive? Like Grids, who runs the Croft’s black market like personal turf. Or like Tyrone, who hoards music (culled from cassettes, the only medium to survive the crash) and tattered sneakers like treasure.
The world of Infinite Detail is a small step shy of our own: utterly dependent on technology, constantly brokering autonomy and privacy for comfort and convenience. With Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan makes the hitherto-unimaginable come true: the End of the Internet, the End of the World as We Know It.
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|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Tim Maughan is an author, a journalist, and a features writer who uses both fiction and nonfiction to explore issues around cities, class, culture, globalization, technology, and the future. His work regularly appears on the BBC and in Vice and New Scientist.
Tim Maughan also wrote Paintwork, and has coauthored series like Chromewash, The Best British Fantasy 2014 and Closer.
Read an Excerpt
The pathetic tinkle of the shop's bell announces their first visitor, the first believer of the day. The first of the regulars, the tired-looking mothers and lost children, the ones that come in just to catch a quick word with Mary, to thank her, to nervously leave offerings on her desk, to smile their awkward, uncomfortable smiles. The ones that just pop in to stare at the sad, pale, distant, generic dead faces.
"All right, Janet," Tyrone says.
"Hello, Tyrone." Janet flashes him a nervous smile from beneath her cowl of lank, greasy hair, her face gaunt pencil marks on torn gray paper, almost merging into the crowds that watch them from the walls. It's enough of a smile that he knows she's genuinely pleased to see him, like his unprompted words to her are some minor but important victory, one of the few tiny sparks of life that separate her from Mary's drawings.
"Is she busy?" Janet's eyes twitch anxiously around the room, her grip tightening on the oversized blue IKEA cube bag that bulges with unknown junk.
Tyrone glances over at Mary. She's sitting there as always, at the back of the shop, teenage eyes peering at him over the kaleidoscopic mass of debris that litters her desk — cans full of pens, crayons, paintbrushes, and sticks of chalk, broken toys. Worthless trinkets and colorful fragments of junked history that threaten to dwarf her barely teenage frame. Gifts from believers. She smiles back at him over it all, through those heavily paint-splattered glasses of hers, lowers her eyes back down to her desk. He can't see what she's working on from here, the paper protected from view by castle walls of priceless detritus, and in all truth he doesn't care. He knows exactly what it is, the same thing she always draws.
He knows it's the face of another dead person.
Most likely, he thinks, it's the face of another dead white person. They always seem to be white people. Dead white people. He's seen so many of them now that he struggles to tell them apart. College likes to joke that it's because all white people look the same, but Tyrone knows that's not true. It's something else, perhaps how Mary always draws them — sad, pale, distant, generic. Or maybe that's just how dead people all look.
"Nah, she's just drawing. Go say hello, innit."
* * *
Mary squeezes ghosts from sticks of chalk, traces lines of memory in pastel.
Mary looks up, over the brim of her glasses, and her heart sinks slightly from awkward discomfort as she sees Janet's nervous face looking back at her; feels her disturbed, overfocused eyes drilling into her skull. It's not that she dislikes her, it's not that she dislikes any of the believers — Tyrone and Grids's word, not hers — it's just their unfailing intensity that puts her on edge. She doesn't blame them; when she can see past the thousand-yard stares and the sense of odd displacement she can see the hurt, the pain, the struggle to cope with the shock. Plus it's her fault they're here, that they come to see her. They come because of what she does, what she is.
Grids tells her she's a celebrity. He says people need celebrities, especially now. He says there used to be too many of them, but then they were all washed away with everything else. Mary's not too sure about this, not sure she wants it, but she remembers his words at those times when she wants to avoid the people like Janet, to avoid the devotional gazes and awkward exchanges, to run from the responsibility.
"Morning, Janet, how you doing?"
"I'm o-kay." There's a high-low timbre to that last word, a noncommittal tone shift fishing for concern. Mary ignores it, not wanting to get sucked in. She always tells Tyrone she likes his music, his ancient tapes, and it ain't a lie, but the real reason she lets him play it in the shop all day is because it sucks the silence out of the room, fills the awkward vacuums, lets the pauses slip by more easily.
Janet ain't stopping, though. "What are you drawing? Another one?"
Mary looks down at the pale paper, the reverse of a two-foot-wide segment torn from the back of a Land Army recruitment poster, and for the first time this morning she feels like she really sees it. Formless pencil marks. Thick, dappled, inconsistent lines in chalk dust. Powdered history deposited on the texture of cracks from her unwashed hands. She looks, but remembers none of it, as though she had no part in its creation.
"Yeah. Another one."
"Oh, I brought you something!" Janet rummages in the pockets of her torn, stained, but still defiantly pink anorak, and then in the pockets of her baby-blue jogging bottoms, the faded trousers so short that the gray elasticated trim grips her ankles, exposing two-inch bands of pale skin marbled with blue veins as they fail to reach the rainwater-grayed, blood-flecked bandages that she wears because the ships carrying socks from China and India stopped coming.
Eventually she gives up and turns to the inevitable, muttering to herself as she opens wide the long-broken zip mouth of the IKEA bag, the blue plastic cube straining along its frayed seams, where it looks in places like single white fibers are the only things maintaining its hull integrity. Mary fears it might explode, either from pressure buildup or Janet's fevered rummaging, and fill the shop with even more historical residue, the same sedimentary layer of scraps she's been trying to dig her way out of all her life.
"Here! Found them!" exclaims Janet, just a little too loud, a little too excited. She thrusts forward a fist of brightly colored tubes, of various widths and lengths, her face full of glee and accomplishment. Mary takes them, smiles with forced appreciation, and thanks her as she cradles the gift in her open hands. Broken crayons; empty plastic pen shells; leadless, splintered pencils. Useless, all of it. But Mary feels some warmth from the gesture, sincerely, understands what these discarded odds and ends represent to some, the value they have in their irreproducibility, their nostalgia, their power as memory triggers. She understands these things way too well, and as she stares at her open palms the vibrant chalk dust that patterns them turns black and impossible to remove, as memories of scrabbling in the dirt, digging with broken fingernails in the shit, flood her senses.
She wants to throw them back in Janet's stupid fucking face.
She doesn't, she just smiles, thanks her again, gently lays them down on the desk. Memories fade, but the private stench, known just to her, still lingers.
Janet, about to speak, looks pleased enough, though, happy her gift has been welcomed, and Mary remembers Grids's words. Give them what they want.
"I was just wondering, if maybe —" The same question, every day. Mary knew it was coming.
"I was just wondering, if maybe, if you were out today, and you saw our Mark —"
"You know, maybe you'll see him out in the street, y'know." Janet points toward the front of the shop, the light filtering in through the half-boarded-up windows. "Maybe if you see him out there you could tell him something for me?"
"Janet ... we've been through this before. You know I can't say whether I'll see him. I can't always choose who I see."
"I know, my love, but you might —"
"I ... I might, yeah, but it's not very likely. And even if I did, I can't talk to him."
"But you could just tell him —"
"Janet. I can't talk to Mark. He can't hear me, Janet." Mary swallows hard. "I can't ... he's dead, Janet."
"Yeah, but —" Janet is unflustered, not even decelerated, by this statement of unquestionable fact.
Mary decides to let her finish. The path of least resistance.
"Yeah, but if you do see him, yeah? If you do, can you tell him just one thing? From me?"
"What's that?" Mary asks. Polite, redundant. She knows the answer.
"Just tell him his dad is sorry. Please?"
* * *
The doorbell again. Two people this time, a couple, presumably. Newbies. Husband and wife from the looks of it, father and mother most likely. Old. Well, old for around here.
They also look shit-scared. Tyrone is used to old white people looking at him and being shit-scared, but he's pretty sure they were shit-scared before they even knew he was there. It's in the way they stand next to each other, almost too close. Huddled. Tyrone guesses they're not only not from around here, but have probably never been to the Croft before. The armed security on the gate, the explosions of graffiti across bombed-out architecture, that ever-present edge of tension in the spice-scented air. It can be a pretty shit-scary place, your first time.
The guy, gray hair, gray face, gray clothes — old, washed-out, hand-repaired, but still maintaining some aging artifice of respectability — stops glancing around the shop and looks directly at Tyrone. It's clear he wants to speak, but isn't sure where to start. Tyrone decides to put him out of his misery.
"Morning. What can we do for you guys today?"
"We ... well, my wife ..." The guy pauses, glances at the woman, who is still staring, silently, at the dead faces on the walls. "She wanted to come down here, she'd heard the stories. She's ... curious." His voice trembles with fear run through with skepticism.
Tyrone nods, smiles. The stories. "Of course. Where you guys from?"
"Wow, that's quite a trip. You drove?"
"God, no." The man laughs, politely. "God. No. We got the train."
"Oh, they running?"
"As far as Keynsham. We walked from there."
"Nice day for it." If in doubt, mention the weather.
"Yes, yes, it is." The man smiles, the fear edging away slightly. "So ... I'm sorry. What's the setup here exactly? How does this ... work?"
Tyrone takes a breath, prepares the spiel, but he's hardly got the first syllable out when he's interrupted.
The woman floats one hand in front of her mouth, fingers and lips both trembling, as she steps away from her husband, her gaze fixed on a spot on the wall. On a face. Her other hand darts back behind her, blind fumbling to grasp the man's arm, and when it finds his elbow it grabs hard, holds tight. Tyrone is unsure whether it's to get his attention or to anchor herself, to make sure she doesn't stray too far.
"Diane ...?" The man sounds breathless, startled. He glances from the viselike grip on his arm to her face, unable to make eye contact as he turns away from her, transfixed. Tyrone watches the fear return.
"It's him." The woman takes the hand from her mouth to point weakly, the shaking increasing in frequency, as it spreads up her arm to her larynx, modulating her words. "It's him, Alan. Look."
* * *
The silence unnerves Mary. Tyrone has stopped playing the old jungle tape he was listening to — he always does when they get an ID, without her ever asking, out of respect for the customers — and she wishes it would come back.
She closes her eyes for a second, wills it to return.
Nothing. Just silence.
Eyes open again. They're still here. Alan and Diane, peering at her from the other side of her desk, over the multicolored walls built from trash and gratitude. Mary has to look away from them both again — it's too intense, Diane's expectation, Alan's skepticism, their combined fear. It amplifies her constant discomfort, heightens it. She can feel their fear merging with her own, infecting it, making it stronger.
So she looks down at the desk, at the picture they handed her, that Tyrone had taken down from the wall for them. A man's face — no, a boy's. A teenager. Pale, young. Glasses. A scruff of blond spiked hair drawn in yellow chalk, freckles spotted on cheeks in brown felt-tip. A child's scrawl, a child's face. She remembers when she first saw it. She remembers them all.
"So this is your son?" Mary's voice is small, tiny, but it shatters the silence.
"Well, it ... it bears a resemblance to —"
"It's him," Diane interrupts her husband, her voice as small as Mary's, but the conviction demanding attention.
"It's him, Alan." She smiles, almost imperceptibly — at her husband, moisture in her eyes, her hand gripping his. It's enough to silence him, to make him swallow back his doubt, just seeing her like this, and he squeezes her hand in return. She turns back to Mary. "It's him, that's Ian. Our son."
Mary attempts to smile back at her, to transmit warmth, understanding. She has no idea if it works. Tyrone is much better at this stuff. It's a shame he can't do the rest of her job.
"And you've not seen him since ..." Mary pauses, picks her words. "Since that night?"
Diane looks wordlessly down at her lap. Alan moves forward to fill the silence.
"No, we've ... not. We've had no word from him since then. I mean, not even that night — about a week before. We've not heard anything from him since ... since everything stopped working."
"Of course. And he lived round here?"
"No, but not far. In Bedminster."
"Southville," Diane corrects him. From the corner of her eye Mary sees Tyrone, always eavesdropping, smile and shake his head.
"Sorry, yes. Southville. Just off North Street. He was sharing a house there. He was a student."
"Medicine," adds Diane, a brittle shard of pride. Dead, buried significance.
"But he was here that night?" Mary asks.
"I ... we believe so. We ..." Alan's face suddenly becomes more sullen, his eyes fall. "We couldn't get here. Not straightaway. Not ... not for months, in fact. I don't know if anyone realizes, but things were pretty bad in Bath, too. I mean, it must have been pretty bad everywhere. When we got here his house was deserted. There was no sign of him, just a few of his things. Not many. A few clothes. All the electronics and devices, obviously. Everything else was gone ... the house had been broken into, so ... what I'm saying is, I don't think he took the rest of his stuff with him ... it must have been stolen and ..."
He stops talking, like the words have just dried up. Mary recognizes the guilt, the regret, the helplessness, recognizes it all from Janet and every other parent that's walked into the shop before them.
"It's okay." Diane squeezes his hand, looks back at Mary. "We were looking for months. Eventually we found an old uni friend of his. She thought he'd come up here. But of course we couldn't get in here back then, it was all shut. But that's what she said, that he'd come up here. I mean, that's what people did, didn't they? People came here that night?"
"I believe so, yes." Give them what they want.
Diane forces a smile. "You're too young to remember, of course." She nods at the picture in front of Mary. "You drew him, though?"
"Yes. I'm afraid I ain't a very good artist."
"No ... it's great. Really. It's a very good likeness."
"Alan, please. It's him. Look. Please."
Alan glances at Mary's pastel scrawl, and then straight at her, like it hurts his eyes. "It could be him, yes. I guess ... just ... I'm sorry. What does this mean? If it is him, does this mean you've seen him?"
"Does it mean he's dead?"
Mary takes a breath, tries to smile. This is always the hardest part. Harder even than showing them.
"I ain't completely sure what it means myself, to be truthful." She fidgets nervously with one of her oversized hoop earrings. "Sometimes I see people, out in the street. Nobody else can see them. They're not fully there ... just ... half there."
"Like ghosts? You see ghosts?"
"Diane, please —"
"Let her answer! Are they ghosts?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe. I guess that depends on what you believe a ghost is. All I know is that they were here that night, and they're not always dead. I think you have to be dead to have a ghost."
"Not dead?" There's an echo of hope in Diane's voice.
"Not always, no. If I see someone, out in the street, then I come back here and I draw them. Put the picture up here, in the shop. Sometimes they come in, the people I've drawn, or someone that knows they're alive — and then I give them the picture. For free. These pictures here, they're all waiting to be collected."
"So ... that's it?" There's an edge of anger to Alan's voice, just faint, hidden below the frustration and loss, like he's about had enough. "We have to wait, to see if he just happens to pass by and pick up his picture? That's the only way you know if he's alive or not?"
"No," Mary says. "It's not the only way."
* * *
Tyrone puts the money that the old guy gave him in a scratched black metal box. It had been hard work getting it out of him, which isn't a surprise really — twenty quid ain't no joke, man — but Tyrone knew he'd fold and agree to it. Just had to see the way he looked at his old lady. Like he'd do anything to make her happy, even if it was only for a few moments, and involved him spending a month's wages on some heavily dubious bullshit. He watches Mary lead the couple — holding hands now, like small children — out into the pale daylight.
He takes the knife, its handle bandaged with black tape, out of the box and chucks the jungle tape he'd been playing in there, just to be sure. Five snags, no breaks. Yet. Irreplaceable. More valuable than the two tenners he just dropped in there, to him at least. He locks the box and places it on a high shelf, pockets the key, tucks the knife into the back of his jeans. Turns around to check the shop, sees Janet standing there, still. Staring at the uncollected faces. The dead ones.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Infinite Detail"
Copyright © 2019 Tim Maughan.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Note About the Author,