The cultural phenomenon of cyberpunk emerged in the 1980s as a multi-media speculative genre that imagined a future of sprawling, neo(n)-noir cityscapes and a high-tech, high-surveillance domination of human life and the human body. From William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer to films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix, cyberpunk was borne out of a cultural and political milieu concerned with accelerating technological advancement, urbanisation, neoliberal globalisation and the possibilities of cyberspace. Yet the echoes of the genre still reach us today, exemplified in the 2017 sequel to Blade Runner as well as television shows such as Altered Carbon and Mr. Robot, not to mention the highly anticipated upcoming videogame Cyberpunk 2077. I want to suggest that Tim Maughan’s novel Infinite Detail represents part of an emergent reimagining of the genre which goes beyond a mere rehashing of cyberpunk aesthetics, instead engaging with its still pertinent critical concerns.
Fredric Jameson viewed cyberpunk as “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself” (Postmodernism, 419). From the start, critics of the genre have deemed cyberpunk authors to be at best ambivalent towards the worlds they create, pointing to its easy co-option into mass media and consumption. Csicsery-Ronay writes: ““Cyber/Punk” – the ideal postmodern couple: a machine philosophy that can create the world in its own image and a self-mutilating freedom, that is that image snarling back” (‘Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism’, 270). However, since its initial iterations in the 1980s, cyberpunk has proven a malleable form of artistic expression, across a wide range of media, for investigating the major concerns of the contemporary. Maughan’s 2019 novel, Infinite Detail, offers an interesting hybridity between the ‘Before’ chapters of a near-future world of accelerated capitalism, where the internet megacorporations have colonised almost every aspect of daily life, and the ‘After’ world when this system vanishes, and with it, the world as we know it. By intertwining elements of post-apocalyptic fiction with cyberpunk tropes in his narrative, Maughan highlights the blurred boundaries between the two, infusing his depiction of late capitalism with an apocalyptic anxiety. Just as Blade Runner 2049 expanded the genre to deal with environmental collapse, Maughan’s modern cyberpunk is coloured by themes of chaos, unsustainability and imminent crisis.
The novel’s major antagonist is not a conspiracy of shady characters or megalomaniac supervillains, but rather the impersonal, omnipotent, all-controlling algorithm. The entire social caste of politicians, CEOs and bankers are not in control, but rather “middle managers” who “do nothing more than serve the algorithm” (227). Even Brad, a trader in New York city admits, “The markets are too big and they move too fucking quick. … Market basically runs itself” (126). This unknowable digital machine dictates the structure of human society. As with other dystopian strains of speculative fiction, cyberpunk can be seen as a reaction to the idealism and utopianism of other futurists – at its inception, cyberspace and the internet engendered a revolutionary optimism as a radically new, democratising space which seemingly existed outside the borders of corporate or state control. Yet, as Infinite Detail attests, it did not take long for this space to be swallowed up by a handful of corporate monopolies who not only expanded the neoliberal market logic into the online realm, but also sold their vast mines of data to advertisers and intelligence agencies. Dronegod$, the hacktivist group ultimately responsible for the switching off of the internet matrix, make their motivations explicit: “There was no revolution to be had on the internet … we let ourselves become nothing more than the content between adverts” (224-6). In Infinite Detail, the tie is completely severed, the losses are cut; it becomes cyberpunk without the cyber. This to me seems like a distinctly twenty-first century manifestation of the genre, defined by a lost idealism and revolutionary aspiration.
What I found interesting in Maughan’s novel was how the moment of revolution – the tearing down of the system – was not simply a naïve moment of ecstasy but itself felt “both friendly and apocalyptic” (279). The ghosts of the dead or lost Mary and Anika see through their spex are virtual spectres from the final few days of the internet matrix, as supply chains grind to a halt, mass surveillance ceases, and a creeping authoritarianism seeks to weed out resistance. Similarly, in Mr. Robot, Eliot Alderson – a cyber-security worker for E Corp by day and hacker by night – wipes out the world’s credit card debt, yet his revolution creates as many problems as it solves as the corporate world contorts to deal with the situation.
The forms of resistance – the heroes of the stories – in cyberpunk fiction are often associated with a seedy underbelly of crime, drugs, private investigators, hackers and the socially marginalised. These elements are all present in Infinite Detail, yet the major forms of resistance in the novel, both ‘Before’ and ‘After’, take place outside of the internet machine. In an urban anarchist commune in the Croft, Bristol, an alternative, decentralised network called Flex is created working off Bluetooth, and it is this technology which is resurrected right at the end of the novel using Mary’s spex. Most evocative, however, is the resurrection of 90s-style industrial music. This to me is the “punk” element, broadly speaking, of Maughan’s novel. On the internet, their rent was paid by the perversion of their revolution into data and capital, yet through music, they find authentic expression and resistance. Tyrone’s new mixes at the novel’s end – jungle and grime infused with the sounds of the Croft’s urban apocalypse – constitute for Anika “Something new, yet old at the same time … the last new music she’s heard in a decade” (346-7).
There seems to me a latent nostalgia in Maughan’s novel, not just for a lost online utopianism, but for the whole urban underground scene of the late 1980s and 1990s. Infinite Detail is a novel haunted by ghosts – virtual ghosts, the ghosts of memory, and the ghosts of lost futures. What it does imagine, however, is a final rupture from the old world, and even the possibility of something new.
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Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan, ‘Cyberpunk and Neuromanticism’, Mississippi Review, Vol.16, No.2/3, (1988), pp.266-278, available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20134180 [accessed: 29/11/20].
Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991).
Macaskill, Ewan, Dance, Gabriel, ‘NSA Files: Decoded’, The Guardian, 1 November 2013, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/interactive/2013/nov/01/snowden-nsa-files-surveillance-revelations-decoded#section/1 [accessed: 29/11/2020].
Maughan, Tim, Infinite Detail, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).