Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Tim Maughan

Tim Maughan is a British writer. His debut novel is Infinite Detail.

In Brendan C. Byrne’s reading list (this issue) he suggests you are more fully ensconced in the tradition of social realism than SF per se. Comments?

Yeah, that sounds fair enough. I think that sweet spot where the two can overlap is what has always excited me most about science fiction, its something you can glimpse in new wave writers like Ballard and Brunner, who were experimenting with both I think. And even Gibson. Cyberpunk got associated with a fetishization of violence and body modification, but actually what originally attracted me to it was how real it felt, how it seemed to be willingly grappling with life in urban spaces, how subcultures work, how global and corporate economics impact people etc.

What you are saying about cyberpunk is interesting but I must admit that for me, and I think this is the case in Infinite Detail as well, in cyberpunk there is a centering of the narrative in very specifically situated technological elite subcultures — however alienated they are. In the Big Echo conversation with Cory Doctorow he pushed back a little against this suggestion, quite convincingly, but still. Might you discuss the relation between the tech savvy heroes of such texts and the masses of people for whom such technologies are, as at least one character in your book says, “magic.” I am rather haunted by the children in the spice factory. How does one represent such relations without being condescending?

I’d certainly agree cyberpunk centers the narrative that way, but I’m saddened if you see Infinite Detail doing it to the same extent. One of my core aims when writing it was to attempt to address that imbalance, as with most of my short fiction from the last few years. Frank the canner certainly isn’t of the tech elite, neither are Tyrone or Mary who are both struggling to come to terms with the technological scraps they’ve been left, and in Mary’s case she’s navigating that line between understanding and the portrayal of tech as mystical and magic. Grids also, who understands it better than he lets on, and very clearly demonstrates by the end of the book that he’s aware of the power imbalance it creates. I mean, can you say Tyrone is part of a technological elite because he can program jungle on a broken Akai S950 sampler? Well I guess that would depend on how you define ‘elite’ in this context. Perhaps you can call the roots of hip hop, house, and techno in inner city New York, Chicago, and Detroit “situated technological elite subcultures” too, but again it depends how you’re defining ‘elite’. Gibson’s ‘the street finds its own use for things’ isn’t just a nice quote, it’s the origin of the only interesting musical movements of the last 30 years. People hear that phrase and think of obnoxious cyberpunk hackers, but its much more appropriately applied to the history of working class, non-white, queer music subcultures. 

I hope none of the book comes across as condescending, that would be awful. It would have been great to have explored the lives of the spice factory workers in detail, but there’s always limits to what a novel can cover - plus I’ve written short fiction (Flyover Country, Special Economic Zone, Zero Hours, Four Days of Christmas etc.) about factory and service workers and their relationships to technology. I’m sad if it doesn’t come across in this book, but I’m fairly comfortable with my efforts to address this TBH. And it’s such a core theme to my work that it’ll come up again, I’m very sure. 

Again, with the relation with cyberpunk, I am increasingly interested in representations of technological unevenness in science fiction which is one of that subgenres hallmarks and which to me was one of the big themes of Infinite Detail, and what you brought to the table as well was quite a bit about strategic luddism. Any thoughts?

See the answer above, I think. Again so much of the book was aimed at addressing that unevenness that its hard to know where to start. There’s two struggles in the face of technological power that are happening in the book I think - a cultural and aesthetic one, as represented by Tyrone and Melody - and a technological one, represented by Rush and Dronegod$, who are taking that strategic Luddism angle you mention. Although I’m not sure how much strategy they really have. As a space the Croft represents both, or the swing from one to another - the artist colony that becomes a site of direct action. I’m fascinated in the whole idea of art as resistance, because it aesthetically and emotionally excites me when done well, but am always incredibly aware of its limits, to the point of often questioning its usefulness at all. I hope the book asks that question: when do you move from one to another, how bad does it have to be for you to stop talking and posturing and move into taking direct action?  

I am curious about the role of time in your work as much as technology, both as an experience of a sort of persistent tedium and as an anticipation of apocalyptic change. Could you say a few words about how these two conceptualizations of it are related?

That’s just the current way of being, isn’t it? It’s certainly my way of being, lol. I’m only joking a little bit, but yeah, that’s how I feel pretty much everyday, and I think increasingly it’s a common state of mind. That feeling you get from the never-ending scroll through twitter, or staring at the Guardian homepage, soaking in the headlines. The idea that everything is tedious, even when everything is happening at the same time. That something can happen that’s completely shocking, but at the same time you’re not surprised at all. Not so much future-shock as present-resignation. Just before I wrote this I was reading an article about an educational technology start up that provides laptops to kids in schools, and when they plug their phones into them to charge them it sucks all their photos off and analyses them, sending reports to their teachers. One kid had got busted because he had a photo of himself taking bong hits on his phone. It’s utterly terrifying and disgusting, but at the same time not at all surprising. It’s just another example of sitting around waiting for some massive collapse to come, while being resigned to and bored by how terrible it’ll be. I feel like that a lot, and it’s both consciously and subconsciously worked its way into my writing I guess. 

In Infinite Details there is a compression of those two experiences of time into a single field — the anxious resignation of the present (although in the book that gets represented as the past) and the post-apocalyptic future, quite literally at times. It created — for me at least a sense of fatality, of opportunities missed even as they arrived, both political and personal. Could you say a few words about that sort of perpetual melancholic nostalgia and regret? As philosophical outlook and/or writerly technique?

I wouldn’t want to say too much beyond go and read Mark Fisher on hauntology, it’s all there. His article on Burial is excellent, for example - this nostalgia for lost potential is very real for me, especially as I watch the multicultural dreams and political possibilities of the 1990s UK rave scene being relegated to history by the rise of the post-Brexit right. Almost certainly a large part of it is my age, my own middle aged nostalgia for my youth, but also there’s a very real sense to me that the futures we imagined or where promised have turned to vapor, along with all futures. Arguably that happens for every generation, but it seems particularly dire now. Every counterculture dreams of seeing capitalism destroyed, and the generations below me may well see it, but I just hope and prey it happens on their own terms, and not because of fascism and/or environmental collapse. 

Also, location: your writing is very much grounded in particular places yet the characters tend to read as dislocated and alienated. I am curious how you imagine the relation of people to the places they exist in.

I think a lot of my work is really looking about how that relationship - between people and spaces - is disrupted by external forces. How technology and economics force people to become dislocated from their own spaces, to feel alienated within their own homes. So primarily we’re talking about gentrification, but also the continued digitization of the real world, the way that the internet has broken free and colonized ‘real life’. Which in itself is a form of gentrification, and the privatizing of public spaces and identities. It’s very much there in INFINITE DETAIL, with Frank the canner having his very localized occupation taken from him, without anyone even realizing, or him understanding. Or Melody and her fight to save the Barton Hill tower blocks. But it’s also there in PAINTWORK, with 3Cube railing against billboard ads or the kids in HAVANA AUGMENTED pushing back at the digital colonization of Cuba. So yeah, that dislocation and alienation within your own home space is a key thread to my fiction, I think, because it’s such a defining quality of 21st century urban life. I spent 5 years living in Brooklyn, where it was happening right in front of your eyes, but honestly I see the same thing everywhere I go now. 

I found sound rather that sight to be the critical descriptive sense in Infinite Detail and very important in how you showed location. Music and technological noises of course but especially the role of accents and how they were used to identify identity and origins, and how they could change and be manipulated. Your descriptions of accent and the words the characters use rather than their appearance were what marked key differences between them. Obviously Rush’s tactical Englishness but Tyrone’s patter, Anika’s accent, and Mary’s, the shift in the accent of the Finance Bro at the party were all wonderfully evocative touches that illuminated a great deal about social landscapes both pre and post.  It felt at times that it was in sound rather than vision where the social realism of the text was located. Was this, I dunno, “aurality” deliberate or just something that happened?

Oh, very much deliberate. It comes from a bunch of places. Mainly wanting to always write a book that addressed the science fictionality of Black electronic music. And to me it’s impossible to separate the music I’m writing about - and love - from the heard environment, the two are entwined. The accent thing - well that’s in part a particularly British thing about how people are judged and assigned a class based on how they speak. I wanted to explore that a bit for American audiences, who are given a very narrow exploration of British culture by the mainstream. For example people hear my accent and assume I’m Australian. It happens almost every week, even here in Canada. I didn’t understand why at first, and then I realized it’s because I’m English but I don’t sound like Hugh Grant. Americans can only identify privileged, upper class British accents, because they’re the only English people they’re shown by movies and TV. 

Returning to genre, what sorts of distinctions do you make between your fiction and nonfiction writing? Earnings aside.

 Interesting I’d never considered them as genres before, at least not as formally as that. They’re obviously very different. Although for me they both frequently stem from the same experience, or the same research. I’m doing less journalism now, because— well, it’s a fucking mess. As anybody that even glances at it can tell. It’s a disaster basically. But that’s a whole different story, and one that’s making up a large chunk of my next novel. But what the fiction allows me to do is explore stuff in a more emotional way, I guess. For example, the reporting I did from China about supply chains and manufacturing etc. for the BBC was very rewarding — I like writing for the BBC because I’m able to reach a very large audience to talk about topics many of them might not have considered before — but because of that and how their funding works they have very strict standards about supposed objectivity. So I’d come back and write these pieces, and it’d be cathartic to get it down, but it still wasn’t enough. I still had this growing anger and frustration at what I had seen I needed to get out, or connections I needed to make between different things I’d seen that don’t sit comfortably within the confines of journalistic articles. Which is where fiction comes in. I took a lot of that anger and frustration and ranting and put it into INFINITE DETAIL.

Rage and frustration. Not an optimistic book I would say, but not quite hopeless either. The gangsta revolutionary seems a familiar figure, and the lack of planning by revolutionary ideologues, the distinction between black and urban revolutions and white and suburban, the establishment reaction. I found myself thinking about this as a post-revolutionary rather than a post-apocalyptic book. I was frequently reminded of a quote I read somewhere from a gay participant in the Cuban Revolution talking about subsequent homophobia, that you knew the revolution was over when the dancing stopped. I’ll just leave that hanging there and hope you think of something to say about it.

Oh I agree, I never envisioned this as a post apocalyptic book at all - again it’s an easy term for publishers and reviewers to apply to it — but to me it’s all about revolutions and their failures and successes. What looks like apocalypse to one person or community looks like an opportunity — whether successful or not — to another. After spending time in the US it’s very clear that the white middle class doesn’t really understand revolutionary politics, it really does find it ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ — but I don’t think that’s true for many African Americans, who have been denied so much participation, who are still fighting for justice and civil rights, who still understand the importance of organization and community. That’s why that final chapter is the way it is. It’s very much meant to be a glimmer of hope at the end. 

Related to this is your style, how would you characterize how it changes across forms? And to what degree did the decompression of a novel change how you were writing and thinking? I guess I should ask first is style something you think a great deal about? Or is it a product of market forces?

I’ve had zero formal training in writing or literature since I was 16, so I’m not sure I have the language to answer this question really. Do I think about style? Yeah, of course, but not too much. Do I make conscious decisions about it? Yeah, of course, but not all the time. I guess I’m like one of those people that goes to art galleries occasionally without knowing anything about art and says ‘well I know what I like’, lol. I think more accurately I know what works, or what I feel works in the moment. I certainly don’t consider market forces. At all. I could have written this book very differently I guess, if I’d wanted it to sell more, or become a TV series. I mean it’s got teenage characters, but I don’t think it’s YA. It’s got a high concept disaster at the centre - the collapse of the internet - but I don’t think it’s a ‘techno thriller’ about the ‘dark web’ or some shit. None of the main characters are a fucking cop, for example. I could have written it that way, a techno thriller about the collapse of the internet, one brave cyber cop up against shady terrorists - all that shit. I’m sure someone will come along and write something about the same premise in that style and it’ll be a bestseller, get made into a movie staring The Rock. It’s been interesting watching reviews and responses coming in - the critics have been largely very kind, and have complimented the style and characters, while some more traditional genre readers have said the opposite. A lot of the Goodreads reviews for example have complained about the characters being underdeveloped, and for a while I didn’t really understand why. Then I got to thinking that maybe what they’re looking for is origin stories and character arcs, things they’re used to from movies and comics. And I understand the desire for those, but they’re not real. Real people don’t have character arcs, or simple motivations, or background stories to be revealed in a prequel - those things are inventions of the entertainment industry. They’re marketable tropes. Real people are far more nebulous, complicated, they live far more in the moment and without definable meaning. They can’t be summed up on a character sheet. As such it feels dishonest — for me at least — to try and write characters that way. Instead I feel more comfortable providing the reader with glimpses into their lives, allowing them to tag along with them in their day to day routines, to let them piece things together and make their own decisions about them. That’s how we interact with most people we meet, if we’re honest: we never really, deeply know that much about them, we can just observe and judge, rightly or wrongly. It’s the best we can ask or hope for, beyond close friends or lovers. We’re not entitled to anything more. I quite like the idea of the same being true about the characters in my books. But maybe I’ll change my mind. 

The tagging along comment rings true, I loved the Tyrone chapters which is where I felt I was doing exactly that, I thought they were quite brilliantly done. I think that was where your language was the most tightly integrated with the high concept SF of the book. His earnestness, his eagerness, his small pleasures and asceticisms were the emotional center of the book for me, and that “what next”? he leaves us with, as everyone else starts sliding back into received wisdoms and old patterns of behaviour. He was also interesting in his confidence about new/old technologies, his willingness to dive in and play. Is this where hope lies in the book? In appropriation and experiment and play? Or is it somewhere else? Or for you, is it not there at all?

Yeah, I think so. Like I said in an earlier answer I feel that it’s the story of several revolutions or struggles, both cultural and political. McKenzie Wark said an interesting thing to me after they read it, that it was about “what one does ethically and aesthetically in difficult times: the choices the artist makes, the musician, the hacker, the gangster”. I liked that, it summed it up quite well I think. Like the end might be coming, we might all be facing some great collapse, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still make the right decisions, can’t still do what we believe in, what is morally right. Maybe that’s where hope lies. 

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