Big Echo

Critical SF

 An Extremely Reductive Tim Maughan Reading List in Reverse Order

by Brendan C. Byrne

0. Infinite Detail (March, 2019. MCDxFS)

The summit of Maughan’s work to date is also almost certainly the best place for a new reader to start. Here his characters are not so much allowed space to breathe as they are even more pressurized by their particular set of socio-economic circumstances than in his short fiction. As a result, their contortions are given longer space to play out (this being what some critics might call “characterization”.)  

“Genre” is a branding technique by which content is siloed according to potential engagement of an algorithmized collective portrait of consumers. “Science fiction” is an even more unstable term, and it was suggested by McKenzie Wark at Infinite Detail’s NYC launch, that “science fiction” may no longer exist, due to the necessity of any serious contemporary fiction’s engagement with the technological. (Long gone are the halcyon days of the mid-aughts when the Jonathans refused to acknowledge their characters would probably have cell phones.)

Maughan’s usually bucked, anyway, against any SF-adjacent appellation, but, to complicate matters, this first novel fully ensconces him in the history of social realism, from Zola to David Simon. The text is context, and the context is all.

1. Flyover Country (November, 2016. Terraform)

Maughan’s characters uniformly exist in what Mark Fisher, in 2011, termed “the new situation”, defined as “capital’s mutation into a post-Fordist form in which labour becomes ‘immaterial’, ‘flexible’, and subject to the pressures of globalisation - offer[ing] new potentials, which must be embraced.” Maughan’s characters’ forced embrace of these potentials makes up the drama of his fiction; meaning, they must survive by working in the underlit corners of whatever comes after our gig economy.

Here, our protagonist makes forty bucks sending a chip upstream an iPhone factory to a member of the incarcerated work force at “Foxconn-CCA Joint Correctional and Manufacturing Facility.” (Yes, it’s in America. Yes, this was written before the Trump presidency.) As with most of Maughan’s short fiction, there’s no widescreen SFX, no three-act structure, and no pulse-pounding narrative. There is no break-out or industrial espionage afoot; the chip merely contains news from the prisoner’s family.

Fisher’s “new situation” is less a Herzenian pregnant widow, and more “a kind of religious trial: a moment of terrible and terrifying renewal, a transformation of the revolutionary subject happening at the very moment when revolution seems impossible and the forces of reaction control everything.” And so too Maughan ends this story with the para: “It’s cooler today. A breeze is picking up, tugging at my green overalls as I start my walk back home. Somewhere out past the interstate, over the horizon, a storm is rolling in. A big storm like last year. I hope it’s fiercer. I hope it’s something. Anything.”

2. Zero Hours (September, 2013. Medium)

Fiction gone full precariat. There are only the slightest hints of narrative here: the tension is the everyday wear and tear of temp retail/service gigs which can only be acquired by underbidding your fellow worker. Nicki fails to flirt, and so doesn’t get any experience on the espresso machine (the Barista Badge would’ve been a huge step up). She gets undercut by a fellow zero-hours contractor and so snitches her out for stealing. Nicki goes home, checks her bank account, and still can’t afford art school. Fin.

But what’s on the other side of art school? It’s not explicitly identified, but we can sense that the hopelessness here isn’t merely contained to Nicki; even if she had more supposedly attainable dreams and a protomogul hustle, you can feel it: escape into the creative class, and you’ll be on call 24/7, your every success worn down by the constant pressure to produce.

“Zero Hours” was commissioned as part of a project on future London by Nesta, which self-describes as “an innovation foundation”. Thus the story is a melding of Maughan’s fiction and his work in the foresight world, a relatively common income stream in an industry with few (see: Bruce Sterling and Madeline Ashby. [The previous version, before futurist foundations made the transition from eccentric hobby to neoliberalism’s ideological proving ground, was to do consulting work for the National Security State.])

The foresight form demands both brevity and a focus on what some might call “worldbuilding” (previously, and blessedly, a genre-only term, now an adored staple of the mainstream), instead of “character building” or “narrative arcs”. The result, which bleeds over into Maughan’s more straight-forward fiction, is an ignoring of the diktats of Literature (as defined by listicles on and well-intentioned adjuncts) and an emphasis on what Maughan wants to say: this is how life is now, this is how life will continue to be.

3. Limited Edition (Autumn, 2012. Arc)

Probably Maughan’s best short story, and certainly his most fun. A crew of teens who use a social media platform which rewards you for “Criminal Damage” jack the only shipment in Bristol of a new, highly-desired Augmented Reality sneaker. What ensues is good, clean riot(ous) fun, with the whole world eventually watching as the situation gets more extreme, and the kids become semi-anonymous anti-capitalist folk heroes. Maughan allows for hope, showing the ways in which platforms, police states, and capital open themselves to (gleeful) sabotage through their very tactics of accelerated enclosure. Characters, or early sketches of them, from Infinite Detail appear, along with a repetition of the future title itself, used to describe the visual kicks of an AR-complicated Bristol. 

4. Paintwork (June, 2011. Self-Published.)

It’s delightful to look back and see a talent arrive so fully formed, its style already cohered if not, obviously, fully explored. This brief story of a graffiti artist who sees his work appropriated almost immediately by a rival features a protagonist who tries to see/create “positivity in chaos”. The ambiguous chord this term strikes will resonate throughout Maughan’s work to the present. Maughan is vocally a pessimist (see his Twitter presence), but his fiction thrives, despite a cynical view of all power structures, on a vision of your average working person as primarily decent.

“Spex,” kind of like more open-source Google Glass, are introduced here and will go on to appear in a number of Maughan’s pieces, including “Limited Edition” and Infinite Detail. Which begs the question: do all these stories take place on a single timeline? Is there an Extended Tim Maughan Universe? Or, like the Jungle DJs so important to the formation of Maughan’s sensibility, is he merely choosing beats and sculpting new architecture around them with each subsequent release?

QR codes, which were still relatively new outside of Japan in 2011, figure heavily into the plot, being the manner in which users access illegal AR graffiti tags. Eight years later QR codes have become what Wendy Hui Kyong Chun refers to as “habitual new media”. In Updating to Remain the Same (MIT, 2016) Hui Kyong Chun writes that, “our media matter most when they seem to not matter at all, that is, when they have moved from the new to the habitual.” But this is, of course, the nature of all fiction which engages with the future: it must be subsumed by it.

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