Fitting chaos into form is what genre was made for. But what does it mean for our literature—let alone our society—when reality suddenly turns wolfishly against the conventions of the realist genre, with its thoughtful characters who feel guilt, its self-interest balanced with collective duty, and its causes that lead to commensurate outcomes? I remember, on the night of the 2016 election, muttering in shock that “all the stories will have to change”: reality seemed to have switched places with its gothic undertow.
For me, the jump cut from Obama to Trump—from a plausibly compromised America to a horrifyingly demented one—had failed the test of narrative continuity (even though callous violence has always been one of the nation’s Janus faces). It felt like everyday life had suddenly been translated into a bad thriller or conspiracy fantasy, genres that have long imagined an insane President hidden at the center of the System. I was reminded of the classic twist in the gothic genre, when some long-buried darkness opens up to swallow the oblivious everyman—as the movie Get Out would depict a few months later, in 2017. But all these genres seem too simple to describe a complex social system with multiple evils. What if we never again get a moment of realist accountability? What if the literary law of gravity has been cancelled, along with the rule of law?
Such questions animate two new dystopian noirs, Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha, that use the internet to dissolve the boundaries that define people and nations, as well as the boundary between fantasy and reality. Though set in the future, these novels also cleverly rely on the uncanny effects already produced by the vast and recursive network of the internet. Since we can neither completely describe it nor calculate its effects, the internet serves as a convincing substitute for magic in storytelling. These two works of fiction gain energy from the current crisis of realism by relying both on the verisimilitude of uncanny tech and the feeling of being suddenly pitched from a knowable genre into a much nastier one.
Even before 2016, the internet was straining the relationship between fiction and representation, as Tom McCarthy laments in his brilliant 2015 essay, “The Death of Writing—If James Joyce Were Alive Today He’d be Working for Google.” According to McCarthy, there is no longer any space for a writerly perspective that is not already structured by the internet: “That network, that regime of signals, is so omnipresent and insistent … that the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.” How can a writer create a story when the immensely true “Great Report” that McCarthy discusses is being written around us every day by software—and is only legible, for the most part, to other software?
The really-existing internet thus threatens to overwhelm fiction as a whole: it’s a weird agency that can never be fully named, like the nine billion names of God. Genre gets deformed oddly around it, seeking the shape of a plot to reduce it to human meaning.
To be sure, representing a giant social collective in a novel is not an entirely new problem. Historically, realist novels foreground their protagonists against the immense body of “society,” while naturalist novels portray the struggle between the puny individual and the crashing stock market, or a vampire-squid trust, or all the wheat in the world. For example, the fusion of railroad-engine speed and serial-killer bloodlust in Émile Zola’s La bête humaine (a classic example of the naturalist novel) works splendidly to shape the unruly social collective into a triumphantly predestined catastrophe: a driverless train full of drunken soldiers hurtling toward destruction in the Franco-Prussian War.
But the internet is a different kind of human-tech hybrid, with fathomless epistemological affordances. Its relation to physical force is oblique; its relation to ignorance is direct. It’s not just an elastic expansion of the knowable community, but organized by algorithmic feedback that may not be visible to any given human in the system. As a trader in Maughan’s Infinite Detail admits, “I got no fucking idea how it works. … I don’t think anybody does. I don’t even think the guys making the algorithms know.”
The really-existing internet threatens to overwhelm fiction as a whole: it’s a weird agency that can never be fully named.
Given the elusive power of the internet and the surprisingly open crimes of our political situation, what fictional genre might best lead from narrative form to social knowledge? While the realist, gothic, naturalist, and thriller genres get at part of the picture, it is the characteristics of noir that can be most helpful in dramatizing a shadowy network of power through the device of suspense.
Noir has influenced two genres that both try to squeeze the internet into story form: cyberpunk and dystopia. On the one hand, the heroic hacker confronts mighty corporations that might help or hurt her quest; on the other, the dystopian society can be seen as a crime scene with a criminal mastermind (a vast and sublime criminal!) who might be revealed, though not always punished.
Both Maughan’s Infinite Detail and Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha combine a recognizable noir plot with a monstrous-internet-society plot (not, to be clear, like the plot of The Hunger Games, with its youthful canniness about survival in a corrupt system, but instead with adult plots of irrevocable guilt and shame). However, they also borrow the serviceable “band of hackers” trope from cyberpunk and can’t resist fetishizing the sublimity of the internet, depicted as a kind of Big Other.
A group of Bristol hackers takes down the global internet in Infinite Detail, bringing about anarchy with a cascade of disastrous side effects. So far so dark. But Trump Sky Alpha dares to imagine an only lightly fictionalized President Trump starting nuclear war, which shatters any fictional ambivalence and plunges deliriously into horror. In both, the moment of dystopian collapse is approached artfully, through flashbacks and flash-forwards, offering some pleasure of discovery to the reader as compensation for the characters’ sad entrapments.
Maughan’s Infinite Detail convincingly depicts two haunted futures, the first one disturbingly near to our own era. The book cycles between a “Before” time, in which we see various elements of the great hack emerging, and an “After” time about 10 years later, in which the hackers are scattered across the new, dark world they made. “Before,” the optimistic hackers and artists band together in the Stokes Croft neighborhood of Bristol to create an anarchic collective free of corporate surveillance. After the collective’s great hack (which coincides with—but doesn’t exactly cause—a worldwide collapse of the internet), Britain is ruled by ragged child soldiers and cities have burned all their trees for heat. Collective internet surveillance is terrible, the book suggests, but the unravelling of civilization would in fact be worse. Adult regrets ensue.
Fortunately, we are given a core band of protagonists who have a pretty good idea of what happened. Their losses, love affairs, and poetic MacGuffins—a bass line that was never captured on tape, an info-tech weapon created offstage, a lovelorn hacker gone missing—piece the story together into a plausible whole. At the end, the two temporalities are even made to connect through the technological device of a recovered pair of “spex,” the eyewear that has replaced smartphones in the “Before” society. As a result, a character in the “After” narrative can scroll back and forth through lost surveillance footage in a moment of creepy quasi omniscience, complete with infinite detail.
At the same time that Infinite Detail undermines its optimistic hackers’ brief carnivalesque success with the cold reality of loss and death that follows, the book feels mildly dated in its depiction of an internet driven more by the “fun pirate” aesthetic than by the rise of the alt-right. The story foregrounds the romantic trope of the hacker: the asymmetrical power of one man against the system, like the moment Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, or the moment that a meme goes viral. This kind of excitement and dread fills the “Before” narrative. There’s a little hand-waving here when it comes to the link between how the internet was brought down and how civilization collapses: one character, Grids, “guesses governments panicked and made wrong decisions, threw dangerous switches.” Like Spider-Man, who needs tall buildings to swing from, digital dystopia is most powerful in hyper-urban spaces. Infinite Detail is thus at its most vivid in depicting disintegration in Britain, America, and China, but the reader wonders whether urban collapse would really map this cleanly onto global collapse.
Still, the book pays loving homage to local neighborhoods in Bristol and New York, both in the bohemian protest spaces of “Before” and in the salvage-assemblages of “After.” And while children are pathetic victims in the “After” society—losing their parents after “that night” and dying in the winter of preventable diseases—they also represent a form of diminished resilience as they piece together bits of Bristol jungle music out of ruined tech. (The book begins in the “After” time with a séance by a teen girl who can tell you exactly where your children died when the Government invaded Stokes Croft, including what they were wearing and who they were helping.)
It’s true that post-crash children know little of the internet-controlled consumer society that preceded theirs. But the decaying adults understand just as little about why that world collapsed. Maybe this is how the Romanized Britons felt when the last Roman legions withdrew from England; how many centuries would pass before they understood why?
Instead of the melancholic labor of rebuilding, Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha offers savage black humor and immersion in psychosis. Nevertheless, there is still a lover seeking her lost wife, a secret hacker manifesto, and a celebrity who initiates global destruction. Like no other book I’ve read, it captures the simultaneity of hilarity and horror you get on the nightly news these days. But it’s not for the faint of heart! After I made it through one scene, which chronicles the last night of Twitter, as jokers rush to make THE witty pun about the apocalypse and journalist Josh Marshall along with various Vox writers slowly lose their minds, I got so upset that I had to seek solace in … well, I logged on to Twitter itself, which was not much consolation.
Could there be a world in which President Trump builds a fleet of luxury zeppelins, peopled with celebrities and clamoring citizens, from which to host his daily rant to the world’s captive peoples? Since our timeline already demands almost this much suspension of disbelief, what’s a little more? Admitting how close that world is to ours increases the crushing force of the moment when the (once again) mysterious collapse of the internet leads somehow to Trump starting a nuclear war in rageaholic spite. The narrative emerges out of a series of fragments, the dominant voices of which are Trump’s own demented ramblings, a madman slowly drilling three holes into a captive’s skull as waves of soldiers are killed by his vicious booby traps, and a tech journalist tasked with making sense of it all.
The reader gets no clear sense of the boundary between the “Before” horror and the “After” horror. The conditions of knowledge itself are filtered through brain damage: either you’re literally listening to a brain-damaged voice, or you’re just reacting normally to having spent too much time online among clashing perspectives. The “Before” time in this world is also a time of forgetting: as Mark Fisher once argued, by “editing out the point of suture” where the new replaces the old, capitalism can bring you to accept “the incommensurable and the senseless without question.” But at last, the book does give you a filtered understanding of the apocalypse, which starts (like the political thriller Three Days of the Condor, as one character admits) with a too-clever book.
It may in fact be easier to imagine the end of the internet than to comprehend how it works on a daily basis.
From among the perspectives of the literally insane, the figures of winningly angry tech journalist Rachel and her editor Galloway—who needs her to help resuscitate the New York Times Magazine—emerge as welcome fixed-ish points. In the “Before” time, Rachel had once interviewed a Filipino writer whose book The Subversive (a book within a book!) combines the tale of a young Filipino hacker with a set of gnomic aphorisms and seemingly disconnected riffs that reminds one a little of Trump Sky Alpha itself.
The book’s overlapping voices suggest various possible histories. Maybe—the government wonders—the mysterious hacker known as Birdcrash was inspired to create the hacker collective The Aviary after falling in love with the writer Sebastian de Rosales—or perhaps Sebastian is Birdcrash? If we venture into the hacker’s lair, might we find the final MacGuffin: the password to the Pastebin post that the hacker claims “has all our plans, our plans for the next phase, for the internet of birds, the networks we still have in place, the new world after the world”?
Or maybe the MacGuffin is simply the everyday horror of child abuse, an unfixable trauma that connects some of the hacker “lost boys” with Trump’s own abusive personality. As the mad hacker says, “We saw Trump and we said okay. We said okay, this is what the universe wants.” The reader will find a certain balance of reward and frustration in the quest for story—a balance that might be accepted as the cost of daring to approach these multiple hearts of darkness.
So the vast quasi humanity of the internet may not shut down the project of the novel entirely—pace Tom McCarthy. It’s just hard to write a realist novel about the internet, especially in these melodramatic times. As the madman muses in Trump Sky Alpha, “We cannot describe massive systems without resort to metaphor.”
Dystopia, networks of power, lone hackers, and hacker collectives: these preexisting tropes are not only helpful crutches for understanding the future, but resonate with contemporary fears. It may in fact be easier to imagine the end of the internet than to comprehend how it works on a daily basis.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.
Featured image: Hacker (2018). Photograph by Clint Patterson / Unsplash