Cranky. Irritable. Anxious. That’s how I feel when my home security-camera livestream goes black, when my bank’s website goes down and sequesters my money, or when my Twitter feed doesn’t refresh automatically. Maybe you feel the same way, maybe you don’t. But it’s undeniable that most things we interact with today live and die by the Internet and a connection to it.
If those connections were to vanish—if the Internet everywhere crashed—life as we know it would come to a standstill. What happens after that is a potentially horrifying mystery that Tim Maughan explores in his new novel , in which an act of cyberterrorism effectively cancels the Internet.
Maughan divides the story into “before” and “after chapters, which is a popular structure among recent novels that center on a single significant event.”after chapters. In “before,” we learn about a futuristic world that’s not too far off from our reality. Everything is connected, and big tech companies trade comfort, convenience, and complacency for data. Everything from messages to trash is tracked, and a pair of “spex” is the most popular (arguably necessary) device.
Spexes are eyeglasses that act as wearable digital screens and let the wearer see their social networks alongside real-world interactions. Users see things like bank account activity, text message status (smartphones are old-school), and recycling transactions (there’s an interesting scene in which Maughan examines the effect that trackable recycling canisters and software would have on the homeless). Just looking at another spex-wearing person while wearing your own will instantly show you everything about them that they want you to know—no more logging into Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook separately anymore.
After the semi-apocalyptic incident, the narrative follows a hodgepodge of characters—most of whom live in an area of Bristol, England, dubbed The Croft—whose connections to each other are slowly revealed. Grids runs a black-market spice trade to support his crumbling community, Tyrone hoards relics from the Internet days and is haunted by a vigilante woman from his past, and Mary supposedly sees visions of those who died in the wake of the world’s most recent (and deadly) network blackout.
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.
But The Croft’s origins are just as interesting, if not more so, than what has become of the area after the unthinkable happened. The “before” chapters detail the work of the man who transformed the neighborhood into a space where people could go to escape the watchful eyes of social media, connected devices, Big Data companies, and the like. Named Rushdi Mannan, he even develops his own “Flex OS” for spexs, which allows Croft inhabitants to connect with each other using their smart glasses and create a type of mesh network that’s unique to the neighborhood. As The Croft surges with artists and anarchists alike, Rush gains friends and foes for his work.
keeps you guessing, almost frustratingly so, for about the first half of the narrative. The snapshots of life before and after the Internet shuts down are simultaneously inspiring and horrifying, although the plot surrounding them is thin. The futuristic world that Maughan imagines is similar our own—and if you’re a tech lover like me, you’ll relish his ideas of what humans can achieve with technology in a few short decades. However, it’s also not hard to imagine how quickly society can crumble when our connections are instantly cut off.
I still think about It’s one of those rare novels that, if you enjoyed it the first time, you’ll want to re-read it.
There’s a point in in which most of the details about the terror attack that brought down the Internet is revealed, and the crucial bits of information it reveals will make many previously confused readers want to flip backwards in the novel to put the newfound pieces of the puzzle in place. No spoilers, but the reveal elicited a physical reaction from me. It’s a good one—I didn’t see it coming, and it’s clever. Ultimately, Maughan shows how the “infinite detail” lifestyle, one full of noise and data constantly thrown at you from all sides, can be used to empower some and enslave others. He also explores how easily both corporations and smart individuals can weaponize technology to use it against the masses as well as further self-serving agendas.
I still think about days after finishing it. It’s one of those rare novels that, if you enjoyed it the first time, you’ll want to re-read it to catch details that you missed the first time around. However, polarizing parts will be enough to turn some people off. Aside from figuring out the nuances surrounding the terror attack, the rest of the plot is pretty loose. The novel feels more like a bunch of character studies about individuals experiencing the same dystopian reality, with thin threads tying them together.
The ending is also quite open: some questions are answered while others are left very open. It’s poetic in a way, because we can now only wonder what life would be like in a world where the Internet and all of its comforts vanished overnight. Maughan offers one version of the world, and it’s one that I’m eager to read about again but not eager to experience—if the time ever comes.