Agency by William Gibson – A Timeline in Crisis

Last week I ran out to purchase William Gibson’s latest novel Agency. I dove right into the book and was immediately brought into a world similar to our own yet skewed slightly further into the darkness.

Agency opens with Verity Jane, a youngish woman with a special talent for finding bugs in beta software. Hired by shadowy parent company Cursion to test a new multi-platform personal assistant avatar Verity is introduced to Eunice, a very capable interface that dwarfs Siri’s or Alexa’s meagre uses. Verity is shocked at what Eunice can do and rapidly becomes the focus of a conspiracy that involves two separate timelines.

Agency author William Gibson
Agency author William Gibson

We then switch to 22nd century London, the second timeline in Agency where we get reacquainted with Wilf Netherton, his wife Rainey, Ainsley Lowbeer, and stub hacker Ash. Lowbeer co-opts Netherton into helping her with yet another ‘stub’ that has been tampered with by a particularly malicious hacker. It turns out that the stub that Verity and Eunice belong to has been tampered with to produce an earth shattering event for the people in that stub. Lowbeer has already used her skills to give Eunice agency, the ability to act.

Agency follows the same format as Gibson’s previous novel The Peripheral by switching between two timelines and eventually resolving the stories in both. Agency builds on the concepts and ideas introduced in The Peripheral and as such the story of Agency is more readily accessible. You get a feel for what is going on very quickly and then the story sweeps you along.

Throughout Agency Gibson refers to the character of Eunice as a laminar and makes reference to other laminae. Laminar is a concept in physics, or more precisely, fluid dynamics and indicates something that flows without turbulence. In the case of Agency, and The Peripheral before it, laminar flow is occurring between the different stubs. Time flows in layers between them without ever mixing. A character like Eunice is a laminar because she can move in her world without leaving any trace or turbulence.

Agency is Gibson at his best. It’s tightly written with sparse yet vivid descriptions, and no safety-net. Once more Gibson leads you down the path but whether you follow or fall is entirely up to the reader. The story wends its way through the timelines but is cohesive throughout without needless detours. Also, Gibson casually updates us on the characters introduced in the The Peripheral without dwelling on them.

At 71 years-old Gibson still sounds fresh and youthful. With his typical inventiveness he has casually created at least two new tech platforms that if they don’t exist already they soon will. Although the thought of a Followrs app is paranoia inducing. Gibson’s gift for inventing language that will soon become commonplace is still apparent. This is, perhaps, the thing many people have difficulty with when reading Gibson’s writing. The lexicons he creates are so natural you expect to find them in a dictionary.

The world Gibson created in Agency is similar to our own except in two respects; Hillary Clinton won the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the U.K. voted remain on Brexit. These actions occurred through the meddling of a 22nd century hacker that sets the stub on a collision course to destruction. Gibson has recreated a cold war situation with hot button politics and Twitter feed reactions.

The most frightening aspects of Agency aren’t in what Gibson tells us but rather in what he doesn’t have to explain. A couple of decades ago your average reader would have to find out what an IED was. Now Gibson proffers no explanation of what one is and, most sadly, one isn’t needed. That is a clear comment on the state of the world and where we are heading at the moment.

Agency is perhaps not as complicated a book as The Peripheral was, however, I would say that’s mostly because having read The Peripheral that Agency was far easier to grasp more quickly, much in the same way that Count Zero was easier to understand for having read Neuromancer. We know the platform the story is built upon and we can follow the structures without aid.

The characters Gibson has written are, as usual, bright and have the ability to adapt while thinking on their feet. They react to situations without overreacting and plan ahead for contingencies. As is typical Gibson doesn’t write about one person overcoming all but how people working together, even if they don’t know it, to effect a change for the world at large. Often just a seemingly small one.

Agency is part time travel sci-fi, part noir thriller, and part warning. Once more Gibson has written a story that is at once frightening and hopeful. He has used his powers of observation to show us a terrible and realistic possibility. The question is can we see the warning.

At the end of Agency the reader isn’t left with any real sense that this stub will roll along smoothly into the bright future but it does have a chance, however, slim to veer in that direction. Gibson has never been about perfect happy endings but hard choices that wend their way on a razor’s edge. At the end of Agency if feels as if Gibson said “There. That’s the end. For now.” but there is still more story to be told within these worlds, these stubs. I fully expect to see another novel involving Lowbeer, Netherton, Ash, and company in the not too distant future.

If I were to recommend a book of William Gibson’s to anyone under the age of 30 today I would tell them to start with The Peripheral followed by Agency. Gibson has a natural gift for putting his finger on the pulse of what is hip and current and then turning it on its head to expose both strengths and weaknesses. Add that to his gifted prose and books like Agency are a rare and wonderful treat.

As an aside, here are two great interviews and articles with William Gibson.

How William Gibson Keeps His Science Fiction Real

William Gibson: We Are All Science Fiction Writers Now

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