by William Corwin
Continuously lurching forwards, backwards, and sideways, and steadfastly refusing to give the reader a moment’s respite, Agency is a 400-page car chase resting atop a giant mound of metaphysics and gender politics. What are we to do with this formula? Gibson’s prose has never been easy for those looking to relax, but with its vertiginous, almost nausea-inducing fast-paced dialogue laced with invented but déjà-vu-familiar lingo, perhaps it’s the best way to deliver a similarly disorienting sociological message.
Unlike many of his other novels, Agency has a rapturously simple premise: a sci-fi reinterpretation of A Room of One’s Own written by a man and set in the now-arrived world of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. It is the tale of the unstoppable drive to public presence and universal consciousness of the world’s first truly conscious Artificial Intelligence, whose human avatar is an African American woman—one who is self-reliant, super-humanly organized, benevolent, and charged with the salvation of the earth. The details of the plot involve a confusing list of recurring personalities from the book’s 2014 prequel The Peripheral—a collection of detectives and security forces from an alternative dystopian future in London, and goofy caricatures of the San Francisco hipster start-up scene set in a disarmingly prescient depiction of the present. Reading Agency under quarantine, with the book’s constant flak of financial collapse and impending pandemics, is certainly exciting, but in that immediate, we-are-all-going-to-die roller coaster kind of way.
Typically Gibson composes his plots using a selection of stock but wonderful noir types: scheming middlemen, infinitely confident adventurers, and flawed heroines/heroes with a past that make them mesmerizingly sexy but terrible romantic partners. These types show up in the convoluted twistings of the current work, but there is a softness to the main quartet of actors—Eunice, the A.I.; Verity Jane, her real-world advocate; and Wilf Netherton and his wife Rainey—that heralds Gibson’s carefully choreographed transition from a scribe of our darker angels into a prophet of a touchy-feely self-care future. In brief, Verity is a San Francisco “App Whisperer,” hired by a shadowy start-up to field test a new interactive AI personal assistant. She soon realizes that “Eunice” is a conscious cyborg and internet-age messiah who will help right all the world’s wrongs. The shadowy start-up, for a never entirely clear reason, wants to thwart Eunice; on the opposing side, a team from several alternate future worlds makes contact with Verity in an effort to help save Eunice, because she will assist in preventing an apocalyptic series of events (cheerfully referred to as “The Jackpot”) that will devastate human society and wipe out 80% of the population.
Agency commutes between contemporary San Francisco and a bleak future London gutted by the ravages of The Jackpot. Motorcycle and car chases, zig-zagging across the Bay Area with momentary breathless pauses in high-tech drone labs and quick bursts of usually non-lethal violence, are juxtaposed against a calmer fabric of meetings over pints, tea, and English breakfasts in Cheapside and Fitzrovia. With this English calm also comes emotional support for the overwhelmed ingénue Verity: Rainey, the wife of Wilf (coordinator of the future-world rescue effort), periodically asks after Verity’s well-being, exemplifying our culture of “checking-in.” A portable rest-area is thoughtfully provided on several occasions for Verity and her accomplices by a shady manufacturer of killer drones, and she makes sure to take a shower and have a meaningful discussion with Eunice before the climax of the book. In Agency, our heroes avoid slaughter as best they can, and decide not to wantonly kill the non-descript but persistent bad guys—instead offering them compromise and painless, if not cowardly, exits. It’s hard to discern how much of this is tongue-in-cheek lampooning of contemporary mores and how much is Gibson pointedly closing the chapter on the gritty lifestyle and self-destructive drug use of his characters from Neuromancer and other cyberpunk novels.
While the non-stop action and feisty dialogue can distract from Gibson’s philosophical and political conjurations, there is still plenty of room to unpack what is going on intellectually. The author gently edges us toward solutions to our myriad social, environmental, and economic problems that he personifies in Eunice. Playing free and loose with David Lewis’s “Possible Worlds” theory, we get the fun of time travel without the disruption of upsetting the future by messing with history. All of Gibson’s interrelated worlds, or “stubs,” are alternative futures emerging from a shared past. The mirror present in which most of the action of the book takes place has been conveniently relieved of two of the greatest stumbling blocks currently facing our lived reality—the current U.S. president and Brexit—so at least in the face of an emergent omniscient AI and a precipitous nuclear situation, there is rational female leadership. But Gibson’s fictional solution to the all-too-recognizable impending Jackpot in our own IRL is a troubling one: Eunice is a too-good-to-believe Golden Ticket, and she’s just too nice. As with many a writer before him, Gibson’s depictions of possible futures seem all-too-happy to dispense with ill-functioning and pesky democratic institutions in favor of an eternal and kindly AI caretaker, a benevolent tyrant of sorts. If his own writing, and much SF literature, serves as a guide, the progeny of human creation would more likely magnify our flaws than ameliorate them: in other words, watch out, it’s a trap.