Agency by William Gibson review – a world in an instant

This dazzling vision of politics and power across alternate timelines is both observation and warning

William Gibson has never believed that science fiction predicts the future: it only ever talks about the present. His most recent novel, 2014’s The Peripheral, introduced us to an ecopolitical disaster called “the jackpot” and a world subsequently run by the loose, shadowy group known as “the klept”. Thanks to the development of massive quantum computing, these oligarchs, the history of whose money is deeply implicated with the history of gangster capital, amuse themselves in 2136 by discovering – or perhaps it might be better described as creating – their own precursors, the broken remains of alternate timelines. These abandoned pasts, stubs of futures that might have been, are recognisable as versions of the world we live in now. They’re not exactly colonies – no money is made, no extractive capitalism takes place. Instead, members of the klept run them like computer games, or meddle like the old gods on Olympus, manipulating culture and geopolitics at will. They are a leisure space for multi-trillionaires: the reference to the political meddling of our own billionaires is clear and self-explanatory.

Agency, the second novel of the series, begins with the classic Gibsonian unboxing scene. Verity Jane, “app whisperer” by trade, and new recruit to a startup called Tulpagenics, takes home some of the company’s product, comprising a pair of mysterious glasses, a headset and a phone; and, trying it out, is instantly placed in communication with a sophisticated artificial intelligence called Eunice or UNISS. “Is it real?” she asks her new boss, surprised. That, he tells her, is exactly what she has been employed to determine. Instead, Eunice bustles into Verity’s life, fixing it and messing it up at the same time, employing everyone Verity knows, from ex-lovers to ex-employers, for what seems at first to be a project of self-understanding. The AI wants to know how she knows things, why she does things, why she’s been switched on. But nuclear war is looming in Verity’s stub, which in 2016 began to diverge in two important ways from our own, and we realise that there’s a lot more to Eunice than meets the eye (even her own). Soon she has vanished, leaving Verity caught up in a carefully assembled tangle of secret operators – including “trust networks” (those ramified interpersonal connections that in Gibson’s work often maintain and extend digital cottage industries and the communities based around them), tech barons, masters of the gig economy and algorithmic sub-Eunices – in service of a plan to which none of them is privy.

William Gibson in Vancouver.
William Gibson in Vancouver. Photograph: Christopher Morris - Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images

Meanwhile, officials of the klept look on from 2136, led by Lowbeer, the shadowy enforcer we remember from The Peripheral – who would be played in the film by a pleasantly acerbic Tilda Swinton lookalike, perhaps, or Suranne Jones at her most commanding – and Wilf Netherton, her mild and often puzzled sidekick. From the outset the information environment is hectic. This is William Gibson, after all: a world in an instant. Across the first two pages, names of brands, places and people we haven’t yet met swirl thick and unexplained. Retrospective material about the focal character’s life and world – her new job, her typical supper, the apartment where she crashes, why she isn’t in her own apartment, what brand of sleeping bag liner she prefers for sofa-surfing – is pumped into our virtual feed via parenthesis, inside sentences that are always about something else. Or if not something else then something uneasily parallel, as if the author is used to thinking on two levels and urgently needs us to be doing the same.

It’s a sensual, remarkably visual ride, vigorous with displays of conceptual imagination and humour. There’s a man wearing a “chocolate brown terrycloth tactical bathrobe”; there’s a bar called “3.7-sigma”; there’s a shopping bag that returns itself to the shop after you’ve used it, by origami-ing itself into a butterfly. Want to eat breakfast at “The Denisovan Embassy”? The name is only Gibson’s opening bid: before you’ve been there half a page, Lowbeer herself arrives in full-sail steampunk, wearing “a Victorian lady’s riding habit, but reimagined as having been cut from nylon aviator jackets” and carrying a top hat. Almost all of the author’s interests, from the political aesthetics of technology to the technology of political fashion, are collected in this near-Moorcockian curation of images. Gibson’s ability to simultaneously destabilise and entertain is both celebrated and used to the full. But it’s also linked firmly to his signature themes, the prime one here, of course, being agency.

Along with trust, a sense of individual agency – heroic centrality in your own story, the ability to make and carry out choices of your own, the “capacity to act” – is the central offer of most Hollywood dreams, and the product sold to us by the majority of corporate ads; but it’s the least likely attribute most of us will ever possess. Like it or not – know it or not – we tend to do what nudge and soft power would prefer. From his beginnings in 1984’s Neuromancer, Gibson has offered the struggle for agency as an unacknowledged, quietly devastating war – fought by hackers, gig economy workers, off-gridders and their networks – against the algorithm, against the manipulation of our needs, our personal information and our appetites, by big data and gangster capital. If he was “prescient” back then, he’s right on the ball now, when it’s so much harder to believe in those loose human associations he imagined in the 1990s, whose combination of technical nous and cultural know-how enabled them to quickly distinguish the real from the sucker fantasy.

This is reflected in the novel’s narrative structures. We suspect that the kleptocracy must take final responsibility for what’s going on, but despite frank exposition in dialogue, its complex internal rivalries remain as distant and difficult to parse as they seemed in The Peripheral. In 2136, wise actors understand that you don’t have agency – you only work for one. And that one probably works, without knowing it, for another one, and that one for another. Motives, finance and goals are unclear at every scale. The text grants least apparent agency to Verity – whose name of course means “truth” and who, from the moment she meets Eunice, becomes a parcel in someone else’s delivery system, dispatched by chauffeured Harley D or Fiat 500, passed hand to hand, safely or otherwise, by algorithms derived from both military and white van logistics. (Although poor Wilf Netherton, whose positioning as a major fixer on Lowbeer’s team of digital nomads and black ops dropouts often seems ironical in the extreme, runs her close.) This is a timely, politically relevant story in which none of the central characters can fully understand what’s going on.

Hard to say whether such a gleeful act of predicting the present is observation or warning. Probably it’s both. You’re comforted by the feeling that Gibson would never write a word without at least trying to understand the primary forces, the shadow operators of our own world; but you’d be forgiven for wondering if that’s now worth the effort. And here’s where the divergence of Verity Jane’s continuum from ours becomes important: there, the UK picked remain in the referendum of 2016; the US elected Hillary Clinton. This can hardly be an accidental choice of turning points. Ironic, then, that Agency’s author now finds himself referenced by prime-ministerial fixer Dominic Cummings, who recently called publicly for “weirdos from William Gibson novels” to help him disrupt the UK civil service; and is thus caught up unexpectedly in multiple recursive real-life reflections of his own fiction.

M John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again will be published in June. Agency by William Gibson is published by Viking (RRP £18.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15.


M John Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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