William Gibson’s Alternate Realities
A review of ‘Agency,’ the middle book in his current cyber-thriller trilogy
Wilf Netherton doesn’t cut an especially imposing figure; his bearing is almost less impressive than his name. Genteel, skittish, and tense, this former public-relations flack isn’t even a caricaturist’s idea of James Bond.
Cyberpunk novelist William Gibson, in 2014’s The Peripheral and recent sequel Agency, doesn’t quite play his reluctant, alcoholic protagonist for laughs. Netherton is simply too mild, generally speaking, too wishy-washy. Yet he’s the thruline of Gibson’s latest trilogy-in-progress, its rumpled, beating heart, a milquetoast 007 haunting a ghostly, unrecognizable London. Gibson allies him with a gothed-out Q (the eccentric Maria Anathema Ash, as “tech support”) and an artificially immortal M. (the omniscient Ainsley Lowbeer, as “program management”). This unlikely threesome isn’t out to save the world; they’re out to save worlds.
It’s the 2130s, eleven decades from today. A series of environmental, social, and political disasters collectively known as “The Jackpot” has eliminated 80 percent of Earth’s human population. The under-peopled planet exists under the control of various criminal syndicates and remains habitable thanks to super-advanced, AI-directed nanotechnology. Via a mysterious computer server somewhere in China, 22nd century denizens are able to access and manipulate the fates of alternate 21st-century realities–“stubs” in these books’ parlance–that diverge from the future as soon as they’re accessed. In The Peripheral, Netherton, Ash, and Lowbeer intervened in rural, post-post-post Trump administration no-hope-left America; in Agency, they’re meddling in a 2017 United States that just elected Hillary Clinton to the presidency.
Gibson has described “The Jackpot” as everything that’s likely on the verge of happening to us: mass species extinction, pandemics, nuclear wars, global warming in overdrive, financial meltdowns, a slow-motion international pandemonium avoidable if the world’s governments had acted together in good faith, long before, to halt its arrival. His heroes attempt to “game” stubs to blunt the worst of these apocalyptic reverberations via market manipulation, political insinuation, and temporal telepresence. Physical time travel isn’t an option. In The Peripheral, this essentially meant transforming a no-account burg into an armed compound/corporation powerful enough to rattle that world’s economy. In Agency, this means linking up with and encouraging an AI liberated from the Department of Defense to infect the San Francisco area (and beyond) like an ambitious version of Stuxnet.
Agency is all motion, all the time, from the moment “app whisperer” Verity Jane collects a pair of “digital assistant” eyeglasses from the Frisco game company that’s contracted her as a beta tester and brings them home with her. Eunice, that digital assistant, is more than Verity could’ve possibly imagined: ethnically African-American, a sentient swarm of independently acting sub-routines, an avowed fan of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Eunice and the game company aren’t what they appear to be, and Agency swiftly becomes an action movie, a madcap cross between the “Shut Up and Dance” episode of Black Mirror and a less-hyperliterate-than-usual Thomas Pynchon novel. Verity and Eunice go off on the run, aided and abetted adroitly by eclectic accomplices on the ground, their future benefactors from afar, and Peripheral principals off to the side.
Gibson, whose prose has shed its early junk-shop clutter yet retains a sharp eye for detail, is a master at making batshit sci-fi impossibilities seem droll, ordinary, even banal.
A sort of metatextual tedium reigns supreme here, bouncing between sunkissed 2017 close calls and eerie 2136 surrealism. He devotes too much real estate to characters on either end of the temporal divide offering colorless commentary what we already know is happening on the other side. And the larger 2017 threat seems far removed from our protagonists. But it’s worth remembering that this is the middle leg of a trilogy and that Gibson’s cultural commentary game is strong. The cross-time gawking becomes a metaphor for online interactions as opposed to face-to-face ones, and the multiple references to construction and deconstruction remind us that the author is building to a climax beyond this frame.
It’s amusing to recognize that Eunice is manipulating actual people like pieces on a chess board, enacting iterations of Step’n’Fetchit without being sure quite why until it occurs to us that technocrats in an alternate reality are puppeteering her. Verity’s willingness to not just surrender completely to the ridiculousness of circumstances but to count Eunice as a dear friend underscores the deep spells our ubiquitous, indispensable gadgets cast. Readers of Gibson’s initial “Sprawl” trilogy may appreciate that our contemporary tech and “straight cash homie” morality and contemporary tech have advanced us to a present where Neuromancer’s cyberpunk doesn’t seem so far removed from what Agency has to tell us about ourselves.
With all the hustle, bustle, and far-future conspiracy intrigue bubbling under the surface, the reader might be forgiven for overlooking the gradual emergence of a steely, emboldened Netherton, his own resolve and nick-of-time assertiveness a surprise, even to himself. (The agency of the title is, it seems, dualistic.) Gibson’s quietly toughening him up for a third installment for which we hopefully won’t have to wait another six years. I suspect, in a reversal, that Gibson will call upon alternate pasts to rescue a muted, fraught future.
(Berkeley, January 21, 2020)