Agency (2020) by William Gibson

‘Very recent hiredness was its own liminal state, Verity reminded herself, on the crowded Montgomery BART platform, waiting for a train to Sixteenth and Mission.’

–William Gibson

These are the opening lines to Agency, Gibson’s twelfth novel. I had to look up the word “liminal” which means “between or belonging to two different places, states, etc.” It is an important word for this novel, as Gibson weaves his narrative back and forth between the “present” of this story and its future. The present is an alternate 2017 in which Hillary Clinton won the election, and the future is some time in the 22nd century.

Synopsis

In William Gibson’s first novel since 2014’s The Peripheral, a gifted “app-whisperer” is hired by a mysterious San Francisco start-up and finds herself in contact with a unique and surprisingly combat-savvy AI.


My Thoughts

I’m in two minds about this book. I initially rated it 3 stars, but I’m tempted to drop my rating down to 2 stars now. (Please note: 3 stars for me is what I consider “average”, 2 stars is “disappointing.”) The longer I think about the story, the more disappointed I feel. It has some cool ideas, but unfortunately they don’t really go anywhere. The plot is pretty basic and the characters mostly forgettable. Thinking back on it, I’m struggling to remember the characters’ names outside of the main character Verity and the A.I. Eunice.

The chapters are short and there are many of them, over one hundred chapters in a 403 page book. Gibson’s prose is crisp and succinct, even if some of the neologisms went over my head at times–a common trait of Gibson’s fiction. The dialog is always readable and feels “real”, but if I’m being critical, except for Eunice it began to sound like it was being spoken by the same person. Here are a couple of examples:

“Breakfast,” Eunice said, as Verity got the phone to her ear, “Wolven Plus Loaves.”
“That’s not a plus,” Verity said, “it’s an ‘and.'”
“Says plus.”
“The plus sign is a hipster ampersand.”
“Breakfast rush about over, but they’ve still got the Egg McWolven. You eat, I’ll brief you.”

-Agency, p.38

“You’ll have audio-visual,” Ash said, “but no control, other than asking me to point it in desired directions.”
“Nausea?” Verity asked.
“No,” said Ash, “it’s neurologically too low-res to readily induce it. Ready?”
“Yes.”
Virgil reached over again, to touch a switch on the side of the controller.

-Agency, p.249

Like The Peripheral before it, Agency is a book that requires total focus when you are reading it. It’s not a book to relax with on the beach. It is dense and confusing for the first hundred or so pages. To be honest, it was difficult to keep track of who was who and where or when they were. It took me a while to figure out who was in which timeline, and whether it was the present or the future. But it did become easier to follow after that. I’ve read in other reviews that this frustrated a lot of readers with some struggling to keep reading.

Was Gibson being satirical with the title “Agency”? I ask this because the main character Verity Jane is led through the story following orders by a variety of people. Do this, go there, trust him or her, put this on, get in that car, accept this, and say that. And on it goes. She has almost zero agency. This is contrasted with Eunice, an AI that appears to achieve agency very quickly. I really liked Eunice. She is a cool character and feels more real than Verity, even though she disappears for over half the book. 

Another thing I really liked about Agency was its fascinating take on time travel. This was introduced in Gibson’s previous novel The Peripheral. *(Spoiler warning: if you don’t want to know how Gibson envisages time travel in this story or The Peripheral, please jump ahead to the next paragraph.)* As “simple” as possible–hah!–time travel is achieved on a digital level. A way of communicating with the past has been discovered. The details aren’t made clear, but via a mysterious “server” someone has got in contact with people in the past. This concept becomes more than just a digital messenger service when a “peripheral” is used. The peripheral is a robot-like drone that the user can access to temporarily exist in the future or the past. A bit like a mobile VR headset. Still with me? It’ll make sense if you read the book(s) 🙂 *(End of spoiler.)*

In conclusion, this is only a recommend for Gibson fans. As one critic pointed out in their review on Amazon UK, “Not quite his best, but still well ahead of the competition.” In other words, a disappointing book by Gibson is still better than a lot of other current genre books. What do you think?

Thanks for reading!

Link to all my William Gibson reviews, including Neuromancer; Count Zero; Mona Lisa Overdrive; and Burning Chrome.

23 thoughts on “Agency (2020) by William Gibson

  1. Good review! I have never read any Gibson, but I want to read the Neuromancer series this year. That seems like a natural starting point. In any case, his work sounds really interesting. So I guess this one didn’t really work for you?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! You puzzled out several points I didn’t in my review.
    I can see why you liked it less than I did – my enjoyment came mostly through the translation‘s better accessibility and may have given it one more star than it deserved.
    The novel clearly embraces a middle-trilogy syndrome.
    Concerning „agency“ I think that it was intentional that Verity is completely driven. That’s in order to contrast it to Eunice‘s agency. Gibson over-egged the pudding here, which I‘m not used to in his works.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Andreas! Good points. It must have been intentional on Gibson’s part, right? I like your “over-egged the pudding” comment. It’s my first time to hear that. 😃 Yeah, I was disappointed by this one, and that’s a shame because I usually really enjoy Gibson’s writing. I see what you mean about the middle-trilogy problem. Let’s hope for a strong conclusion in the next book.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gibson lost me many years ago when I read Neuromancer so I’ve never been invested. Nothing I’ve seen from anyone else has ever convinced me that I need to try him again 😀

    since you like him I’m sorry this didn’t work better for you 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Neuromancer worked similarly for me as this book did for you. While like you said, sufficient writing and concepts, but not fun and seems to be a chore. I think I put it something like “if I was a teenager locked in a room with a red bull and book, then yes I would study it feverishly”. Otherwise “Nope”.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one. I’ll keep “Burning Chrome” in mind, however.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks S.D. Yeah, when a book becomes a “chore” to read, then it’s time to look elsewhere. 😀

      How about you? Do you have a particular book or author that you love and can re-read for pleasure?

      Like

  5. I’m not very well read with Gibson’s work, but I did really enjoy both Neuromancer and The Peripheral, so this one has been on my list to read. Too bad it didn’t work as well, though. Did it in any way follow the storylines of the first book or does this feel like a somewhat seperate story set in the same world? One of these days I’d like to go back and reread Neuromancer and try the next books in that series.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agency is described as both a sequel and a prequel to The Peripheral. It reuses the technology from the first book, and some of the characters reappear. It seems to have split reviewers and Gibson fans alike. Some love it and others express disappointment. I will still read the next book when it’s released, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed Neuromancer but strangely never felt any urge to read anything else by Gibson – he was always this one-book author for me 😉 I think it’s his clinical LSD style that wearies me, though I can admire his ideas. Well, maybe it’s time for a re-read to see if my tastes changed! I’ve read it decades ago, after all 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I can understand that. It took me three reads over the years to fully appreciate Neuromancer. I like your phrase, “clinical LSD style”. That’s cool and I totally get what you mean:-) I’m planning to reread his second trilogy starting with Virtual Light. I read it years ago and enjoyed it then. Let’s see how it holds up.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoyed Gibson’s early work when it came out years ago, but gradually lost interest- his books came more intellectual and less, well…. Neuromancer was very Rock n’ Roll, you know? It made sci-fi cool… like Blade Runner did and Cyberpunk as a sub-genre too. You know, smart and cool, a devastating combo back then. But that was a long time ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean. Neuromancer blew my mind the first time I read it many years ago. It’s still probably my favourite Gibson book–as you say, so rock n’ roll cool. I recently re-read Virtual Light for the first time since the 90s and I’m tempted to call it my “new” favourite Gibson book. I think it was–and still is– under-appreciated and underrated. The Sprawl trilogy and the Bridge trilogy still hold up today, in my opinion.
      Thanks for commenting!

      Like

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