‘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.
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.
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.”-Agency, p.38
“That’s not a plus,” Verity said, “it’s an ‘and.'”
“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.”
“You’ll have audio-visual,” Ash said, “but no control, other than asking me to point it in desired directions.”-Agency, p.249
“Nausea?” Verity asked.
“No,” said Ash, “it’s neurologically too low-res to readily induce it. Ready?”
Virgil reached over again, to touch a switch on the side of the controller.
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.