In ‘Agency,’ William Gibson goes back to the (far) future
About 40 years into one of the most important and influential careers in post-war science fiction, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that William Gibson’s novels fall into a particular pattern.
He works in trilogies, first being the Sprawl trilogy published in the 1980s, the one that started with the genre-shaking “Neuromancer” (1984) and introduced the world to his idea of “cyberspace” specifically and the street-savvy future-noir of cyberpunk in general.
His Bridge trilogy was published in the 1990s and set around 2006 or so; with its post-disaster tent cities and obsessions with the long-term ramifications of emergent technology and artificial pop stars, it might have the best resonance with our particular right-now.
Nobody believed him when he kept saying his Blue Ant trilogy was made of books set around the time they were published (2002, 2007, 2010) — folks were just too used to him predicting rough versions of the stuff that would eventually become common coin.
So he went back to something that was very much science fiction in “The Peripheral,” set in 2014, which toggled between two narrative streams and then, as is his wont, brought them together.
In one, set in the near future, a young woman stuck in a dead-end, rural town thinks she is playing a video game and witnesses a real-life murder. In the second, set around 2136, 80% of the world’s population has died in an environmental catastrophe/societal realignment known as “the jackpot.”
A wealthy strata of the remainder have learned to manipulate the time stream by sending information into the past, creating alternate timelines called “stubs.” (Don’t think too terribly hard about the time travel mechanism.)
But with all of these books, the first one sets the stage and features the densest writing, as Gibson tries to dropkick the reader into a new reality complete with its own jargon and world views. (This is particularly true of the Bridge, Blue Ant and the newest arcs.) The second eases up on the language a bit as it fleshes out the world. The third usually feels a bit more like the first, with an ending that can feel awfully vague.
“Agency,” the second book in his as-yet-unnamed newest sequence, had a rather fraught birth. Gibson ended up rewriting it twice, first after Donald Trump won the presidency and again after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The weirdness of the world simply outpaced one of our long-standing prophets of the strange.
“Agency” takes place both before and after “The Peripheral.” It’s 2017 in San Francisco. Hilary Clinton is president, and the Remain folks won the Brexit referendum.
Verity Jane, a sort of super-beta tester who has a reputation as an “app whisperer” in Silicon Valley, is hired by a vague company named Cursion to futz around with “Eunice,” a next-gen artificial intelligence (an “autonomous, self-learning agent”) that may or may not be the product of a defense initiative. Soon, Eunice has started poking around of “her” own accord, and Cursion is in hot pursuit of both Verity and Eunice.
Elsewhen — “meanwhile” seems the wrong word —in the 22nd century, the post-jackpot folks are still messing with the past. A creepy London cop named Ainsley Lowbeer and a PR operative named Wilf Netherton, both of whom we followed in “Peripheral,” become aware that Verity’s timeline (or “stub”) contains the potential for a serious nuclear exchange, a stub that’s the product of a particularly sociopathic manipulator. (Imagine a high-level Russian election-meddler able to tweet and disinform into the past.)
One wishes Gibson would spend a little time with the have-nots in the post-jackpot future. The writer Greg Rucka has set up a similar system in his excellent sci-fi comic “Lazarus,” in which the world is controlled by 16 corporate “families.” Those in the families’ employ are known as “serfs”; everyone else is called “waste.” Life among the waste is just as interesting as the family drama.
Like all of Gibson’s work, “Agency” is strong on the material quality of its moment via his near-supernatural command of you-are-there description. Look for a smoker releasing a “startlingly opaque puff of white vape, like a winter locomotive in an old movie,” while a chain restaurant that used to be a themed nightclub evokes “the wholly imaginary erotic appeal of various species of early hominid.”
But “Agency” has a lot more breathing room than “The Peripheral,” short chapters that zip along in the manner of a Lee Child novel.
Speaking of, Gibson’s frame is that of the thriller, a limitation for many readers. (I recall a literature professor in college in the early ’90s expressing disappointment that “Neuromancer” just “ended up being a lot more shallow than I expected.” I continue to wonder if she ever read any more of his stuff.)
Gibson loves braiding plots strands, usually two or three, in the final, say, 20% or 30% of the book. He loves a good chase and a few killings or attempted killings. And he loves chatter in the future-colloquial; either you can follow it or you’re lost.
What Gibson’s cult is here for (and I count myself as in and out of the church since “Neuromancer”), ultimately, is that language, the turns of phrase that evoke a future that may or may not be already with us.
William Gibson will speak and sign copies of “Agency” at 5 p.m. Jan. 25 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects series. The reading portion is free and open to the public. Only books purchased at BookPeople are eligible for signing. Information: bookpeople.com