The marketing around William Gibson’s Agency didn’t do it any favors. Thinking that The Godfather of Cyberpunk was writing liberal wish-fulfillment about Hillary winning the election and the UK staying in the EU sounded terrible. Having read a few different books in that genre, they are usually somewhere between SNL on a bad week and a college improv group trying too hard to get laughs.
Thankfully that isn’t Agency. Gibson sets this in the same universe as The Peripheral, where he’s playing with informational time travel and colonizing the past. It isn’t the most ringing endorsement of the alternate outcomes that the world is on the brink of nuclear war. Yet beyond some passing mentions, it isn’t really about the swap in the turn of events. In the “true” timeline, everything still falls apart. Honestly, the whole election portion of the story got entirely too much attention in the marketing of the book.
Instead, you get Gibson working at full speed. We’ve got AI’s, mysterious corporations with embedded military, billionaire benefactors, mafia politics, and most of that is even before the plot comes together. Gibson manages to keep the past and future plots spinning in their own orbits, and even manages to bring in a third timeline.
Verity is an app whisperer in San Francisco who is brought in to test a new AI assistant. Eunice ends up seeming far more powerful than just another consumer app and begins to sound like the first real AI. This is yet another “stub” timeline for Lowbeer and Wilf to travel back to informationally. If that makes no sense, go back and read The Peripheral. You can probably keep up, but the old characters are given a familiarity that you won’t quite appreciate.
Gibson works well in full on thriller mode. His stories have this particular shape, and while it sounds like I’m accusing him of being formulaic, that’s not quite it. It’s almost like a heist but with a lot more jags into the nuts and bolts of how things work. If you’ve read enough of Gibson’s books, especially the Sprawl trilogy, you know what mean. He writes books with stories of a particular shape and creates these charming characters and an exciting setting to let them play in.
If you haven’t read Agency yet, trust me, it’s worth your time. Gibson is synthesizing his modern-day stories with his sci-fi past and creating a new post-climate setting that I hope the final book in this trilogy explores. I also want to talk about what he is saying with this book that will spoil the ending, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now.
Okay, so let’s talk about the ascendency of Eunice. Lowbeer putting a benevolent AI in charge of the world to keep an eye on things puts the end of the novel in a weird position for me. It seems whether its Lowbeer at the end of The Peripheral or Eunice in Agency put themselves in the position to steer the rabble to prevent the Jackpot.
It’s a sentiment that I can cede as satisfying. When I finished the book, I was tempted to go hard against the very idea that the only salvation of humanity was through some all-knowing force behind the scenes minding the shop. However, when you’ve got craven disinformation wars predicated only on ensuring that there are always two sides to sell a media bubble to, you wonder about the merit.
Lowbeer’s Jackpot was defined by a million different micro-disasters piling up with governments unprepared or unwilling to do anything to help. That left the kleptocrats to rule the world, well what’s left of it. There is likely one final book that brings this all together, just as Bigend over three books represented the slow takeover of all culture by vacuous tech bros.
I’m not disturbed by the argument for some sort of benevolent controller, but more how seductive that argument is. It does feel like everything is careening between disasters. Putting the breaks on and trusting an AI or ax ex-spy front he future than trusting the votes of people wandering around Wal-Mart in Nazi masks.
Yet it sort of hits the very thing I feel keeps undermining the rational folks in discourse. Invoking an unquestionable and all-knowing authority is a lot easier than dismantling the mechanics of a culture that creates an environment rife with disinformation and bad faith actors.
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