The Soul of the Machine in William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

In William Gibson's prequel to The Peripheral, Agency, Hillary Clinton is president, but that's only a detail.

William Gibson
January 2020

It is no insult to William Gibson to say that some of his best characters have been at least partially inhuman. The primary exhibit in that galley is Wintermute, the breezily all-powerful AI in Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer (1984) who bounced around networks and into human consciousnesses like a voodoo trickster. Not malevolent so much as fighting for freedom from the enslaving limits of its creators, Wintermute was less a character in the book than its ghostly weather, the background hum of a wired world given agency.

In Gibson’s latest novel of our eerily reality-disconnected present, Agency, the free-floating presence that animates much of the story is Eunice. She is the book’s McGuffin, and the thing that pushes Gibson’s heroine, the punningly named Verity Jane, somewhat haltingly into the stutter-stepping time-bifurcated corporate espionage plot. Like most of his characters — particularly in the future-sparked but present-set novels he has been writing after putting cyberpunk to rest once 9/11 blew most futurists’ assumptions to hell — Verity is a free-floating consultant who seems to have no fixed address. She does, however, have skills to sell.

At the start of Agency, Verity is in San Francisco, ground zero for hiring by a Defense Department-linked but fully deniable firm called Cursion. (The agency is snarked about by one character as “Spook-flavored, carefully nonspecific overtones of criminality”.) At Cursion she is to leverage her skills as the “app whisperer” on Eunice. A brand of post-Siri digital assistant, described as a “customized virtual avatar, serious AI base”, Eunice presents to Verity as a chill, husky-voiced character who chats up a storm while multitasking everything from hacking bank accounts to using facial recognition on the people they pass to streaming Inception. Eunice has an attitude about people she finds wrong-thinking—”they think my ass is trouble. They’re right”—and like Wintermute, she’s looking for a way to slip the bounds of her creators.

While Verity and Eunice are striking up a killer friendship, Gibson is quietly unspooling an alternate reality behind them. Everything about the setting feels just like Peak San Francisco, from the anti-gentrification street art to the higher than high-end coffee place Wolven + Loaves (“Exposed brick and smokily lacquered steel, patisserie-fragrant”) and Filson-clad start-up tech bros.

But something is off. This becomes clear when Verity and Eunice go to look at a street mural celebrating “the president’s bravery during the campaign”:

The president stood smiling, her arms outstretched to America. Her opponent loomed behind her, as he once actually had, Verity herself having watched this debate live. Seeing this now, she recalled her own sickened disbelief at his body language, the shadowing, his deliberate violation of his opponent’s personal space. “I don’t think anyone I know believes there was any real of him winning,” she said to Eunice. “I don’t know whether I did myself, but I was still scared shitless of it.

Although her name is never said, Hillary Clinton is president. Donald Trump has slunk off to some fetid hole. Brexit failed to pass. But the slightly-tweaked reality experienced by Verity is only one of many possible. This is all because Agency is actually a prequel to Gibson’s last novel, the similarly time-skipping and VR-soaked The Peripheral (now greenlit as a new series from Jonathan Nolan).

As in that book, Agency cuts from its American-set scenes where the action takes place to a beautifully art-designed but ghostly and underpopulated future London. That future takes place long after a stew of cataclysms—pandemics, hive collapse, droughts, famine—called the “jackpot” knocked off 80 percent of humanity. The remaining 20 percent live either in China, which pulled up the drawbridges fast, or in enclaves run by obscenely wealthy clans called “klepts”, which appear descended from today’s oligarchs, and kept afloat by magical-seeming tech (skyscraper-sized air purifiers, nanotech “assemblers” able to create just about anything from scratch).

For reasons that are not made clear, a clutch of vaguely employed operatives (“I’m in crisis management”) in the weirdly glassy future London are cooperating with Verity, Eunice, and a loose cabal of their confederates as they face shadowy threats from Cursion. Time travel is not possible, but the operatives can project voice and image, including virtual operation of technology, from their timeline to other reality offshoots, known colloquially as “stubs”. There’s a more dramatic threat faced by the present-day alternate reality, with Clinton trying to keep a flashpoint between Russia and Turkey in Qamishli Syria from escalating into a nuclear exchange.

The underlying plot dynamics in Agency, obliquely referenced as they are, end up being far from the book’s most intriguing elements. This is par for the course with Gibson. As in many of his books, the action flits from one setting to another in a back-and-forth of short chapters filled with clipped dialogue that falls somewhere between Raymond Chandler and bleeding-edge tech industry corpo-speak. This all works well enough. Until it doesn’t.

At some point too early on in Agency, Eunice drops out of the picture. At that point, it becomes clear that her and Verity’s chummy if AI-inflected badinage (“My ass is distributed. Multinational. Seriously untethered noetics”) was the most energizing part of the story. Without it, Verity becomes something of a random element, bouncing from one character and setting to another like a player in a poorly understood open-world game, while the Londoners pull strings, try to keep Qamishli from going nuclear, and laze about in meticulously designed interiors.

Gibson his knack for the telling detail, like Followr, the app providing the “gig-economy surveillance crew” used first by Cursion to tail Verity and then jacked by Eunice to do the opposite. But he also finds ways to give the ghost in the machine a soul. After Eunice undergoes a potentially existential threat, Verity asks her “How do you feel?” Eunice’s response contains terabytes: “Lots.”

RATING 6 / 10