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."






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.