There’s no better author than William Gibson to twist and turn our notions of reality into mind-bending fiction that makes us examine the current state of human affairs.
Since the dawn of the genre, science fiction writers have played with notions of reality, alternate universes, technology’s impact and the puzzles of time travel. Today, human technology has advanced to the point that these questions seem less speculative and more urgent, especially the militarization of technology and artificial intelligence.
All of these ingredients boil into an ultimately provocative and rewarding stew in Gibson’s new novel, Agency (Berkley) a worthy follow-up to the world he created in his 2014 novel, The Peripheral. It’s a story that will prompt you to ponder what it means to be human.
The chapters quickly flip between the middle of the next century and a 2017 that’s different from our reality in key respects, such as a “female president” beating Donald Trump. In the present-day world of Agency, A.I. has advanced to a point in which digital intelligence is indistinguishable from ours.
AN ALLIANCE BETWEEN AN A.I. CREATION AND “HER” BETA TESTER
Indeed, the driving force of the plot and the story’s most memorable and sympathetic character isn’t a biological human at all. Meet “Eunice,” a state-of-the-art, fully autonomous creation of artificial intelligence with a military purpose who exists only in code.
By contrast, the human characters, even the de facto protagonist, Verity Jane, operate in a state nearing emotional numbness much of the time. You’ll root for Verity but won’t be deeply invested emotionally. That’s reserved for Eunice and whatever sacrifices she may have to make — which is kind of an interesting point to ponder.
As the story opens, Verity takes a job to “beta test” Eunice. She accesses Eunice through digital glasses, and their conversations quickly demonstrate that this A.I. creation has a transformative intellect that is rapidly advancing, unpredictable and potentially dangerous to her corrupt creators once they realize her power. As Verity grows closer to Eunice, she decides that Eunice must be protected.
NUDGING HISTORY AWAY FROM “THE JACKPOT”
Meanwhile, decades into the future, readers of The Peripheral will renew their acquaintance with the characters Wilt Netherton and Ainsley Lowbeer. The future humans have survived an apocalyptic event of climate collapse and other human failures called “the jackpot” that depopulated the planet. Plutocrats live in London with the outward trappings of royalty.
Those same humans can reach into the past of alternate timelines called stubs, participating not physically but by providing technology for drones and communication devices. With that power, Lowbeer nudges stubs into fresh directions.
Such a nudge paired Verity with Eunice. Perhaps they can help those in Verity’s world avoid the jackpot fate. And perhaps they can learn some lessons from Eunice to make their own world better and avoid the corrupting influences of their authoritarian state. They assist Verity and her allies as they flee. Eunice herself disappears, and no one knows if she’ll be back.
REFLECTIONS OF TODAY — IN A FUTURE AND ALTERNATIVE PAST
The present and future characters in Agency share senses of resignation. They go through life knowing that crap inevitably will come flying at them, trying to maintain emotional distance and only as much moral compass as necessary. This seems purposeful by Gibson, who sprinkles the story with barely veiled references to the craziness of our actual reality. He’s raising a warning flag about the rising fascism of a Trump-Putin world where survival will repress the human spirit.
Agency rises or falls on the quality of its plotting and the ideas it reflects back. The plot can be confusing and oblique at times, but so are the ideas behind the story. That’s sort of the point, and it not only makes Agency worth your time, but it’s also why Gibson retains his cred as one of our most imaginative, thoughtful and provocative authors. There’s no “Eunice” to save us.
Agency is now available for purchase.