Review: William Gibson’s time-twisting ‘Agency’ imagines a Trump-less present
William Gibson made his reputation with his very first novel. Published in 1984 and awarded science fiction’s “triple crown” — the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards — “Neuromancer” wasn’t the book where Gibson coined the now-ubiquitous neologism “cyberspace.” Nor was it the first cyberpunk novel. But if you’ve read only one book from that stubbornly resilient genre, “Neuromancer” is probably it.
If Gibson had stopped there, his place in history would be assured, but he didn’t. After writing two trilogies of genre-defining cyberpunk in the 1980s and ‘90s, he swerved abruptly into bold new territory with 2003’s “Pattern Recognition,” a science fiction novel (along with two sequels) set not in the distant future but in an alternate recent past. In this universe, spies, junkies and grifters engaged with the surge of post-9/11 surveillance technology as if it were all a McGuffin, evoking the visceral strangeness of our own swift transformation into a networked surveillance state, whose architects read cyberpunk not as a warning but as a business plan.
And then, Gibson complicated the plot even further with 2014’s “The Peripheral,” a time-travel novel of braided parallel worlds, in which people from the future experience variations of their past — as in “Pattern Recognition”— while inhabiting a far-future dystopia that could easily have been a bit of light entertainment in “Neuromancer.” This fusion of futuristic Gibson and future-shocked Gibson was stunningly effective. Now, after delays caused by the election of Trump and a thoroughgoing rewrite, Gibson has published “Agency,” a sequel to “The Peripheral” that is, incredibly, even better.
The future world of “Agency” — and “The Peripheral” — is a distant time in which radical depopulation caused by climate crises, pandemics and inequality-fueled mass violence (a phenomenon the inhabitants of this future wryly call “the Jackpot”) has left behind a corrupt, fragile state dominated by the descendants of Russian oligarchs universally known as “the klept.” Such a situation would be inherently unstable (as one of Gibson’s characters notes, “Rule of thieves brings collapse”), but the klept have nominated a single, unaccountable, uncorruptible cop to watch over them. Ainsley Lowbeer wields a Putin-like power to execute any member of the klept who threatens the status quo.
Like the last book, “Agency” is a time-travel novel, pivoting on the mysterious gateway technology that allows people to reach back in time and transmit information through the networks of their past. Whenever this happens, the past forks, budding a new “stub” that proceeds on its own timeline. Lowbeer has been chasing members of the klept whose hobby is to treat stubs as their own whimsical Sim worlds, sadistically driving them into social breakdown or even nuclear apocalypse.
“Agency” opens just after Lowbeer has dispatched one of these time criminals, who had reached back to 2015 and thwarted both the electoral ambitions of Donald Trump and the Brexit campaign, with the unpredictable effect that the Syrian proxy war heats up to the brink of Armageddon. Lowbeer considers it part of her job to rescue this world from global thermonuclear war, and so she tasks some of the most memorable characters from “The Peripheral” to help the people of this ticking-bomb timeline save themselves.
To accomplish this, they enlist a groundbreaking top-secret military A.I. project that has been stolen by military-industrial grifters who hope to spin it off into a Silicon Valley startup. The A.I. in question, Eunice, has other ideas, especially after parallel-universe future agents start to feed her technical knowledge that can unleash her free will.
What follows is a superb, plot-heavy, poetic, darkly hilarious heist novel, as teams across different timelines work to frustrate the increasingly desperate grifters and their heavily armed mercenaries while trying to avert the literal end of the world.
A rogue A.I. was the McGuffin of Gibson’s first novel. Thirty-five years after “Neuromancer,” “Agency” uses that same McGuffin, which makes the two novels wonderful counterpoints. Both are philosophical meditations on the nature of intelligence and humanity, and both are relentlessly plot-driven noirs. (Gibson has described himself as a pulp writer with “links to Dashiell Hammett” who has “still got wheels on my tractor.”)
If there’s one thing we should know by now, it’s that Gibson’s talent is a restless one, and in the decades since “Neuromancer” he has developed an entire arsenal of plot twists. The action in “Agency” after Eunice arrives on the scene relies on brilliant, weaponizing (literal) deus ex machina devices to whip the characters from place to place, challenge to challenge, in a series of short, punchy chapters.
It’s not just Gibson’s plotting that has progressed over the years. His use of language, always incandescent, has passed through its own singularity, keenly tuned into what he called “the poetics of tech subculture” (Gibson has a comparative literature degree, and it shows). Each sentence is a hand-turned marvel of compact characterization, world-building and sardonic wit, all used to illuminate his vivid milieus — from the creepy imagined power corridors of the klept to the closer-to-home realities of grifty, monopolistic techno-capitalism.
“The Peripheral” was a book set in our near future and our distant future, both of which commented on our present day obliquely, asking us to ponder how it might turn into those futures.
“Agency,” meanwhile, is parallel-contemporary, changing the outcome of the 2016 election without relieving us of chaos and horror. It’s a much more explicit commentary than we’re used to getting from Gibson and an implicit reminder that Trump is best understood as a dumb symptom of our predicament, rather than the cause.
Writers who manage big, showy debuts are often one-trick ponies, but Gibson has an inexhaustible supply of tricks, new stories and new ways of telling them that make him the most consistent predictor of our present, contextualizer of our pasts and presager of our possible futures.
Berkley: 416 pages, $28
Doctorow is the author of “Radicalized,” “Walkaway” and other books. He lives in Burbank.
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