Book review: Agency by William Gibson

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

One of the inestimable joys of well-written speculative fiction, which encompasses a broad range of genres including fittingly for this review, futuristic, is how it turns an engaging premise into a story so believably and immersively well-executed that it feels as real as the seat you are reading the book on.

Possibly even more real, no matter how fantastical its constituent elements of premise may be.

Such is the case with Agency from master storyteller William Gibson, a writer who coined the term “cyberspace” and who is adept at examining the peculiarities of our world and pithy and pertinent questions about what it all means and where it could all lead.

His latest book in a career which began with the multi-million copy bestselling novel Neuromancer, Agency is an impressively good piece of storytelling which spans three different timelines, two centuries, one very adaptive protagonist and some startlingly thoughtful ideas on how history and the future have a great deal in common.

Verity, known as the “app-whisperer” in the tech industry of Silicon Valley, signs onto a start-up known as Tulpagenics which is promising a revolutionary product known as “U-N-I-S-S”, or Eunice as she prefers to be known (and whichlet’s face it ticks more than a few anthropomorphic boxes), which is styled as a digital-assistant-in-glasses, the first wearable virtual assistant who goes wherever and whenever you go.

On the face of it, not massively revolutionary but Verity quickly works out that Eunice has already evolved far beyond her originally-programmed parameters and could be the key to all kinds of bad things not happening to the timeline of which Verity and Eunice are an inalienable part.

“‘I ordered for you,’ the voice expecting to be called Eunice said.

Verity had covered the headset with a beanie she hoped wouldn’t suggest she was trying to look younger. She decided to keep it on. ‘Thanks. How’d you know what I’d want?’

‘Your Starbucks reward account,’ said Eunice, so-called, practising what she said was facial recognition on the barista.” (P. 10)

So far, so desperately intriguing.

Where things start to get really interesting, and by interesting, we mean “run, Verity, run, bad people are after you!”, is when it turns out that only has Cursion, the company that controls Tulpagenics, realised something may be up with Eunice (who is fare cleverer and in control of things than anyone suggests; she is, at heart, a puppet master of world events extraordinaire), and have hired Verity to find exactly what form that takes, but that they are prepared to do anything to get Eunice, and by extension, Verity back under their control.

Let the chase begin!

Complicating things still further, and forcing Verity to grapple with a tsumani of mind-boggling revelations all in a very short period of time, is that operatives from 120 years in the future in an alternate post-apocalyptic, advanced technology-furnished London are working hard to help Eunice accomplish a mission which she has originated but which could mean whether the timeline of which she is integral its own end-of-the-world scenario.

It’s a lot to take in, for Verity and for readers, with events skipping merrily across multiple timelines and years with the alacrity of an immeasurably talented temporal acrobat.

Such is Gibson’s skill as a writer that these disparate elements, which could easily have become overwhelming and befuddling, end up as seamlessly-integrated parts of an elegant whole, one in which the interconnectivity of humanity is never more clear and the need for everyone to work together to avoid a fate to terrible to imagine is never more pressing.

William Gibson (image courtesy Wikipedia)

There are a whole mass of reasons why Agency is such a compelling read, but chief among them, apart from a brilliantly well-executed fantastical premise which ends up feel astonishingly real and possible, is that Gibson has created a raft of vividly-realised characters who lend humanity to a story which in lesser hands would’ve been all gee-whiz events and non-stop action but possessing very little in the way of heart and soul.

Such is the rich characterisation of Agency that as events escalate and people across time and space connect in profound ways with one another, we become involved because we care deeply about each and every person involved in a story replete with an insanely large number of BIG ideas and intriguing narrative twists and turns.

The three-dimensionality of each of the characters, whether main players like our timeline’s Verity or Eunice, who form a rich and vital bond in a story which would not exist without it, or the alternative timeline’s Wilf Netherton, Rainey or future police woman Ainsley Lowbeer, goes a long way to ensuring that the near-otherworldiness of Agency feels as grounded and authentic as our lives today.

In other words, regardless of where they are and what they are dealing with, people are people are people, a simple enough idea that carries some potently profoundly humanistic implications for the scope and feel of Agency’s masterfully expansive story.

“‘Someone’s revealed Verity’s whereabouts, on a public medium. Ash is concerned that Cursion will find her here.’ They were passing that alcove, with its mirror, acrylic chair and assymetrical floor lamp. Virgil was pulling the drone behind him in its wheeled travel corset. The squashed-circle format gave Netherton a sense of what was going on but, with the drone in motion, was simultaneously disorienting. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘best I concentrate.’

‘Do,’ Rainey said, squeezing his shoulder, which felt peculiar while he was accessing the drone. He unmuted.” (P. 240)

This attention to the humanity inherent in the equation means that while Agency is full of some mind-boggling concepts and sprawlingly massive ideas, each of which is worth a novel all of their own, it never once feels inaccessible or remote.

It is also quite funny at times, reflective of the fact that at every point in the book, people react exactly as you would expect people to react, not simply to some realities far beyond their everyday understanding but to the absurdity of some of the situations in which they find themselves.

There’s a lot of serious stuff going on for sure, but Gibson never ignores the fact that even in the midst of the gravest of situations people will look at things askance, employ some pithily-executed black humour or find things just a little bit too scary or too much.

So, while we get to cover a lot of ground in Agency, and all kinds of very serious machinations are afoot, all of which come with one potentially world-ending consequence or another (or not if the best case scenario sees the light of Eunice’s carefully-orchestrated light of day), the raw, vulnerable humanity that even the most accomplished of people can display is never far from the emotion-filled rawness of the narrative.

Agency is a masterful piece of storytelling, replate with fantastically expansive ideas, compelling characters, serious implications laced with humourously infused very human reactions and a sense that the present and the future are inextricably interwoven and that one person’s fate is very much an another, a shared destiny that if properly taken onboard by the human race as a whole, might have profound consequences for the way in which we move forward, wherever and whenever that may be.

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