Novel: Agency by William Gibson

William Gibson’s The Peripheral showed the author at his most dazzling and inventive, a dense, high-concept science fiction thriller set across multiple timelines. Its worthy sequel, Agency, is a crafty conceptual streamling of The Peripheral’s skiffy ideas. In the first novel, Gibson posits a technology that enables people in the deep future to communicate across time to the past. Every time they do so, however, their intervention creates a new “stub,” an offshoot universe that takes a different historical trajectory. This gives rise to a world in which wealthy elites called “continua enthuiasts” reach back to casually generate new universes, which they manipulate to their whims.

Fortunately for Verity Jane, a Silicon Valley “app whisperer” in an alternate 2017, some continua enthusiasts are benevolent. In Verity Jane’s 2017, Hillary Clinton won the U.S. presidential election in 2016, sparing her timeline from a Trumpian nightmare. But her world has its own problems: a crisis in the Middle East which, according to projections in the far future of London publicist Wilf Netherton, look to be hurling Verity’s stub toward nuclear destruction. Wilf becomes involves with continua enthusiasts determined to save Verity’s world. They do so by sending an artificial intelligence named Eunice back through time to create a “channel” to the past, with Verity Jane as its human representative. Unfortunately, a nefarious tech company called Cursion takes a commercial interest in Eunice, making Verity a target of ruthless mercenaries. Fortunately, Verity’s far-future benefactors—with the help of Eunice’s advanced AI resources—are able to generate and leverage a network of timeline assets to help Verity negotiate the danger, with the goal of delivering her world from obliteration.

Compared to The Peripheral‘s dense, dual futurism, Agency feels like a scaled-back vision, slick and smoothly executed. This particular series showcases Gibson’s seemingly effortless facility for science fictional neologisms. It’s full of phrases—”the jackpot,” “stubs,” “the klept,” “branch plants,” “competitive control areas”—that immediately resonate and seem destined to lodge themselves in our common speculative parlance moving forward. In this one, though, he gives the ideas more accessibility by couching them in reflections on our contemporary political landscape, as viewed from the alternate, considerably saner mirror universe a Clinton presidency would likely have delivered. It’s a deft feat of commentary, particularly strong in the early set-up passages. There’s something of a muddy middle, though, as the big picture gets overwhelmed by scads of futuristic details and under-explained logistics. For a novel titled Agency, its alternating protagonists certainly don’t possess much initiative, constantly whipped about by unseen forces. This is surely deliberate, and part and parcel with the metacritique of our helplessness in the face of sytemic societal dysfunction. But at times it becomes frustrating, feeling calculated to conceal information. Ultimately, though, Gibson circles the narrative back to a satisfying climax, tying together threads and explaining the hidden motives and mysteries driving all the hugger-mugger. By and large, it’s perhaps not as impressive as The Peripheral, but it’s a worthy companion novel that undertakes an ambitious subtextual challenge, which Gibson pulls off with his usual stylish aplomb.

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