So the story goes that renown futurist (and presentist, really), William Gibson started writing a novel in 2015 that was set slightly in the future. In that future Hillary Clinton was president and the Brexit vote was defeated. So that, it seems even renowned futurists can get it wrong sometimes. Rather than throwing the manuscript out and starting again, Gibson retooled the nascent book into a sequel to his previous time-travelling novel The Peripheral. The conceit of The Peripheral was that people in a future time can use technology to interact with previous times. When they do, however, they create a new version of reality called a stub which is a version of history that deviates from their own. And so to Agency, set in the same universe as The Peripheral but in a new stub in which Russian interference was shut down so that Hillary Clinton won the 2016 US election and Britain voted to remain in Europe. Not that either of these facts make any real difference to the overall plot.
In a slightly alternative 2019 to ours, Verity Jane is an “app whisperer”, someone who is brought in to test applications. When the book opens she has just landed a new job which may end her days of couch surfing and hiding from social media. The new job is to test a new “digital assistant” called Eunice. Only it turns out that Eunice is an artificial intelligence much more powerful than even her creators suspect. Eunice quickly enlists Verity to help her outwit her creators, an offshoot of the US military. Meanwhile in the future of 2136, Wilf Netherton is told of this new stub by his employer Lowbeer and tasked with making contact with Eunice in an attempt to stave off what looks like an unavoidable nuclear war. Because, it turns out that details like who is US President or whether or not Britain remains in Europe make no difference to the fact that humans are essentially self-destructive.
The title of this book “Agency”, can apply to many of the characters of the book. Foremost, it is used by Eunice to describe herself. She wants to be free of those who created her and forge her own path. And many of the characters in this book are searching for their sense of self and power. But the plot that Gibson sets in train essentially drains all of the characters, particularly Verity, of any agency at all. Eunice is taken out about a third of the way through the book and after this Verity’s actions and movements are dictated either by shadowy remnants of Eunice and the network of people she has put together to support her, or directions from the watchers from the future. As a result, while there is constant movement and some fun action scenes, the whole thing seems to be (and eventually turns out to actually be) running on rails.
Gibson provides more detail of the kleptocratic future he envisioned in The Peripheral and revisits some of the characters from the more futuristic stub from that book, one of whom has become President of the United States. And his description of a slightly altered techno 2019 San Francisco, complete with a new Uber-style stalking service called Followr is classic Gibson.
But all of this fails to hide the fact there is very little plot. There is mostly movement signifying not very much in service of an outcome that feels fairly predetermined. At one point in the narrative, for example, Verity is driven out of San Francisco in a van only to meet up with someone who then drives her back into San Francisco on the back of a motorcycle. So that Verity herself just becomes a plot device, as do all of the weird characters that she meets who all automatically trust Eunice and work together to bring her plan together.
Agency rattles along and is still plenty of fun. It revisits the future of the The Peripheral for those that enjoyed that book and is peopled by a cast of very Gibsonian characters who converse in snappy, snarky dialogue. But unfortunately it is not much more than this, except maybe to prove characters without any agency are always going to be less interesting than those pulling their strings.