William Gibson returns with Agency

Agency,
William Gibson,
Viking Penguin,
Hardback, 416 pages, £18.99
Published January 2020

Bill Gibson, arguably one of the most influential SF writers of the last few decades, returned to full-on science fiction with The Peripheral several years back (reviewed here). Agency follows on from that book, but there has been a pretty substantial, five year gap between the two, much of this caused by the pesky Real World interfering in the plot. Agency is not so much a direct sequel to Peripheral as a story set in the same world established in the preceding novel, with some characters carrying over and new ones taking the lead. It retains the idea from the Peripheral of a century or so hence future where our world has been radically changed after the “Jackpot”, a series of events (environmental, war, disease, political, economic) which decimated the global population and left the descendants of the super-rich oligarchies (the “klepts”) in charge, democracy a distant memory, the world barely stabilised by the use of cutting edge tech.

And again it involves the “stubs” – these rich oligarchs have discovered a mysterious server which allows them to connect digitally to what seems like their past. They can’t go there physically – there is no actual time travel as such here in the traditional sense (although sometimes they can go visit via telepresence in a remote controlled artificial body) – but can exchange information, allowing them to interfere in those eras, some for entertainment (often for malign kicks), as if they were playing a Civilisation style video game, except these are real people’s lives that they are playing with, (not hard to see the real-world commentary here!). This has no effect on their own timeline’s history as the moment they make contact with any such past it branches off into a parallel timeline, the so-called “stub”.

The formidable police inspector Lowbeer is tasked with ensuring that none of these klepts acts in too outrageous a way, that could threaten the precarious stability of their society (a society run by corrupt oligarchs not exactly being too stable to begin with). A new stub has come to her attention, one where Trump lost the Presidential election and Brexit never happened – and this is where the long delay between the two books comes in. Poor Bill was taken by surprise by the results of both of those votes, as many were, and realised some of what his characters would be doing made no sense in a world in which Trump and Brexit existed, causing a long delay and much re-writing and new thinking.

However, if you didn’t know this I doubt you would pick up on it from the writing – Gibson is far too professional for that. He’s always had a knack for smooth descriptions and highly-crafted prose style, and I think that is a skill which has just become better over the years. Here it has resulted in him taking the world-building from The Peripheral but delivering a related but very different story. Despite avoiding some of our timeline’s mistakes the new stub is still facing similar dangers the main timeline did (the looming Jackpot disasters), not to mention a looming threat of war around Syria and Turkey that could spiral into nuclear Armageddon very easily.

In this stub, unlike the main timeline, what may be a true AI agent – Eunice – has emerged from a murky mixture of covert military tech and Silicon Valley development, and some are panicking about what they may have unleashed when testing her. Verity, an influencer and “app whisperer” has been given Eunice to test by a tech start-up, unaware of the vast conspiracy that comes with this until she is dropped into it, while Eunice is going to have to develop very quickly if she has any chance to survive and grow, let alone maybe, just maybe, be able to help the human characters steer her timeline from its destructive course. Lowbeer feels some responsibility to help this timeline, and Eunice, and recruits Wilf (last seen in the Peripheral) to aid in whatever way they can to protect this stub from disaster (both from her own interfering timeline and from the potential disasters of its own timeline).

The best science fiction has always, at its core, addressed the problems of the modern world and society, no matter how disguised by futuristic settings and tech, and of course Gibson is no stranger this; it is something he has done in most of his books from Neuromancer onwards. Agency continues this, very satisfyingly hitting a number of hot-topic buttons, from the One Percent and their unprecedented level of control and influence in larger society, environmental collapse, the role of tech in our society (for good and ill), potential global flashpoints like Syria Turkey and Russia that could easily spiral into something worldwide, the dangers of undermining democratic institutions, of taking moral responsibility for our actions.

Couple this with a tense narrative, delivered in short, punchy, often fast-pace chapters, and characters you can’t help but care about (I think I fell in love a little bit with Eunice and Verity in particular, and the odd relationship developing between the pair) and you are in for a terrific, involving read from a great author at the top of his game. Well worth the wait.

This review was originally penned for Shoreline of Infinity, Scotland’s leading journal of science fiction, featuring short stories, poetry, articles, reviews and more.

The Peripheral – William Gibson’s superb return to science fiction

The Peripheral,

William Gibson,

Viking

the peripheral william gibson cover penguin books

Inside, the trailer was the colour of Vaseline...”

I’ve been reading Bill Gibson’s work since my teens (which now feel like a lifetime ago, back in a former century); Neuromancer remains a firm personal favourite as well as being generally held not just to be a classic of modern science fiction but one of the most iconic and influential. In the last decade and a half though Gibson has moved away from science fiction to a fair extent, but his writing has remained fascinating, his technique sharper each time but his ability to craft a wonderfully descriptive line (such as the quote above) in one sentence where other writers may take half a paragraph of descriptive text remains, and he remains laser-sharp in tapping into elements of today’s society, morals and tech. Now with his return to full-on science fiction I am delighted to say those skills has sharpened in the likes of his less-SF works like the Blue Ant series remain pin-sharp, an intriguing story, beautifully paced, mixed with his laconic descriptive style and superbly accurate observations of problems we are facing today and tomorrow in the real world, transposed into his future setting. Of course commenting on today’s problems using a futuristic setting is something good science fiction has done forever, but Gibson does it so much better (and with so much style) that most.

Set across two time periods, the near-future, around the early 2020s, and we meet a young woman in a trailer park in the South of America, Flynne. In this not too distant version of the future there’s a lot to be recognised from our own present day, an economy that simply doesn’t work anymore, out-competed by fresh international rivals, wearied by endless wars (Flynne’s brother Burton is a veteran, still suffering sometimes from the tech implants – ‘haptics’ the Marines use in this era), few jobs, even fewer that pay a wage you can live on, what’s left of the economy and the local and national government run far more by corrupt politicians in the pay of corporations and a wealthy elite who have hung on to their wealth and increased their influence as the mass of population grows poorer – democracy is pretty much a fig leaf now. Sounds terribly familiar, doesn’t it?

Flynne, like most of the population, has to be on the look our for ways to make a living – sure there is a military pension for her brother but the cost of living keeps going up and keeping food on the table and a roof over the head is increasingly expensive, while employment opportunities grow scarcer, their small town drying up, shops closing, only a few chain conglomerates still in business, apart from a few local enterprises which operate frequently in the grey area between the legitimate economy (if you can call it that in this corrupt future) and the dark economy. Flynne never served herself, having to look after their mother (and earn money for her medications), but she has some formidable combat skills, albeit virtual ones – so good she’s made money as a virtual mercenary for rich gamers, helping them look good. Burton, with his tech enhanced skills from his Marines days also makes some extra money on the side checking out beta versions of new software and games for corporate clients. When he needs to be elsewhere (basically heading to nearby towns to tussle with a religious-political group he can’t stand) he asks Flynne to stand in for him and run his shift on what both think is testing out parts of a new game. And it is while remotely operating a flying drone in this virtual city online that Flynne (logged in as Burton) witnesses what looks very much like a real murder, realistic enough to be disturbing (especially for Flynne, who after some too-realistic war gaming for a rich client is sickened of this kind of thing, even if it is virtual).

But was it just a test of a beta version of a new game in development? Or was it something more…

And this is where the second main element of Peripheral comes in, almost a century further down the timeline from Flynne’s era, in a sparsely populated world following an event, an odd version of London, parts of it new but parts of it recognisable to us, but somehow different. This is the world after an event known as The Jackpot, the human race hugely reduced in number after this event – or really a series of events, a rapidly accelerating downward spiral of various disasters, some natural, many problems we are all to aware of right now, problems of our own making, allowed to run rampant, no one single event or disaster, just one after the other, like a war of attrition oh humanity. This sparsely populated future London was recreated mostly by nano assemblers and the main humans left are descendants of the hugely rich oligarchs, like the Russian billionaires who buy up huge sections of the wealthiest parts of London today then extend their properties underground, Gibson again taking a far future but lacing it with elements of the way things are already recognisably going in our own day and age.

Among this rich elite we meet Wilf, not rich himself, nor especially important, but he has some influence, a mover and shaker of media (we first meet him as his carefully orchestrated media piece on his artist client – who periodically flays her own skin from her body and displays it as art before growing a new one – ends up in a total mess witnessed by all). And this is where it becomes even more interesting, as we find out Wilf’s rich oligarch friend has been playing a new game. Not exactly the game Flynne thought she was testing – in fact his new hobby is like a strategy game, building your own world of resources and planning, a Civilisation style game, perhaps. Except this isn’t a virtual reality, this is history – this is Flynne’s time. A mysterious server – perhaps in China – somehow allows a few of the rich elite in this future to dabble in the past, the ultimate in gaming, actually getting to play with real people. Gibson neatly avoids this causing any causality problems by the fact that whenever a new game is started it cannot actually be the past of the player’s time, rather it causes a splitting off, a splinter, a different timeline, which they can interact with in the future knowing if they cause any changes it will not affect their own present. It’s a nice spin on a hypothesis about possible time travel which has been used before in both science fiction and theoretical science as a way around the the causality problem (how could you go back and change the past, as any change would alter your own future so that your future would now be different from the one where you decided to change the past… Yes, very confusing conundrum, time travel really can induce headaches) by automatically having these ‘stubs’ become their own timeline, linked by the mysterious server but not part of the timeline of the gamer, so it cannot effect their time. In effect a parallel reality, something that has been theorised for many years in science, a multiverse where each different course of action leads to its own distinct timeline where each plays out.

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But while this stub timeline Flynne inhabits may not directly effect events in Wilf’s time, his time has serious effects on her era – not least that some of the other shady operators from Wilf’s time, others playing in this timeline as if the people there were game pieces (which to these bored, rich oligarchs they effectively are) see her – or Burton – as a possible threat to their own plans and decide they need to be removed, necessitating direct contact with Flynne and her timeline. a contact Wilf is chosen to be the frontman for. There is no actual time travel here, but it is possible to exchange data between the different times, and Flynne ‘visits’ their future via a remote android body, the eponymous peripheral, still in her own time but able to use it to physically interact in Wilf’s future period. A tense race soon develops, which draws in an enigmatic London detective, who is clearly much more than a police officer, and while the timelines may be separate, they are parallel and it’s not hard for those in each period to see events of their own timelines being mirrored in the other, but must everything play out one way or can they determine their own possible future?

I’m not going to go into deep details here for fear of spoilers – this is a large novel (especially by Gibson standards) but it flies past at a cracking pace, with the intensity slowly ratchetting up as the events start to spiral ever faster, cutting back and forth between the two futures. Despite the length of the book Gibson keeps it never less than engrossing, and it isn’t long before you get drawn into the lives of the characters, especially those of Flynne’s era and the way her family and neighbours band together in the face of threat, be it from the other shadowy future operatives playing with their time, or from their own corrupt local politicians and businessmen – when the world is going to hell there is something warmly human about this small group of the have-nots circling the waggons and looking after each other, in stark contrast to the predatory super-rich, the politicians and the corporations, the latter with huge amounts of money and all the resources they can buy, the former relying on their own personal bonds and ingenuity, classic Us versus Them. The story riffs on a number of hot topic subjects from our own era’s concerns – virus outbreaks, terrorism, economic collapse, the ever growing chasm between those at the top, entrenching their positions while the mass of the population has to get by with less and less, an environment we’ve pushed beyond breaking but still don’t do much to repair, not to mention the metaphor of these future rich kids in a post Jackpot event world playing with real lives in alternate timelines as if it was a game (which to them it is), and the allusions that casts to the way so much of our own world seems to be run beyond our own control by elite groups who answer to no-one but themselves.

Through this gripping story and the social-historical-political-economic observations Gibson so deftly weaves (into the background, giving these futures a realistic texture and context but without slowing the main narrative) we’re also treated to more of those superb brief but oh so evocative descriptive lines Gibson is the king of, such as one character boarding an armoured Zil limousine, noticing “it had no rear window whatever, which gave him the sense that it had turned up its collar.” And through it there is the nature of morality in both timelines, one older character reminding a younger that those plotting against them may have evil intent, but they’re not monsters, they’re “all too human, dear, and the moment we forget it, we’re lost,” the implication being that every single one of us has the potential to be that selfish, banal evil person, and we need to remember, because that’s what keeps us different, keeps us on the right side. Absolutely compelling return to science fiction by Gibson, I already know this will be one of my Best of the Year picks.