Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Review of The Agency by William Gibson

And here I thought William Gibson’s The Peripheral was a one-and-done. Wrong. I should have known better. Looking back on Gibson’s history, particularly the interviews, it seems clear. I think I’m done with this setting. No, wait: I’m not, and yet another trilogy comes about… What then does The Agency (2020) have to add to the setting?

Building from the Jackpot concept of The Peripheral, The Agency introduces new tangents (including, what if Hilary won the 2016 election) and plays the old Gibsonian trick of featuring new characters while slyly working in familiar ones. In the Hilary storyline, a new character named Verity is introduced. Hired by a start-up in San Francisco to test new technology, she spends the better part of the novel’s beginning trying to understand the strange avatar software being developed for the military. In the second, the Jackpot storyline, exists the new technology Verity is working with named Eunice. At the umbrella level, the relationship and tension between these two “women” drives international and interdimensional plots and cabals.

As one might expect with Gibson, none of the novel’s politics are overt or sharply pointed. In fact, the reader must look to the negative space—what isn’t described—to find the elements of a non-Trump era. Otherwise, as is normal with Gibson’s style, the innovative elements are presented as perfectly normal, inherent to the settings and scenes, often throwaway, fashion. Like The Peripheral, The Agency seems a conglomeration of all Gibson’s books to date. The futuristic, technological, corporate conspiracies of the Sprawl, the near-future impact of disruptive tech in the Bridge, the present day power of art, data, money, and brand in the Blue Ant—all these are combined into a mish-mash story that will entice or put off.

While I recognize Gibson’s genius, place in history, et al, I’m of the “put off” variety. The coherence of this novel and the prior are subjective. Specifically, they suffer from the problems inherent to a lot of branching timelines/realities stories. Where everything is possible, nothing is interesting. In these novels readers become privy, through Gibson’s choices, of the realities/places beyond our own. Given the story setup, however, it seems clear there is an infinite number of these possibilities beyond. Why then, are those small number of realities the subject of the story? Or, why then do those couple of realities impact our own where others do not? Logic dictates that the infinite other realities would likewise have a mix of altruistic or nefarious intentions for our reality, malevolent to benevolent, doomsday to world peace. Where are they? Perhaps just a personal thing, but my brain gets angry at this. It’s the writer cherrypicking their own conception (which is their right), but without following logically through on the premise. With Ian McDonald’s Planesrunner trilogy, for example, a cap was inherent to the parallel universe concept: only seven were possible given some hand waving. This in turn created the books’ mental canvas for readers’ imaginations to play out on. In the case of Agency, the canvas is not limited. A Lovecraftian myriad of possibilities exists, of which the small few described in the novel have an impact on our world, with no explanation or exploration why the others don’t. I’ve gone personal in this paragraph as I recognize this is a personal, not universal, thing, i.e. enjoy at your own desire.

In the end, The Agency is a book similar in style and substance to The Peripheral. If you liked it, there is an extremely good chance you will like The Agency. As with The Peripheral, I feel Gibson could have done a better job distinguishing his settings, and providing a few more details into the backdrop of the novel’s concept. That, however, is a personal thing which may not trip you up. If the idea of secret police in combination with emergent technology across parallel worlds is enticing, Gibson may have provided you a feast.

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