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Agency? Or impotence?
William Gibson falls flat on his face
I’ve enjoyed the books of William Gibson since Neuromancer was first published in 1984. I was twenty-five at the time, and the cyberpunk world depicted in the novel appealed enormously to my cynical twenty-something sensibilities.
Frankly, though, it was not particularly well-written. Even I could see that.
But what it lacked in graceful prose and plotting it more than made up for in dystopian fantasy. No one ever achieved satori (or even adulthood) by reading Gibson, but his works were great for the imagination.
Of the initial trilogy, I think I enjoyed Count Zero the best. It was positively haunting, and left me with a sense of melancholy and wistful sadness. I wished that I could actually see these beautiful and poignant collage boxes, although no doubt the reality would disappoint, and I felt for the lonely AI.
A couple years back I got around to reading the first book in Gibson’s latest trilogy, The Peripheral. I’d enjoyed all his previous books (I’ve read all his novels and short stories except The Difference Engine), and The Peripheral did not disappoint.
Not one of his best, but not the least best, either, and his take on a sort of “virtual” time travel (which makes it all the more believable) is brilliant. And I just really liked Flynn, and liked her even more in the TV series that came out last year.
So I was pretty primed to read Agency. I hoped that he would reach his stride and top its predecessor.
TL;DR: It sucked.
Is the title of Agency a sick joke?
Or maybe it is meant as a parody. But I cannot remember ever reading a book — and I’ve read some very avant garde books — in which less happened.
The set up is great. And then you look for the next thing to happen. Something must, right? It’s a Gibson novel.
And you wait and you wait and you wait and then, suddenly, it’s over and nothing at all happened. Nothing! Unless you count the Steve Jobs-y product announcement that closes the book.
Where is this fucking agency? No one in the book has any agency at all except maybe one character, and that character is absent for three quarters of the book!
Here come the spoilers
I can’t explain what’s wrong with the novel — and it’s a lot — without essentially revealing the entire plot. So if you have any intention of reading Agency and want to preserve the suspense, stop reading here, go read the novel, then come back.
Note: By “suspense” I mean a virtual lack of suspense. The only suspense in Agency comes from wondering when the fuck will something happen here? Then the ending comes rushing up and, hey! It’s an intellectual coitus interruptus.
The initial setting is a largely depopulated London, circa 2136, after a series of apocalyptic crises have killed most life on Earth in something called the “Jackpot”.
The future Londoners, who never go seem to go anywhere (although Canada is mentioned), have gotten access to a device assumed to be a quantum computer and controlled, they suspect, by the Chinese because … well, I promised myself that I’d try to avoid getting into the ugly politics of the novel — and they are ugly as sin — but essentially because if we don’t know who did something, then it must be those damn Chinese, right?
Point is, these future folks didn’t invent this device, don’t know where it came from, and don’t know how it works. But with it, they can travel back in time, but only virtually (no physical transfer of matter) and only a certain distance back because it depends also on the technology of the era to which they are “traveling”.
Conveniently, about the furthest back they can go is roughly now. What a coincidence!
Once they’ve made contact with this previous era, that era’s future veers away from the future of the original timeline.
As a consequence, a new timeline branch is created, and while the future era and the new branch share an identical past up until the point of contact, the future of the branch — called a “stub” by the Londoners — is its own. The two timelines now diverge in lockstep.
Of course, the deviation is gradual and many aspects of their individual futures remain similar or even identical. The trunk and the branch travel forward in time in synchrony — a year in the “stub” is a year in the trunk (future). And there is no going back again: doing so simply creates yet another stub. Damn.
The trunk and the branch from which it sprouted cannot trade material, but they can trade data. And it is possible to transfer sensory data, too, thus the “peripherals”. Peripherals are humanoid (usually) “bots” in the future into which the folks in the stub can temporarily transfer their conscious awareness. Their real bodies remain in their stub.
Once in the peripheral, they can experience the future exactly as if they were there physically – but as robots (or maybe androids as the peripherals are usually biological). They see, hear, smell, taste, and feel everything (including pain), and they can walk, run, jump, and, of course, fight and fuck. Dreamy, eh?
Both The Peripheral and Agency involve the creation of stubs: the former in our current near future, and the latter in our very recent past. And both describe a struggle between various actors in the distant future to manipulate and exploit the stubs for their own benefit or pleasure or to prevent such manipulation.
The stub in Agency branches off in 2015, but by the time the novel begins it is 2017. Already there have been two notable deviations from the original timeline (ours) – the classic “alternate future” trope – and these reveal the political biases of the author, even as he goes out of his way to avoid ever explicitly stating them.
The two deviations are:
Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential election (although he never mentions her — or Trump – by name, it is obvious to whom he refers).
The “remainers” won the Brexit vote.
I can only imagine that the Trump presidency scared the bejesus out of Gibson, and maybe Brexit did, too. I guess he believed all the hype.
I remember reading that Gibson threw out the original, nearly completed plot for Agency after Clinton lost the election. The current sludge is the sad result. While Gibson tries to be circumspect, the black-and-white nature of his political views is evident: Clinton is saintly, Trump is pure evil. No actual evidence necessary.
At one point in her ceaseless meandering, Verity passes a mural in an alley that stinks of piss:
And here it was, Verity assumed, midway between Valencia and Mission, on a prime two-story stretch of smooth brick: a celebration of the president’s bravery during the campaign, rendered in shiny black and white, like a giant Victorian steel engraving executed by OCD fairies. The president stood smiling, her arms outstretched to America. Her opponent loomed behind her, as he once actually had, Verity herself having watched this debate live. Seeing this now, she recalled her own sickened disbelief at his body language, the shadowing, his deliberate violation of his opponent’s personal space. “I don’t think anyone I know believes there was ever any real chance of him winning,” she said to Eunice. “I don’t know whether I did myself, but I was still scared shitless of it.” She was looking at how the artist had rendered his hands. Grabby.”
Did you get that? Grabby. Boy, that sure is original! And sweet smiling Hillary, arms outstretched to hug the whole world. Not a ruthless political operator every bit as much as Trump (more experienced, really). No, a saint, and Trump a devil.
News flash, Bill: they are both utterly evil, corrupt politicians. Put the Kool-Aid down and back away from the table.
This is the first novel (if I remember correctly) not set in the future, but in the sort-of present. So it is the first opportunity for Gibson to weigh in on contemporary society and politics.
Well, shit. Turns out Gibson is a political infant. He should stick to sci-fi fantasies.
Nothing to see here. Move along …
And it’s the wrong politics!
The worst of it is that not only does Gibson decide to weigh in on political issues, if only obliquely, but also it’s the wrong politics.
Like most of his readers, Gibson has bought the Western propaganda line entirely and believes that the enemy is over there. It’s the West against the Axis of Evil! This is the big lie of modern times. Maybe of all times.
And the domestic enemy is the other party, which is undoubtedly in league with the Axis of Evil, right? It’s all so simple … and Orwellian. Where’s the two minute hate?
But in real life, the true enemy is the hoarding, wasting, narcissistic, megalomaniacal parasite class of kleptocrats, plutocrats, and oligarchs: the “superrich” and their celebrity/political minions, the compradors. And, of course, their propagandists and apologists posing as “journalists”.
It’s not the Russians who endanger the West. It is the unending, accelerating concentration of resources into fewer and fewer hands and the utter despoliation of the ecosphere steadily killing all life on Earth. These maniacs are driving the West into confrontation with the Russians and the Chinese – both nuclear superpowers – because of their insatiable greed and bloodlust.
It’s about money and power, of course, not saving the world.
And it’s not like those resources are “trickling down”. Oh, please! Jeff Bezos primary yacht (he has more than one, of course) is 127 meters long. If you stood it on end it would be a nearly 40-story skyscraper. And its only function is to waste resources and energy while providing obscenely sybaritic luxury to a tiny group of self-obsessed, parasitical pigs.
Apologies to Sus domesticus.
Naturally, in Gibson’s hands the parasite class are our saviors.
Elon Musk is not your friend
But you’d never guess that from reading Agency.
The main character is Verity Jane and she’s known as the “app-whisperer”. What this could possibly mean, of course, is never explained – Gibson explain things? Get real! But more importantly, she never uses this presumptive skill in the story. Not once.
So what’s the point? It’s just a clever label applied to make her seem cool.
And what is Verity’s biggest claim to fame? Only that she is the ex-girlfriend of tech boy billionaire, Stetson Howell. Ah! Grimes …
Verity is hired by a shady outfit (of course) to test a new app which the outfit stole from the CIA and which turns out to be an AI. Verity figures this out almost instantly.
So much for the Turing Test, eh?
And what does Verity do once she learns that “Eunice” (UNISS) is an AI? Well, she becomes entirely dependent upon “her”. Yes, the book actually makes a point of insisting that Eunice is a “her” not an “it” as apparently AIs have the same genders as humans. Who knew?
Eunice, of course, is too cool for school. Here she asks Verity about motorcycles:
“Ever ridden bitch on a big bike?”
“What’s it got to do with rice cookers?”
“Nothing. On the back, getting boob-jammed if your biker brakes too hard?”
“More than once. Why?”
An AI that swears. Who could resist?
Naturally, Verity immediately agrees to obey blindly Eunice’s every command. Wouldn’t you?
Well, yes, yes, apparently. Because in Agency that is what everyone does, without exception. Every single human being contacted by the AI agrees immediately and without reservation to do her bidding and does so even at risk of their own lives.
Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die. I guess none of them had read Tennyson.
If Gibson were honest, he’d have titled his book, Obedience.
I’d say that you really can’t make this shit up, but evidently Gibson can.
And what does Verity need to do? What is it that explains her role as the protagonist of the novel? Um, essentially, she must avoid being killed. That’s it.
To this end she spends the entire novel – and no I’m not joking – merely being shuffled from one box to another: from flat to café to office to container to, um, barn? Her one task is to narrate this tedious chase while Eunice entirely off stage rebuilds herself, and then to bear witness to Eunice’s “coming out” announcement.
Waiting for Flynn
Flynn, the hero of the previous novel, The Peripheral, is mentioned several times but never appears. Too busy being a new mommy, it seems.
And who does appear? Conner, of course. He’s the formerly-crippled psychopathic killer who can barely wait to kill more people. And he never loses!
Now he heads the US Secret Service in his own stub because … well, because why not? Why not put a psychologically-disturbed, alcoholic, psychopathic mass murderer in charge of protecting the president? What could go wrong?
Of course, his ability to kill without compunction and to enjoy it is his super power and we’re supposed to be impressed by it. He’s a hero, after all. (Yes, there are some serious problems with all of Gibson’s novels when we consider the morality of his “heroes”.)
Conner travels (sensorially) across stubs to help out in the new stub by protecting Verity – whose actual value to the plot as we’ve seen is, hmm, exactly zero. To this end, he kills or wounds a couple dozen people using drones controlled by another drone into which he has transferred himself.
It’s never explained, of course, how he projects himself into another stub. I guess it is convenient to the “plot”, so he just does it.
The drone into which he transports himself gets a better description than anything else in the book, which is revealing of Gibson’s real concerns. In truth, the book appears to exist primarily as a paean to AI and a catalogue of future tech fetishes.
Just another tech boy masturbation fantasy.
And, of course, nearly all of this action happens off stage. Conner shows up, Verity looks away, looks back and oh! A pile of bodies! How did that happen? Heck, it saves the trouble of writing any actual action scenes.
And … Lowbeer executes the evil Klept who created the stub. Off stage. Then she eliminates another Klept who threatens to remove her. Off stage. Eunice’s bots round up human helpers – all of whom are told to trust and obey her because they are part of the “elect” obviously – duh! – and who therefore do so without hesitation or reservation. Not once. And all of it … off stage.
These human helpers come and go and have “clever names” (e.g., Grim Tim), but it’s never clear what they are doing besides making deliveries and ferrying Verity around. They are essentially furniture.
Oh, and Hillary Clinton finally does save the world from the threat of nuclear annihilation (created by the careless shoot down of two Russian jets over Syria under her watch). Can you guess where this happens? If you guessed “off stage”, then you’re starting to catch on.
The entire “pending nuclear war” is essentially a MacGuffin. No explanation is given for why it is likely (Russians = evil, I guess) or why the US can’t just say “sorry” and offer compensation to the victims’ families. I guess its sole purpose is to “explain” why everyone just does what Eunice demands.
The badass mommy AI is gonna save us all! Hooray for the tech ex machina!
Cutting to the chase … literally
So what actually happens in Agency? Well, nothing, really. Eunice disappears and is presumed dead early in the novel, and only reappears very near the end.
Yes, you read that right. The main character and the only one that appears to have any real “agency” is missing in action for more than half of the book.
When Eunice is around she mostly chats with Verity in American slang because, you know, she’s totally cool and really more human than human. Kinda Black, actually – do AIs have skin color? – and sexy and not someone to fuck with.
But she never explains what she’s doing or why. It’s mostly just girl talk and girl bonding. I guess if you’re into that … but why make a sci-fi novel for that?
Between Eunice’s death and her resurrection – let’s not miss the symbolism of that – what does Verity do? Nothing, of course. She hides here, she hides there. She travels by motorcycle, by car, by van – always as a passive passenger – and by foot. She receives and sends text messages and phone calls. She is nearly killed more than once, but the threat is removed each time – off stage. She never actually does anything to move the plot forward.
If you’re looking for a primer on modern modes of transport, well, it’s so-so. But I did learn about “boob jamming”. That was a new one.
Note: throughout, I use the word “plot” very loosely.
Verity is the epitome of the hapless, helpless female. She exists solely to observe and report the coming out of the first fully sentient and autonomous distributed AI. And that might have made a decent (very) short story. But not a novel of four hundred pages.
At least in Waiting for Godot there is a fascinating and profound conversation along with an ambiguous symbolism that encourages wild speculation as to meaning.
In comparison, Agency is positively vacuous, reflecting, I suspect, the vacuity of Gibson’s world view. Beyond the Christ-as-AI and some rude stereotyping of Donald Trump, there is no symbolism in the book. No profound thoughts, either.
Gibson clearly is what was once called an idiot-savant. In the realm of technological imagination he has few peers. But step just a few centimeters outside that narrow aptitude and he is revealed to be an intellectual idiot.
None of his political feints, for example, is beyond the ken of a nine-year-old. It’s politics on the level of finger painting, if that. Grabby? Really?
And these puerile politics are the raison d’être of the novel! They drive the entire “plot”, despite that plot consisting mostly of kicking a can down a road again and again and again.
The humans in the stub feel helpless in the face of a coming nuclear war and the humans in the future are equally concerned. What can be done? Only Eunice can save them!
But then it turns out that Hillary saved them – surprise! – with virtually no help from Eunice. It’s about as believable as Elon Musk giving away his entire fortune to spend the rest of his life as a Whirling Dervish. Enlightenment through vertigo.
And wait … what was the point again? That not even Eunice has any real agency, but Hillary Clinton does? I’m so confused … is this some kind of sick joke? Wait … am I on hidden camera?
Even the future peeps have no real agency. They rush to help in the new stub, but so what? Eunice rebuilds herself without their help and everyone else exists only to bear witness. A god is born!
And, as I said above, the nuclear threat is resolved (temporarily) off stage and with no one’s help.
What exactly do the future folks do? Well, there is a lame subplot about a threat to Lowbeer’s life, but that’s all dealt with … wait for it … off stage. Wilf Netherton returns now married with a young son, to be rushed to the new stub where he … does nothing.
His wife gets involved, too. Someone has to remind Wilf not to be a dick! (He’ll try, he replies.) And she befriends Verity who is clearly bored shitless as her role is to be helpless. Then Wilf’s wife blurts out the sad truth that the Jackpot is coming!
There’s a big kerfuffle then because the first rule of stubs is you don’t talk about the Jackpot. Because, it seems, no one living at the turn of the millennium ever thought for a nanosecond that something really bad might be coming, despite thousands of nuclear weapons in the hands of infants, giant islands of plastic in the oceans (and our bodies), looming climate catastrophe, dying reefs, empty fisheries, the loss of more than half of all animal life, mass extinctions of species, tainted and disappearing water tables, massive pandemics, bioweapons labs run by idiots, etc., etc., etc.
What? Those things are dangerous? You’re kidding.
But don’t worry. Conner makes it all better by explaining the Jackpot to Verity.
Frankly, the “Jackpot” is a ray of hope. Someone survives! Woo hoo! That might be the most absurd hopium in the book. If someone from the future showed up and told me about the Jackpot, then the first thing I’d blurt out is, “holy fuck! We survived?”
Humans just can’t learn from their mistakes
The real ugliness of Gibson’s novel – and it threads itself through many of his novels now that I think of it – is his incredibly dystopian and cynical world view. It’s one thing to say that we’re acting foolishly and we need to grow up. It’s another entirely to suggest that we can’t and that the solution is to remain children forever and to surrender our agency to an AI (or a woman president, or Russian kleptocrats).
I’m not talking about the problems he points out. Those are real. I’m talking about the ugly “solutions” he seems to recommend. Embracing his inner autocrat, I guess.
His future London has survived the “Jackpot” somehow, but has it really? The Earth is 80% depopulated (not necessarily a bad thing), but humans have learned essentially nothing.
Society is run by the Klepts: old Russian mafia families. Oh, look. It’s the Russians again. Do they ever do anything honest or benevolent? Guess not.
Turns out that organized crime is the best way to run a society! Who knew? Funny then how our current society is run by organized crime families pretending to be legit pillars of society, but that hasn’t proved to be particularly healthy for life on Earth.
I guess future crime families are smarter. Or maybe more moral? Hmm.
But worry not because those nasty Rooskies are prevented from getting too far out of line by Lowbeer, a single individual transgendered female cop more than 130 years old who knows everything about everybody (thanks to tame AIs called, insidiously, the “aunties”) and who can act with utter impunity. Because that always works out so well.
Everyone is terrified of Lowbeer – and with good reason – but we’re to believe that decades of absolute power has not corrupted her in the least – just the opposite – and that she acts selflessly with the best interests of all of humanity at heart. In short, if she disappears you, then you must have deserved it.
Kleptocracy, plutocracy, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, forever capitalism, consumerism, and rampant technophilia are all we have to look forward to.
There is so much more to dislike about this novel, but I’ll stop there. No need to pile it on. Let’s hope Gibson recovers his sanity and returns to form in the final installment of his trilogy. But I’m not going to hold my breath.