William Gibson and the Benefits of Agency

The internet says William Gibson writes speculative fiction and is widely credited with originating cyberpunk, a subgenre of science fiction. That means nothing to us. All we know is this. He excels at creating believable worlds/alternative universes that resemble ours but are different in fascinating and disconcerting ways. And as always, even if the story takes place in the future, it is really about us in our current times.

We picked up Agency, a follow up to The Peripheral (which is wonderful), at our favorite Roanoke bookstore, Book No Further (booknofurther.com). As is typical with Mr. Gibson, the reader is immediately thrust into a world that seems familiar but is different in many striking ways. The story takes place primarily in two timelines with a third one providing a supporting role (because why have only two timelines when you can have three?). So don’t get comfortable because you will be jumping between a London in 2136 and a California in 2017. The 2017 timeline is a “stub” that broke away in 2015. For good measure there are characters from the 2017 timeline that the “stub” broke away from, and they make hit and run (literally) appearances. Got it? Yes, of course I do – it’s all so obvious. Good. Now, let’s talk about AI.

In California, Verity Jane has been hired by a shadowy corporation (an agency?) to test a new form of artificial intelligence. The AI has a name, Eunice, and she is a brilliant composite of the best minds in espionage and military tactics. Though she is referred to as AI, she is more like a human-machine hybrid. Fortunately, her remarkable deductive reasoning skills come with an ethical core (that must be the machine part). Verity quickly determines that Eunice is way too intelligent and powerful to be left in the hands of her creepy employer. Eunice agrees. So they run. The employer, of course, chases them – because the story would suck if that didn’t happen. The folks in London decide to help Verity and Eunice, because not helping will result in nuclear holocaust. Yes, shit gets real, real fast.

Eunice (the name appropriately means “Joyous Victory”) is easily the best character in the book. She would be the best character in lots of books. She is snarky, intelligent, and not at all artificial. Though she is initially confused about her background, she is fully capable of responding to the threats swirling around Verity and her. And that’s the problem. Eunice is more than formidable. She is invincible – always two steps ahead of her foes. So it never seems that Verity and Eunice are in true danger.

Despite this, Agency is a fun ride right to the end – in part, because the characters are smart and engaging and, in part, because the worlds associated with each timeline are so interesting and convincingly depicted. But remember, the book is called Agency, meaning the capacity to act. It is not titled The Agency – a collection of shady former government employees willing to kill to get even richer. And in this story, Eunice has all the agency. Everyone else just reacts.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor