Agency can be considered a sequel (and in some ways a prequel) to Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral. It reuses the fanciful time-hopping remote technology and idea of parallel alternate realities that was set up in the previous book as well as revisiting some characters.
There are two main parts to the story. The first part is the tale of ‘app whisperer’ Verity Jane who is testing some clever AI technology, called Eunice or UNISS, initially embodied within a pair of glasses and earbuds, for a shadowy tech company who it turns out may have had connections to the US military. The second part, which gains dominance as the story develops, revolves around the group of illuminati type figures called the klept in a post-apocalyptical alternate reality in the twenty-second century trying to prevent the extinction level event known as the ‘jackpot’ occurring in Verity’s timeline. In this case nuclear war.
Just like in the previous novel, people from the ‘current’ America (Verity’s reality) and the London of the future are linked by a mysterious server so that people with the right technology can remotely visit past or future by linking up with drones, androids, little screens on wheels. Much of Agency is spent describing the various functionality of a chunky prototype military drone, controlled by various people from the future, and its charging kit. The concern Gibson has over explaining where the charger kit is as we move from scene to scene, location to location, does become rather tiresome. I was expecting it to actually play a bigger role as some kind of disguised bomb, but no it’s just the author being strange.
Again, there are scenes of stark high tech violence, juxtaposed with sci-fi beauty – mind candy? – insights into where robotics and avatar technology might lead society and an underlying warning about what we are doing to the world politically and environmentally. However I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous book. The nature of the technological link between the realities is still not explained to the reader, the concept of a gig economy of security services feels a little overstretched, and the story feels more like an origin story for Eunice than anything bigger.
Moreover, none of the characters apart from one or two of the klept seem to have any real agency, which seems contrary to the book’s title. There are layers and layers of people in both worlds just being told what to do by the AI, or the elite timeline fiddlers, and while many of them understand they are just a puzzle part in a bigger jigsaw you would at least expect Verity, the central character, to have some control over her own destiny. But that’s not really the case as she just seems to be handled like an Amazon delivery passed from protective courier to protective courier and making very few impactful decisions of her own along the way. Sure, it’s exciting to watch a hipster in a barrel speed down some white water rapids, but this reader wanted a stronger protagonist who might at least be given a paddle.
Maybe, that’s the underlying theme and Gibson is actually being ironic with the title. Compare Verity with, oh I don’t know, let’s say Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings. The hobbit encounters challenge after challenge, but still completes his hero’s journey with some sense that the decisions he made along the way had an impact on the final outcome. In comparison, Verity feels like the gnome in that bizarre Half Life 2 easter egg – carried along for the ride while events happen around her.
Sure she makes friends with an AI, but that’s standard subject matter for Gibson and I would’ve liked to have had less barely disguised commentary on current political shifts and more of an actual clearly identifiable character arc for Verity – maybe not a Thomas Anderson to Neo transformation but just any crumb that tells me she’s changed for the better. I’m probably being too harsh but I was really excited to read this book as Gibson is one of my all-time favourite writers and I feel a bit let down.