Book review: Agency, by William Gibson

It is difficult to review William Gibson’s new novel without resorting to oxymoron. Is it a serious romp? A comic apocalypse? A cerebral caper? 
Well, in some ways it is all of these things. Gibson is often cited as the inventor of the word “cyberspace” and his futurological fictions seemed to predict, or at least imagine, virtual reality and interconnected digital platforms. All this is true, but it omits to mention that he can pace a plot like few others and has a sardonic and incisive sense of humour. This new work shows him at his lightest, if angriest, compared with novels such as Neuromancer or Virtual Light. Despite the magnitude of the issues he addresses, it is handled with a vim and vamoosh that are a delight to read.

William Gibson PIC: Keystone/Zuma/Shutterstock

The novel unfurls in chapters focused on two very different people. Verity is an “app-whisperer” who has been employed by a slightly eerie company to test drive their new product. It is a combination of AI glasses, mobile and earbuds, named Eunice. (In one of the novel’s most biting asides, one character wonders why these “digital assistants” are always – such as Alexa or Siri – feminine). Eunice soon proves invaluable, and can run face-recognition, cross-reference it to social media presence, and catch credit data; and is also a little too independent for those who created it. Eunice is pure sass. Even her language is rather salty. The twist – since most of this is merely exaggerating what is – is that we are in 2017, Hilary is in the White House, and Brexit was a non-event.

The alternate chapters deal with Wilf, who is living almost 100 years later. He is vaguely in PR, a new father and a recovering drunk who has a covert connection to Lowbeer, who may be a policewoman but may be something far deeper into the deep state. Their world is ravaged by ecological crisis and political cynicism. But for reasons which will transpire, it seems essential that Wilf, and a motley crew of other characters, have to contact Verity and deal with the situation around Eunice. They also have to deal with a hick of a President, who is at least on a leash. Oh, and avert a nuclear catastrophe.

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The narrative therefore shuttlecocks between time-frames, although contact is made between the future and the past, mostly using drones with uploaded consciousness. These are brilliantly described, as creatures that can be a box one minute and a metallic scorpion with weapons the next. The various pilots intruding into the past are like characters from the 1980s show The A-Team on steroids. They can, in a doom-laden fashion, say of their foes “they’re not strategists… though they assume they are, and rather good ones at that. A fully functional, strategically sound opponent would be a greater threat, but without posing the sort of unpredictable danger they currently do”. Point taken, I assume. Even a grandmaster can’t win a chess game against someone who doesn’t care about the rules.

The novel works particularly well in terms of bringing in terms that are only slowly explained. What is a “stub”? Who are the “klepts”? What did the “jackpot” involve? One moment about the current go-to topic could easily be retro-engineered as the novel’s whole rollercoaster form. “Did we ever come to terms with the sheer cluelessness of it?” Or indeed, the wry comment towards the end that “that’s gotten a lot more complicated since I told you it was complicated”. Or even the exasperated “None of this shit’s simple, is it?”

In a way, the “speculative fiction” elements mean far less than the whizz, the bangs and the ka-booms. Nor do they mean as much as having an engaging central character about whom the reader cares, and a misfit cast to follow. It is also, in places, written with a very curious elegance. In one scene there features “a single, surprisingly large valley oak, black limbs entirely leafless, like the tattoo of a tree superimposed on a sun-faded photograph”.

Novelists have been inventing alternate worlds since the novel first existed. This fits broadly within the tradition that includes Borges’ story “The Garden Of Forking Paths” or Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. But it’s much more rollercoaster than Zen garden. It is a novel that, I think, would appeal to readers of thrillers as much as to readers of more mind-bending literary fictions. It is also delightfully satirical, with little nods at hipster beards, the proliferation of different steampunk goth tribes, facial piercings, celebrity culture, conceptual art and much more looked at askance. All of this makes it a rather scattergun novel, but one which is consistently readable and provoking.

Its choppy, short chapters are all headed with a phrase that will occur inside that section – “Open-Plan Anxiety”, “A Budget For Illegalities”, “Images Of The Aftermath”. Even the title is a conundrum: is Agency about having agency or about being in an agency? Either way, it’s a riot. Stuart Kelly

Agency, by William Gibson, Penguin Viking, £18.99