(2020) Viking, £18.99, hrdbk, 403pp, ISBN 978-0-241-23721-2
Gibson once again has given us a high-tech thriller but this time with a rather neat, quasi-time-travel element in the mix.
In San Francisco of 2017, Hillary Clinton is in the white House and Brexit never happened.
Verity Jane is an app-whisperer who road tests new consumer tech and she has a new job. A somewhat secretive start-up company wants her to evaluate a pair of glasses that also serve as a personal assistant. The assistant, called Eunice, turns out to be not only very useful but literally has a mind of its own. Indeed, Eunice seems slightly paranoiac, thinking that the start-up company do not have it/her best interests in mind. It therefore takes Verity on the run, magic-ing up resources as and when required…
Meanwhile, a century in the future and in the past Hilary Clinton lost the election and Brexit didn't happen. A century on and it appears that humanity has had in the past some sort of apocalyptic event called the Jackpot. In London, there are many Shard-like structures that suck carbon dioxide out of the air. It is a seemingly under-populated city, though in addition to the humans, there are effectively artificial replicants and even artificial host bodies that humans can tele-inhabit.
In this future, a very old but rejuvenated policewoman, Lowbeer, gets a PR fixer, Wilf Netherton, to investigate this alternative past and find out what the artificial intelligence Eunice is, as nothing like that existed in the real, pre-apocalypse past.
William Gibson's set-up is intriguing. Apparently somehow a China-based computer system accessed the past and caused it to diverge into an alternative, 'stub' timeline. Time in this past passes at the same rate as in the real future and those electronically accessing the stub can only access the past 'present': they cannot hop about the alternative timeline or peek ahead to see how things will pan out. It is also possible to instruct those in the stub to build the equipment needed for the alternative history stub citizens to have a tele-presence in the real future: information can be exchanged between the real (future) present and the alternative past, but matter cannot be transported.
If all this sounds confusing, well it is a little bit until you get the hang of what is going on. The story is told in alternate chapters switching from the perspective of the future London Wilf Netherton and Verity Jane in the alternate, stub past. Given that often Wilf and Verity are together (either in the future or the alternative past), chapters often continue the story almost seamlessly with changing just the protagonist providing the perspective. It's actually quite neat.
Of course, many novels impart their plot through switching the story-telling perspective protagonists: that in itself is nothing special. What is special here is Gibson's strict alternating between just two protagonists with each chapter: this really does help the reader identify where we are.
One thing, as I do find with much of Gibson's writing, the author does like his technical terms. I therefore recommend prospective readers to consider having a sheet of paper bookmark on which to jot notes as to who characters are and what terms mean. It helped me, but you might be less dyslexic than I and manage perfectly well without such an aid.
The other thing is that Agency is the second Lowbeer / Netherton story: The Peripheral comes before this one. But fret not. I jumped straight into Agency without having read The Peripheral and can assure you that both are standalone novels even if a couple of the characters have developed a little across the two books.
Agency is a rollicking SF thriller, packed with genre tropes: AI, tele-presence, replicants, invisible cloaking, alternate timelines, time travel of sorts, and stacks of technological kit – what's not to like – and enough toys to satisfy the most demanding child before Christmas within us all. Gibson's Neuromancer may now be over a third of a century behind us, but Agency demonstrates he still has the touch.
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