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Review of

William Gibson’s Agency

I recently read some reviews on Goodreads saying that Neuromancer is badly dated, has thin characters and is written in an unreadable style.

I think what grates on me the most is that – to an extent, they are right. When you write near future science fiction, it will, by its nature, date quickly. Style preferences have changed considerably since the early 80s. But none of their observations struck me as particularly fair. They might react quite differently when the future he is addressing is more immediate. As in Agency.

Dick and Jane, Jane Doe; the name Jane suggests the ultimate everywoman. A plain Jane. Verity is a synonym for truth. Verity Jane, the default hero of William Gibson’s most recent novel, Agency, is all of the above. She is “plain truth” – an adaptable cipher and a reflection of everyone and no-one-in-particular in our efforts to understand and control our everchanging environment.

Hired to beta-test a new software product, about which her employer had been deliberately vague, Jane meets an AI named Eunice (UNISS) – ironically the most interesting, quirky and congenial character in Verity’s 21st century world.

Agency is book two in a series that publisher Penguin Random House is promoting as The Jackpot Trilogy.

As usual, the future Gibson writes about is near enough that current events sometimes overlap it. I understand it was a difficult book that needed to be rewritten more than once when events in the book unexpectedly overlapped our reality in ways that undercut the narrative. Most of the heavy lifting, the major science fictional building blocks, were laid down in book one. You wanna know how everything works? Read The Peripheral. Wanna see it working? Read Agency.

Jackpot book one, The Peripheral, introduced the timelines and the way they interact with one another. By Chapter Two of Agency, you learn that Verity exists in a time stub that veered off the main timeline, seemingly destined for a similar apocalypse to other such stubs created by the same morally bankrupt hobbyist from the future. A future that had itself narrowly dodged a climate catastrophe – and subsequently amalgamated many of the survivors in a nanotech maintained London. The city of Toronto is referred to in Agency, but it is suggested that not much exists outside of the closed environments of the major cities. This London depicted in the Jackpot books is largely controlled by Russian mobsters, but hugely influenced by behind the scenes players led by Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, who Gibson describes as a “semi-mythical autonomous magistrate-executioner” and her small team of operatives that includes young family man, Wilf Netherton.

The stated goal of her current intelligence operation is simply to give Eunice enough agency to save the stub – and Verity is an essential pawn in reaching that goal.  The trick is that none of the characters in the future is physically able to travel into the past to make things happen. It all has to be done remotely. It’s a bit like setting up and managing a major bank heist on Zoom.

Whereas The Peripheral is demanding and sometimes difficult read, Agency seems like a bit of a lark. The less overwhelming style makes Agency more approachable. The exposition occurs more naturally and incidentally. As opposed to a heavy thought piece, it reads more like a time-travelling espionage thriller – a chase adventure with a similar, breathless pace to the Crank, Bourne or Matrix franchises. More droll than funny, Agency’s stakes are less personal and far more apocalyptic than something like Crank.

On the surface, this may seem a bit trite for a literary trendsetter like Gibson – until you take a closer look at what’s going on. 

The central conceit of creating time stubs and then subsequently tinkering with them to produce varying results – is truly brilliant. Science that can be played like a video game, at least until the video game starts playing you.

The goal of manipulating history to play out in a specific way is trippy and clever. But preventing something from happening through remote interference is easier than making something happen. The goal for much of the book is action avoidance rather than action, and this passive (and often clueless) viewpoint made Agency feel a bit frustrating when it resulted in the lead characters literally running (driving) around in circles, working towards a goal that seemed poorly defined through the middle of the book. But the ending, when it came, was exciting and fulfilling, leaving plenty of open questions and possibilities for where the third book will go.

I understand that Neuromancer was optioned many times, providing some significant income for its creator, but denying him the pleasure of having his work adapted along with the extra notoriety that might come of that. Now it’s too late. Near future science fiction, will by its nature become quickly dated. Neuromancer is a classic book, but no longer a especially relevant one.

But producers in search of source material for a riveting, intelligent and suspenseful series need look no further than The Jackpot Trilogy. Get those screenwriters to work now – and lay down that pilot.  


5 Poems

Unhoused by Dale L. Sproule
From 2 AM, Spring 1988
Doors are portals to your fears
and so you hide
from doors and sky;
until they subdivide
to drive a freeway through you.
Walls and floors and ceilings
now rubble at your feet
Leaving you empty
in the empty street;
crying in the ruins,
digging in the ruins,
ruined in the ruins.
Until you finally find
a hiding place,
deep, so deep inside
the ruins of your mind.

Zenocide by Dale L. Sproule
The Nightmare Express Mar-Apr 1991
Like the proverbial fallen tree
some things you neither hear nor see;
The guns roar at the base of your skull,
brains erupting from the shattered hull
of your forehead.
Your careless red signature on the floor.
Will your scattered thoughts quiesce
To dwell on a final sticky question?
With no recall of the eruption…
Are you really dead?

Pick-up Artists
from The Nightmare Express Nov-Dec 1989
He screamed when it came at him in its rough,
humanoid form. It took advantage of the
its whole wiry hand into his mouth to the back
of his throat
and down.
Searching out vital organs from the inside
His mouth clamped shut
around its shoulder. His eyes bulged. It grinned,
clutched for his heart. But the expression changed –
worry draining all vestiges of humanity from its features
when it felt the acids claim its groping limb. And burn.
“Oh shit!” it thought, having fallen for the oldest trick
There is. And then his mouth opened wider to embrace
Its bowing head
And everything.
It’s final thought, “Just like a goddamned human!”

Breakfast of Heroes by Dale L. Sproule
Jan, 2019, Psychedelia Gothique Blog
I awakened as the muscle-bound hero,
having ravaged the gate and infiltrated the city.
Still carrying the darkness of night
under my heavy cloak of responsibility
I stumbled down the hall into the kitchen, my bristling weapons
knocking over knick knacks in my wake.
My swollen pecs and biceps made it awkward
to butter my toast and fill the reservoir on the coffee machine.
And I barely fit through the bathroom door
when I went to brush my teeth.
Shaking my great, shaggy head in front of the mirror
I peeled off my armour as I bent forward
To inspect a spot on my forehead
No contusion, this – merely a new liver spot
I sighed with relief, as my proportions deflated
in the triple glare of the vanity lights
and I finally washed away the dream with soapy water,
smiling as my Herculean task swirled down the drain.
My belly and receding hairline suddenly didn’t seem so bad –
my wrinkles and imperfections being infinitely better
than bloody bandages and slings, scars and mended bones.
And as I dressed, I hummed an old song
And revelled in the freedom to be me.

When Nonsense Rules by Dale L. Sproule (with thanks to Yeats, Nash and Carroll)

Ululating out at me
from the branches of a tree
a loon’s voice screamed
in fractured cries
Something here is not quite right

I peer through darkened canopy
For water birds, I cannot see
Forsaken now
by lake and sea
And stranded on a blood dimmed tide

Whales drift like clouds through clotted air
While slithering down the thoroughfare
Songbirds writhe on filthy wings
And from the hedge a wart hog sings
Nothing here is as it ought
With nightmares, our paradise is fraught

Cars and trucks dance down the street
With ominous and warlike beats
Fenders clashing on concrete
Wheels spinning skeins of lies.
And the blood dimmed tide does rise.

All the world is on its head.
All our politics are dead
The populace has lost its voice
We just sing lyrics in our heads

A chorus line of rough beasts shifts
In a can-can-can’t with slow limb lifts
While sense and language lose their power
Through this dense, long-scheduled hour
And there’s nothing left to do
– but dance.

To the tremulous shriek
of the stranded loon
Playing out its melancholy tune
Let’s gyre and gimble cross the boulevard
to join the mome raths at play.