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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.