Culture

Agency by William Gibson splits the seams between AI and humans

The new novel, a sequel to The Peripheral, plays with timelines, identity, politics and what it means to be in control.

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William Gibson, visiting CNET to tour our labs in October.
Sarah Tew/CNET

I've read every William Gibson book. I no longer remember when or where. But Gibson's work has been a companion since the mid-'90s. Sometimes his work has blazed ahead of my timeline. Sometimes it's ridden alongside. Sometimes he's taken me backward, made me think about the spaces I've already lived.

Agency, the second book in a potential trilogy that started with 2015's The Peripheral, is a little of all of those.

First of all: Before you go any further, read The Peripheral first. Agency leans heavily on the same characters, dovetailing and reinventing the story. The Peripheral was about two futures -- a near one and a distant one -- that could communicate over a data-based form of time travel, opening up strange possibilities for telepresence via synthetic avatars that act, in a sense, as a time machine. It was also about the end of the world (the "jackpot,"), alternate timelines, kleptocracies controlling humanity. Read it.

Agency is a more confusing concept. The Peripheral felt alien when I first read it; Agency feels almost sunny, familiar, chaotic. It takes place "now," but... not now. It involves Bay Area tech startups and AR headsets, spinning a vibe that doesn't feel far off from the life I actually live right now covering emergent tech. There's a mysterious AI program: an assistant, a person, named Eunice. Someone. I don't want to give much more away. I'd prefer you let the book take you on this journey. Eunice meets and bonds with a character named Verity Jane, a professional "app whisperer," someone with multitudinous strange connections. This is a Gibson book, after all.

william-gibson-agency
Penguin Random House

The present-day (or slightly-in-the-past) world of Verity Jane is a world where Hillary Clinton became president instead of Trump. The world-building of The Peripheral and Agency call this sort of alternate timeline a Stub, and it exists alongside our own (if indeed we're living in the "real" timeline at all). That Stub world still has its own problems. But in addition to the fantasy of exploring another timeline, Agency is really about the impossible mixing of multiple timelines -- and multiple states of telepresence.

Parts from The Peripheral come to play: familiar characters and continued stories. There's a mission, and there's a lot of spycraft and strange covert operations in various places at once. 

What I felt, reading Agency, was that the AI presence was impossibly advanced and maybe too all-knowing. But I also started to enjoy an elaborate cat-and-mouse game that spans time and space, involving tasks performed by people who don't know why they're doing them. The pieces to a puzzle I couldn't quite comprehend, maybe.

My favorite idea in the whole book, though, is more of a miasma: as characters interact and communicate in all sorts of ways, via wearables, drones, AR/VR, texts, voice... identity starts to get muddy and strange. Eunice isn't the only half-present entity with impossible powers. People seem to fade in and out of time and space, in various states of presence.

Maybe that's life now, a life already lived knee-deep in a simultaneous online set of realities. Instead of a cyberspace I log in and out of decades ago, everything is all at once now. I think about levels of virtual reality when I put an earbud in my ear, or get haptics from a watch notification, or play a VR game while simultaneously listening to my family in the same room. Senses half-in, half-out. Communicating on several apps and planes of existence (Slack, texts, Twitter, Facebook, Fitbit) at once.

Agency is a funny word. In the world of immersive art and theater, it refers to how much control you feel you have, versus having things decided for you. That's how I felt, following Gibson's characters trying to freely act in a world that's dictated and often controlled by many unknown factors. That's how I feel, at times, most days.

I got the sense, talking to William Gibson last October, that Agency was not necessarily intended as part of a premeditated trilogy -- it just ended up that way. Similarly, Agency isn't so much about the future as it is a way of wrestling with the present. And it's also a book about... friendship. Is it optimism I sense as I'm reading a book about how future timelines are playing with people like ants in an ant farm?

I felt more emotionally connected to Agency than other Gibson books. It felt oddly more human and at times madcap, despite the sci-fi dystopias lurking in every corner. Is that me getting used to the strangeness of a world that's usurped sci-fi, or is it Gibson playing a new game with my head again? I need to reread Agency to be certain. If you're looking for a book full of ideas to start off a new decade, this is a pretty good place to start.