Agency: William Gibson’s Ode to Personal Networking for the Precarious Professional

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

The (presumbly) second book of William Gibsons “stub” trilogy (presumably), Agency, has been released, to generally favorable reviews (four-and-a-half-stars at Amazon). Here’s Amazon’s review:

The year is 2017, and Verity Jane is a talented “app whisperer” who is hired to test a new artificial intelligence called “Eunice.” Verity soon becomes aware that the AI is quite powerful, something that she hesitates to share with her employers. But she can’t hide for long. While Agency opens in 2017, it is a book with both feet placed firmly in the future—a novel of variable timelines, including one set in London where shady characters can reach back into the past to manipulate Verity’s present. The book is a sequel of sorts to Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral—it is set in the same universe and shares some characters—but it can be read on its own. With its pithy short chapters and mind-bending plot, with the recognizably erudite characters and Gibson-esque language and dialogue, and with the inventiveness of a great science fiction, this is a fun first read of the new decade. Agency will entertain you, but it will also leave you with thoughts to chew on.

Shorter: Agency is a rollicking good read. Reviews have mostly been laudatory (Cory Doctorow; the Guardian). Structurally, Agency is an extended chase scene, where the good guys from the future (recycled from the previous book in the series, Peripheral) protect the heroine of our present’s 2017 (Verity Jane), using clever tech tricks, as she bears her MacGuffin (the AI, “Eunice”) through a series of hair-raising escapes, to the climactic reveal, contrived by a Silicon Valley tech oligarch (Jane’s former boyfriend), on top of a skyscraper in San Francisco, in which “Eunice” announces herself (and her pronouns) to the world. The book ends with a coda where all the loose ends are tied up, as is typical of Gibson; as it turns out, the happiest of the happy endings is that President Clinton, aided by “Eunice,” prevented a nuclear war with Russia.

Now, I have priors; I found it worrisome that a Clinton presidency would be the premise of a Gibson novel, whether such a future be distributed evenly or not. That said, I strongly disliked the Agency, partly for its texture, but also because of its ugly politics (and not simply electoral politics).

As for texture, Gibson (at least to my ear) has always had an Elmore Leonard-like ability to make me hear the sound and rhythm of individual voices through his prose; an amazing talent. Hollis Henry sounds like Hollis Henry, Milgrim sounds like Milgrim, Cayce Pollard sounds like Cayce Pollard, and so on. This uncanny talent seems to have deserted him in Agency (except, oddly, for “Eunice”). So all we are left with is the chase scene, which is, as it were, a silent movie (perhaps accompanied by Gibson playing furiously on his techie Wurlitzer). Further, the characters are flat[1]. (That especially goes for the random characters introduced to advance the chase from scene to scene.) Although Gibson recycles stock figures from The Peripheral — the publicity agent, Wilf, is much less interesting now that he’s sober — he abandons the wonderfully, fully-realized character Flynn (see at NC here for Wilf explaining “The Jackpot” — Gibson’s word for oncoming, Jared Diamond-like collapse, common to all the timelines — to FLynn) in favor of recycling various techs and mercenaries to further the chase scenes. The only character in Agency that could be said to be rounded is “Eunice,” the AI (and if that’s the point, it surely shouldn’t have taken 400 pages to make it). For example, the heroine, Verity Jane[2] is introduced as an “app whisperer,” but there follow no details of her work, in great contrast to Cayce Pollard, the logo consultant in Pattern Recognition, whose professional interactions and dealings Gibson describes in detail, and which serve to reveal her character. No, Verity lugs her MacGuffin to the reveal, and that is that.

So much for Agency‘s shoddy texture. Now let us turn to Agency‘s politics, first electoral, then politics as such. (I’m going to use screen dumps from Amazon “Look Inside!” instead of typing in the passages, so please forgive the formatting. To the screen dumps, I’ve added some numbered highlights, which I will, confusingly, consider in reverse order.)

First, on electoral politics, the set-up, where nuclear war is prevented. This is a conversation between Verity and “Eunice,” begun by Verity. From page 384:

(The “London pals” are people from the alternate timeline in the future; Wilf, for example. I’ll get to the highlighted portion in a moment.)

And now, the happy coda in a hipster bistro, “Wolven + Loaves.” This conversation is general, except “she” is Verity, and the bold Helvetica is “Eunice,” communicating via text to Verity alone. From page 400:

(Qamishli is the site from which a nuclear incident did not escalate. All the speakers except for, possibly, “Eunice,” are flat ficelles, Connor being recycled from The Peripheral.)

From point (3), we see that Hillary Clinton (“she”) is President, as promised, in Agency‘s timeline.

At point (2), problems begin to arise. Sadly but not unexpectedly, we have what has become the typical obsession of the professional-managerial class with Russia[3]. More importantly, Gibson never does give the background to the Qamishli incident. If we go by Clinton’s past statements, it’s most likely that she instigaged the incident herself. For example, Clinton supported a no-fly zone in Syria. Here General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explains that would have meant war with Russia:

So, indeed, those weak sisters, the Russians, “will make some noises for awhile,” as would, I suppose, anybody else appalled at an act of nuclear brinkmanship, successful or no. Good thing the entire timeline wasn’t “toasted,” eh?

And now point (1): “”… the United States having a fully functioning State Department.” This is an anachronism. In this timeline, Obama (presumably) was President, and the State Department (presumably) was “fully functioning,” after then-Secretary of State Clinton’s careful stewardship. Then we had election 2016, and Clinton defeated Trump. It is now 2017. But the State Department could be said to have been made dysfunctional only after Trump’s election, by Trump, which did not happen in this timeline! So perhaps a little Trump Derangement Syndrome has snuck into “Eunice”‘s programming? Or Gibson’s plotting?

Second, to politics as such. This, to me, is the key passage in the book. Verity is in conversation with Inspector Lowbeer and Wilf’s wife, Rainey, both “London Pals.” From page 202 (see, again, numbered highlights to be considered in reverse order):

First, point (2): We have a political outcome: The prevention of nuclear war.

Point (1): We have the means to the outcome (also links in the chain of the chase scene): Barista -> Kathy Fang -> Wilf -> Sevrin -> Caitlin -> Lowbeer, most of them linked and known either by a personal reference or through precarious, contract-like tasking. In other words, we have the moral of the story: To create a political outcome, develop and use a personal network. This is very Silicon Valley indeed, but consider by contrast:

I want you all to take a look around and find someone you don’t know, maybe someone who doesn’t look like you, maybe somebody who may be of a different religion than you, maybe they come from a different country. Are you willing to fight for that person you don’t even know as much as you are willing to fight for yourself?

Individual agency is one thing; collective agency is quite another. Personal networking is one thing; class consciousness is quite another. It’s odd that Agency has nothing to say about the latter, in either case.

NOTES

[1] For the distinction between flat and round characters, see the Brittanica: “Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.”

[2] I really did call this before Agency came out:

Gibson has a real gift for creating incorruptibly spunky, candid, and honorable working class and coolly perceptive professional women as rounded characters (lethal mercenary and working girl Molly in Neuromancer, bicycle messenger Chevette Washington in All Tomorrow’s Parties, former rock-and-roll musician and journalist Hollis Henry in Spook Country, and consultant Cayce Pollard in Pattern Recogntion). “Verity,” then, verges dangerously on self-parody.

(And, of course, the incomparable Flynn.) Well, I got “self-parody” wrong. Ciphers aren’t generally parodic.

[3] Gibson might be said to be “the PMC Whisperer.” Back in the ’90s, he successfully cool-hunted not only the Professional-Managerial Class’s obsession with Russia, but its fascination with intelligence community tradecraft and mores, both which of course assumed, in our timeline, monstrous, distended, cancerous form with the Steele Dossier, Mueller, RussiaGate, etc., all instigated by the Clintonite faction of the Democrat Party and its allies in the press, the intelligence community, and the national security bureaucracy. Oddly, this positively Vespasian-like history is not featured in Agency. Though I should probably unpack the reference to Vespasian. From The Peripheral:

“Vespasian” was a weapons fetishist, famously sadistic in his treatment of the inhabitants of his continua [timelines], whom he set against one another in grinding, interminable, essentially pointless combat, harvesting the weaponry evolved….

Searching for usage examples, I stumbled on one from Gibson himself. A “stub” (“continuum”) is a timeline:

(I love “AlternateRealty.” Brings a new dimension to “speculative fiction,” that would, no doubt, be appreciated by Leo Bohlen of Martian Time-Slip). Like I said: The PMC Whisperer.

NOTE

I need a more subtle approach than “PMC.” I am all for class traitors!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Politics on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

35 comments

  1. cocomaan

    Cool review. I get really tired of the Russia-obsession too. This is a country with less of a population than Germany and France combined. The Eurozone, as far as being an economic and political and maybe even military force in the world, is way more influential. Russia has had some good military advances in things like artillery but as far as being a power in technology, I think China wipes the floor with them. Just looking at this virus outbreak and how effectively China has kept a lid on it shows the crushing control they have over technology and communication, which is, day to day, way more important than the latest projectile weapon.

    But then again, Neuromancer (the only gibson Ive read) is an asian-inspired future. So maybe he’s just sick of writing about future asian cultures.

    Reply
  2. Samuel Conner

    Perhaps there’s an innocent explanation, something like the entanglement of distinct world lines in a quantum multiverse — Trump didn’t become president in this imagined world, but there are inescapable correlations between our world and the imagined world.

    As to the concerns of the final paragraph of this review, I imagine that just as it’s hard for a successful grifter to not ‘talk his book’, it must be hard for a successful writer to not ‘think his class.’

    I much prefer Bernie’s vision.

    Thanks for your review.

    Reply
    1. Dirk77

      I’m no expert on Gibson, but…the explanation for me to avoid Agency is Gibson turning topical at the end of Spook Country. I mean I dislike Bush as the next person, but I hate liking fiction that reinforces some current political belief I have. Peripheral was like that a little too with Homes. It sounds like Gibson has gone full bore topical in Agency. So it’s good he goes topical in a direction I dislike so I don’t immediately like it, start feeling righteous, and then feel yucky later reflecting on my initial response. Thanks for the warning Lambert!

      Reply
  3. marku52

    I read it and then read Periperal again. Peripheral was much more engaging. Yes, Flynne is a character, fully fledged. Don’t see one comparable in Agency.

    Reply
    1. JohnnySacks

      Peripheral needed a second read, very tough the first time through, much more rewarding the second time through. I’ll read Agency, twice if I have to, but I’m not thrilled with the reviews I’m reading. But All Tomorrow’s Parties gets a re-read every 5 or 6 years.

      Reply
      1. John

        There is a New Yorker Profile of Gibson that says he stopped in the middle of writing Agency because Trump won the election and he had to go back and rewrite to account for that calamity. Perhaps that accounts for some of the disquiet folks seem to feel.

        I read a bit of Agency, stopped and re-read The Peripheral. I too found it better the second time through. After a decent interval, I mean to re-read Agency. The disappearance of Eunice changed the feel and the pace of the story. It picked up again when she reappeared. Verity starts off on the proper trajectory and then it is as if she gets lost and is acted upon instead of acting as “Gibson girls” ought to do.

        Reply
  4. Plenue

    I have to say, reading Strether’s opinions on Gibson books makes me never want to read Gibson. The only works of his I’ve ever read were Neuromancer, which I only did out of obligation because it basically started the cyberpunk genre, but which did nothing for me.

    The guy comes across to me as very clueless about the world.

    Reply
      1. fajensen

        Neuromancer’s core message: All of our fantastic technology, actually working magic, will only be used by humanity to screw everyone over faster and more efficiently! Even the minor-god-level AI’s in the story have a nervous breakdown and gets the hell out of Dodge.

        Bruce Sterling is maybe more realistically what the future of “western capitalism” will become like, or maybe Peter Watts?

        Reply
    1. Mel

      Neuromancer was an extremely hardware story. I’ve found Gibson really good writing about the virtual/memetic/marketing culture we live with. Zero History, Pattern Recognitionm Spook Country (in one of the plots.)
      Always things to cavil at.
      ZH: – the way to succeed as a creative is to find a creative billionaire who hasn’t got the time and has to outsource the creativity. On the plus side (+), the way to do publicity being to rigorously do no publicity, so that your Buzz is forced to become very, very authentic :)
      PR: – How did the market find out that Cayce Pollard was accurate? Her career is to murder “bad” marketing ideas in their cradles by intuition. Who says, besides her? Their should be Cayce Pollards all over the place hawking alternative-marketing remedies. + the heartfelt worldwide craze for The Footage.

      It looks to me like, politically, GIbson is into the magic individual. Class analysis is not him.

      Reply
  5. Stanley Dundee

    Thanks, Lambert. Like you, I was sadly disappointed with Agency. Is it Trump Derangement Syndrome? So many of our would-be intelligentsia have succumbed. Long-time Gibson fan here, but I wonder if that’s ending. Too many defects to overlook.

    Other than the AI, who is endowed with super powers, there’s no character has a with a meaningful arc. Verity is basically brand-stamped baggage in an book-length chase scene. The plotting around the background nuclear crisis and the parallel crisis in future London is gossamer thin. The motives of Verity’s pursuers are never established. The reverence toward a high-tech venture capitalist grates in an era of tech-enabled censorship, surveillance, propaganda, and monopoly. Even the breezy assumption of US military competence seems rather strained nowadays. And there’s a creepy totalitarian whiff in his tacit approval of murderous operations in competitive control areas.

    We do owe Gibson gratitude for the notion of the Klept as hereditary master criminals running future society. The Jackpot as a series of waves of woe is even more valuable. But there’s nothing comparable introduced here, and these useful and compelling notions don’t really get any advancement.

    I found myself unable to read recent Neal Stephenson a few books back (was formerly a huge fan), and now I fear that Gibson may be likewise dropping from my fiction pantheon. Happily Margaret Atwood still delivers: The Testaments is superb, as were The Heart Goes Last and the MaddAddam trilogy. Kim Stanley Robinson is doing some fine work also.

    Reply
  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I’ve read and re-read and greatly enjoyed most of Gibson’s novels. I might try reading Peripheral but Lambert’s review convinces me I had best skip Agency. I so strongly dislike Hillary Clinton that just the idea of making her President — even in fiction — put me off reading Peripheral. Looking back through his many works I still best like his short-story “Hinterlands” from his anthology Burning Chrome.

    Reply
  7. vlade

    It seems to me that a number of writers is either getting senile, or getting sloppy, or both.

    I recently read Stephenson’s “Fall, or Dodge in Hell”. It had some fun moments (the Moab fake, for example – including a subtle referenec [I think] to Mother Of All Bombs), but the second half was just… Superfluous. I got used to Stephenson not knowing how to finish a novel, but this was just a bit too much..

    Reply
      1. GeoCrackr

        I found the first half of SevenEves to be a rollicking good read: fast-paced, full of fascinating (to me) hard and soft science problems and solutions, pretty good set of a variety of characters. The second half isn’t bad, per se, but 1) it really is (and should’ve been) a separate book, and 2) part of the tonal dissonance is that Stephenson tries to delve deep into social science, which really is a weak spot for him and it really shows (ymmv). But totally agree that like he has no idea how to finish a story (ugh, I will never forgive how Cryptonomicon flubbed the dismount so hard I vowed never to pick it up again!), and this is no exception.

        Also, as my wife says, he is in serious need of an editor.

        Reply
        1. vlade

          Yes. But what he really needs is a co-author. He’s great at creating a world and putting some interesting characters there. He’s crap at putting a coherent story together so that it would not have a massively contrived ending.

          Out of all I read from him, probably Anthema is the best in that respect, the ending actually fits together.

          But if you really want some weird stuff, read the Big U. (you’ve been warned!)

          Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > Stephenson

      Diamond Age, and especially Snow Crash are great. Cryptonomicon is great, but you can sense him losing control. Stopped reading when the books got too heavy to lift.

      Reply
      1. BlakeFelix

        Lol the baroque cycle was one of the most painful things I ever read. It was kind of great in parts, but I lent the first book to one of my friends and he hit me with it the next time I saw him. I wasn’t even mad, I knew what I did. And he majored in old English so it wasn’t his first ugly read.

        Reply
      2. Jessica

        The first part of Anathem superbly tackles the question of the relationship between intellectuals and mystics and society. The second half of Anathem is fun sci-fi but not as special.
        Snow Crash was an awesome lark. I thought it succeeded Neuromancer as the sci-fi book that best captured the times.
        Diamond Age requires more patience of the reader but is perhaps deeper.

        Reply
        1. BlakeFelix

          I should have mentioned that if my favorite book wasn’t the decline and fall it would be Snow Crash I think.

          Reply
  8. Roland

    When I saw the term, “Jackpot,” I was reminded of Robert A. Heinlein’s 1952 short story about the end of the world, “The Year of the Jackpot.”

    In that story, an actuary, who makes a hobby of tracking zany stories in the yellow press, finds out that there is a correlation of menacing trends in politics, economics, society, and nature, all pointing towards a catastrophic climax.

    As one would expect in Heinlein, agency lies with the free individual, and the second half of the story concerns the actuary’s flight with his newfound lover. With ingenuity, courage, and teamwork, the pair survive nuclear war, plague, and a Russian invasion. Checking his charts, it seems like the worst is over.

    But as is also typical with Heinlein, there is an ironical twist. This story has a fatalistic ending: as the couple sit happily outside together in the evening, and the actuary reads an astronomy article on the possible instability of certain G-type stars, the Sun blows up.

    It’s funny to compare Russophobias then and now. “The Year of the Jackpot” was written at the height of the Cold War. Heinlein’s hero remorselessly dispatches a Russian paratrooper. But never is there any implication that they’re to blame–they’re just one of the phenomena. And in the rest of this story, American government, commerce, and culture are all treated to relentless satire. There is no love for elites in these pages of Heinlein, and least of all any notion they would save the day.

    Just glancing at the story, I am struck by how topical it remains: a long passage deals with gender identity issues, there is a mass rise of a new “Know Nothing” party in the USA, and of course there’s a bit of climate change, too.

    Not bad for sci-fi pulp in Galaxy.

    Reply
    1. JEHR

      I just looked up Heinlein’s story on the net re: The Year of the Jackpot and read it. Good read. It seems the human race has the same old bugbears to deal with.

      Reply
    1. BlakeFelix

      Well, I think that the best selling history author is Bill O’Reilly. Best selling romance is “50 shades” I’m not sure what class buys more books…

      Reply
  9. Jessica

    I would recommend not being put off by “President Clinton”. She is an extremely minimal off-stage presence. Other than the one comment that Lambert quoted about “the president got us out of it”, I had no problems with that in Agency and I would be quite allergic to any Clinton propaganda.
    That said, I found Agency meh. The plot could make a good movie but the characters didn’t engage me. I found The Peripheral far more engaging. I came away from The Peripheral with some bits that I still remember (at least 50 sci-fi books later), but Agency I had pretty much forgotten the moment I finished it.
    Perhaps Gibson has been the sci-fi portrayer of our neoliberal age and as it runs so completely out of ideas and creativity, the vein that Gibson has mined is running out too.

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > She is an extremely minimal off-stage presence

      Well, when one reads that Gibson had to rewrite the book after Clinton lost, it’s hard to think that Clinton is not thematically significant, no matter how often she appears in the text.

      Reply
      1. Jessica

        I had read that too (most likely from you) and was pleased to not find nearly as much “everything was perfect until Trump” as I had feared.
        The place in Agency that made me wonder about Gibson was a comment, I forget by whom, about how if a hippy from the 60s were to witness some hipster hang out or other, the hippy would think that the hippies had won. I remember folks in the 60 having more capacity than that to tell the real thing from the superficial commercial imitation.

        Reply
  10. geoff

    It occurred to me when I picked up “Agency” at the library that I’ve been reading Gibson for 35 years! I thought “Neuromancer” was brilliant when I read it (1985?), “Count Zero” not as much, and “Mona Lisa Overdrive” a real mess. (Tbf I haven’t ever reread it, and it was a long time ago.) Love the Bridge (which I’ve reread) and Blue Ant books (haven’t).

    I thought “Agency”‘s real problem was that not very much really HAPPENED. Verity Jane, our protagonist, goes to a job interview, meets the book’s most interesting character, the AI Eunice, who promptly disappears until the VERY ending of the book. Meantime, Verity just rides around on motorcycles and hides out from the (poorly defined) bad guys who are looking for her and (presumably) Eunice. In future London Wilf Netherton talks with top cop Lowbeer about some kind of intrigue among the Russian oligarchs who seem to rule there.

    It seems Gibson has forgotten his own famous quote, “the street finds its own uses for things”. It is striking that there are few (if any) working class characters in “Agency”, which is very much unlike “The Peripheral” where the “stub” characters are poor folks living in rural VA, not PMCs and their assistants in San Francisco. (I should add that the poor folks in VA seem to be very technically adept, making all sorts of street-level tech themselves.) The characters who fabricate the land-based drone through which Netherton communicates with Verity (Fang and Dixon) seemed like more typically “Gibsonian” characters, but they’re never really given personalities or much to do.

    Lastly, I realized that the Clinton-as-President thing was emphasized above because this is a political/economic blog, and of course because the “shocking” election results in 2016 caused Gibson to reconsider and rewrite much of the book. That said, while I agree that that stuff is annoying, I don’t think it’s nearly enough so to discourage anyone, regardless of their political persuasion, from reading the book if they’re otherwise interested. And I am very much looking forward to the (presumed) conclusion to this (presumed) trilogy.

    Thanks for the review and space to vent, Lambert.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *