Almost all of the author’s interests, from the political aesthetics of technology to the technology of political fashion, are collected in this near-Moorcockian curation of images. Gibson’s ability to simultaneously destabilise and entertain is both celebrated and used to the full. But it’s also linked firmly to his signature themes, the prime one here, of course, being agency. Along with trust, a sense of individual agency – heroic centrality in your own story, the ability to make and carry out choices of your own, the “capacity to act” – is the central offer of most Hollywood dreams, and the product sold to us by the majority of corporate ads; but it’s the least likely attribute most of us will ever possess.
Gibson’s prose, here as in his other novels, is stylish and to-the-point. His dialogue is sharp, full of contemporary life, which he carries easily, without the readerly wince that often follows pop cultural references in the writing of others. Janelle Monáe makes an appearance, for example, and seems completely at home. The deluge of technological language, rather than weighing the novel down, actually gives it a pace and a mad excitement that is intoxicating.
...by far the most satisfying parts of the book are those in which Gibson essentially dazzles us with the background science, imagining how it might work with a thoroughness that makes it all thrillingly persuasive. He also generously throws in lots of smaller futuristic treats along the way.
The problem, however – and it’s not a small one – is that, having assembled all these intriguing elements, Gibson never seems entirely sure what to do with them. For much of the novel, Verity goes on the run from the bad guys, shifting from place to place in a way that manages to seem repetitive and random at the same time. Despite the best expository efforts of all concerned, the motives of both goodies and baddies remain somewhere between vague and mystifying. The nuclear-war plot – supposedly the engine of the whole book – never seems of much interest to anybody, including Gibson, and eventually fizzles out off-stage.
Time play is second nature to Gibson but it can be tough to keep pace with Agency. As with Brexit – which, in Verity’s timeline, went Remain after all – tracking its febrile plot and crowded cast prompts flashes of comprehension chased by furrows of despair. This frustration would be eased if the characters felt worth fighting for. But the novel’s beings are often thinly fleshed, including the none-too-likeable Verity. We know little of her or what she lives for, save for egg breakfasts, rare calls home and the prospect of not sleeping on the “curb-rescue porn couch” of her grungy friend Joe-Eddy (once in a band named the “Fuckoids”). In this novel of manifold dimensions, Verity has few.
Novelists have been inventing alternate worlds since the novel first existed. This fits broadly within the tradition that includes Borges’ story “The Garden Of Forking Paths” or Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. But it’s much more rollercoaster than Zen garden. It is a novel that, I think, would appeal to readers of thrillers as much as to readers of more mind-bending literary fictions. It is also delightfully satirical, with little nods at hipster beards, the proliferation of different steampunk goth tribes, facial piercings, celebrity culture, conceptual art and much more looked at askance. All of this makes it a rather scattergun novel, but one which is consistently readable and provoking.
While it’s Agency’s achievement to make you see how any multiverse would fall prey to cloak-and-dagger meddling, I longed to see what that might actually mean for people outside its tunnel-vision interest in a tech class who “power-use... next-level social media”, rinse with “naturopathic mouthwash” and carry tote bags made of “Dyneema... a sort of upscale Tyvek”, as the book’s single most Gibsonian phrase has it. Of course, to a conspiratorial cast of mind, Agency’s central metaphor – that the world is shaped by the pastimes of a unaccountable technocratic cadre – might well seem unimprovable. Still, the presence of a “gig-economy surveillance crew” known as Followrs (“like Uber... but for following people”) hints that there’s an untold story here; ditto the passing reference to “antigentrification murals”.
Either way, it’s hard not to come away feeling short-changed by a novel that, neglecting its basic duty to excite, uses its headline-grabbing counterfactuals as an opportunistic peg for a tricked-out potboiler.
More than that, Gibson has a unique gift for showing what it would be like to use his future tech — for example, describing in a bravura passage just how it feels for Verity after she makes the neurological jump from her apartment in San Francisco in her 2017 into an avatar’s body in Netherton’s mews house in London in 2136. That’s why his visions of the future are so plausible — because they are thoroughly imagined extrapolations grounded in reality. Which does lend a real chill to his vision of a 21st century plagued by catastrophe.
Oddly, given the set-up, the alternate political reality feels fairly irrelevant to the plot, which evolves into a pacey chase narrative. Populated with fast-talking characters, and flipping quickly between Verity and Wilf’s perspectives, it can be disorienting at times (and will be especially for those who haven’t read the previous novel). Still, Gibson’s observations are always sharp and often funny – like a recurring shade of “aspirationally Scandinavian gray” or tech companies having a “budget for illegalities”.
Many of the ideas in Agency are familiar Gibson peccadilloes. He is still interested in decentred political and technological systems and shadowy, quasi-criminal superstructures that can be navigated only by visionary individuals armed with the right tech. And he still delivers these ideas in plots that aspire to the satisfying knottiness of thrillers. It’s a shame, then, that in Agency the various parts don’t quite cohere.
Once you have got your head round the cyberjargon and the twin timelines, Agency is an enjoyable read. The way that people talk in ultrahip staccato may not appeal to many, and Eunice is such a fun character it’s a shame she disappears from the narrative fairly early on, but Gibson fans will find he has lost none of his challenging edge. The uninitiated may find it tough going at first, but it’s worth staying with. As for Bertrand Russell, I’m not so sure.