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.