Author: William Gibson
Publisher: Berkley Books
I find it hard, in this the year of our Lord two thousand twenty, to take seriously any novel in which President Hillary Rodham Clinton is painted as a hero who will avert nuclear catastrophe.
No, I didn’t like this much, which is a shame, for although I find the plots of most recent Gibson novels a bit limp, he’s always been an interesting writer at the level of word choice, sentence structure, paragraph and chapter. A master stylist, if not a masterful storyteller. But his latest effort I found just a bit drab, filed with recycled plot elements from his better books and without any of his linguistic flair, where characters do very little but go around in circles while the plot resolves itself for them. For a book titled “Agency,” pretty much nobody exerts any, which might be the point I suppose, but makes for a dull read.
“Agency” revisits the world of 2014’s “The Peripheral,” in which people in the 22nd century have discovered they can digitally contact people in the past, but only in alternate or parallel realities (since such contact didn’t occur in their own past). A group of such future-humans then begin to manipulate the course of these realities, some for shits and giggles, others to try to make them “better” by avoiding the disasters the “main” timeline endured.
While alternate reality in “The Peripheral” was a late-stage capitalist version of the USA, in which the only jobs are fighting in America’s imperialist wars or selling drugs, “Agency” is set in an alternate 2017 in which Hillary Clinton won the Presidential election and the UK voted to remain in the EU.
A woman in alternate 2017 named Verity is supposedly an “app-whisperer”, which is the kind of unspecific but cool-sounding technological super-ability we saw in “Pattern Recognition” yet which is never mentioned after the first chapter making you wonder why Gibson bothered, but anyway, this Verity is hired by a tech start-up to field test a responsive virtual agent (hence Agency, geddit), which turns out to be a stolen full-blown military intelligence AI.
What follows is pretty much just the emergent AI creating the circumstances for its own birth (giving her “agency”, geddit) plot that we saw in “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” only told with much less verve or invention.
Verity and a small cast of characters (including many from a people-following Agency, geddit) spend the entire novel driving around in circles in LA and San Francisco at the direction of the AI while being menaced rather unconvincingly by shadowy operatives whose objectives aren’t especially clear, other than to menace the main characters from time to time. As in, I’m not really sure why these people keep trying to kidnap a woman just for talking to a stolen AI—it’s not like she physically carries it around or anything.
Anyway, in the end the AI is okay, no thanks to any of these people.
Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear annihilation looms in the background as Russia and the US come to blows over the Middle East. This plot line, as mentioned above, is also resolved without anyone doing anything, thanks to President Clinton.
Yet a third strand involves the future humans in the 22nd century, who apparently (and off-camera) instigated the plot by getting the start-up to hire Verity. In their own time, they are threatened by a Russian oligarch pissed that their meddling in past realities tends to be aimed at creating conditions where Russian oligarchs have less power. This plot line is resolved by someone going to an all-day breakfast restaurant three times for 10-minute conversations.
As I think I wrote in my review of “Zero History,” I like Gibson less the more he writes about the present-day. Back then, it was the brand name-dropping that irritated. Now, it’s the overt focus on modern US politics, especially his support for Clinton and evident disdain for Trump (though he is never mentioned by name). To be transparent, like most non-Americans I find Trump to be a patently corrupt, vain, narcissistic, sub-moronic windbag whose presidency effectively annihilates any claim Americans might ever make to moral superiority about pretty much anything. So I agree with Gibson’s assessment, just putting it into the story so baldly seems crude. As I wrote in yesterday’s braindead thinkpiece on here, it feels like part of a trend towards incredibly literal moralizing and messaging in SF. Nothing is allowed to be metaphor and interpretation, there’s only text, no subtext.
What are we to make of the characters’ odd passivity and inability to influence the plot? If this is by design, it comes across as fatalistic, suggesting there’s nothing people can do to avert nuclear war or climate catastrophe other than pray a Strong Leader like, hum, er, Clinton, or else some benevolent AI will rescue us. Which might well be true, but doesn’t really fit the triumphant and uplifting tone of the end of the novel, where the AI reveals itself to the world (yes, spoilers, go fuck yourself). That sounds like a recipe for apathy rather than activism to me.
The other sour note I found was Verity’s ex-boyfriend, a mega-rich tech maverick named Stets, whose enormous wealth is essential in arranging all the complex gadgetry required to help Verity stay one step ahead of the bad guys. This man is unfailing portrayed in a positive light, charming, intelligent, perceptive, flaunting the law to help his friends, all for the greater good!
Contrast this to the Russian oligarch subplot, in which those nasty rich Russkies try to trip up our heroes just so they can stay rich and, er, Russian. Now, to me it feels like pure American exceptionalism to suggest there’s anything different between Stets and the Russian oligarch. One happens to be using his inordinate wealth and influence to help the protagonist, the other to hinder, but in each case we’re talking about a class of people whose wealth has effectively rendered them above the law.
As with the emergent AI line, it feels like I’m being asked to celebrate something that strikes me as deeply, deeply disturbing. The only people capable of exercising agency in this world of ours are the mega-rich or artificial intelligences. Luckily ours are nice and not nasty at all. Hooray, I guess?
It’s a bit like “Waiting for Godot” if Godot showed up in Act II, announced he was actually an immortal all-seeing God, but a nice one, and all the characters went hope happy.
“Agency” has a strangely positive ending for a book apparently about our powerlessness in the face of technological and socioeconomic change. All of that, I think, encapsulated by the bit at the end where the characters celebrate World War III being averted by that benevolent God, Hillary Clinton.