As we all feel like characters in a surreal landscape at present – and I do wish someone would tell me what my character should be feeling – I’m reviewing the latest William Gibson novel ‘Agency’. Our present reality is threatened by forces and behaviours not so dissimilar to the worlds conjured by Mr Gibson.
OK. Locating shot. It is 2017, Hillary has won the election and the world is on the verge of a nuclear war … but that is not the most important thing going on in ‘Agency’.
Our heroine Verity is an ‘app-whisperer’; couch-surfing because she has recently broken up with her Silicon Valley tech boyfriend. She is sleeping on the sofa of a nerdy technician bestie who is presently out-of-town. Verity is close to broke and has just taken on a new gig. Her hand-over is literally that. She is handed a cell-phone, head-set and augmented glasses. On booting up she is confronted with an AI avatar ‘Eunice,’ who is hungry for knowledge and who essentially is 'just born'. Verity and her new AI buddy Eunice hit it off, neither quite knowing what the hell is going on.
Gibson’s writing is smooth, visionary and ‘Agency’ is no exception. Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’ and his novel 'Neuromancer' (1984) inspired 'The Matrix' films. He has been chronicling worlds just a hair-width from our own multi-port-holed reality since 1977.
While Verity’s lives in 2017 we soon realise that she is living in a ‘stub’ universe, for there is an intervention being coordinated by Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer from 2136. It is not as if 2136 does not have its own problems – it is the remnant of a massive ecological disaster that wiped out 80% of the world’s population. Its very existence is a massive juggling exercise between what is left of the natural environment and artificially created 'fillers'. Consumables (including food) rely on 3-D printing, and synthetic eco-systems are the norm. You always feel that life is continually shifting as adjustments are made to maintain the 'norm'
Further, a group of underworld trillionaires called ‘Klept’ (I always think of 'Agent Smith' look-alikes) essentially dominate the 2136 terrain though elections, etc., are held to give the impression that society is free. The Klept have a habit of playing in stub worlds, whether to redirect the results of an election or other such things and Inspector Lowbeer has a certain agency – for what reason we are never quite sure – to assist these stub worlds avert disaster. As you can imagine the Klept are frequently not impressed by her interference.
(*image: OK it is a character from 'The Matrix' but this is what a squillionaire 'Klept' would look like.)
All the action in 2136 takes place in lounge-room, cafés, bars and private cars. You could well imagine that these guys might just be super indulged gamers playing highly sophisticated online games but .... 2017 feels so real, and the friendships that evolve between the characters of each world are as robust as our own, thwarting any notion that the interventionists are simply playing a game. People get hurt, cry, grieve and die in 2017 ...
I might add that Gibson is a highly visual writer. Lowbeer wears steampunk ensembles that are continually being readapted in her wardrobe (great circular economy going on here:), while identical freckled waitresses with pre-Raphaelite hair form firewalls round privileged clients who want a bit of privacy. Gibson's words conjure gloriously evocative scenes.
I first fell for Gibson’s virtual worlds way back when he was writing a cyberspace much further from our own world; environments were almost perfect replicas of nature, laptops had (replica) wooden keys, their covers were embedded in (replica) semi-precious stones and firewalls were of configuration of intricately patterned Middle Eastern prayer mats. Kids had canine teeth implants to flag their gang adherence … Gibson's cyber-space was much more eerily beautiful but also much further from the reality that we experience, or the possibilities that his most recent virtual worlds' conjure. His works now appear to be getting closer and closer to our technically glitchy world. while his visions of a seamless future have been put on hold.
I do hope I have captured a little of the sensory excitement that lies between the covers of a William Gibson novel.
'AGENCY' is not a bad companion in a world of social distancing.