Sunday, February 9, 2020

Agency by Willian Gibson

Gibson’s previous book, The Peripheral is probably my favorite of his (with the caveat that I still need to read his second trilogy, beginning with Idoru, and the short story collection to be a completist). I loved that it mixed elements of the cyberpunk and ability to see the effects of technology that are his calling card with a rural noir story (think Justified or Winter’s Bone). The conceit is that there is a far future, in the 2130’s, that has gone through a complex apocalypse called The Jackpot. They have advanced technology, but the population of the world has been thinned to a fraction of its current numbers and the west is ruled by a hereditary kleptocracy comprised mostly of Russian billionaires. Their advanced technology allows them to establish contact with people in the past, but once they do, there is a branching timeline,called a stub, and time passes in both the original timeline and in the stub at an equal rate. In The Peripheral that past was also in our future. Agency could be read on its own, but having read the first book will save a lot of work teasing out what’s happening. And as characters from The Peripheral, particularly in that future timeline, appear here it would save some spoilers from that earlier book.

The stub, or past timeline, that forms half of this story, is actually in our past. It was established in 2015, and even though communication is more difficult with a more distant stub, there are huge changes. Brexit and Trump didn’t happen in this timeline. If I were going to pick a nit with the book, it’s this aspect. Gibson does not make that world a utopia (there is an impending nuclear crisis), but it is a little bit more on the nose than he usually gets. Though, I have to admit I liked the crack about there being a fully functioning state department in that timeline. That said, this is an incredibly effective thriller. Gibson uses short alternating chapters to keep the tension high in both timelines. All three really, since some characters from the stub in The Peripheral show up to help.

The plot picks up in the stub’s 2017, as the protagonist, Verity Jane, is hired to beta test an experimental AI. The intent was to come up with something similar to the AI in her, a personalized Alexa on steroids. But the prototype, Eunice, has military training, and a mind of her own. The company that hired Verity Jane to test it wants it back. I don’t want to spoil too much of what happens. It is an excellent scifi thriller. The fact that when someone goes into a virtual world, it is an actual other world, whether the main timeline or one of the stubs makes the stakes seem higher. And the degree to which Eunice and some of the characters in the post-Jackpot timeline manipulate events, really raises the question of agency raised by the title far more subtly than the political stuff.

I prefer The Peripheral, and would recommend reading that first, but this is still recommended.

Library Books, Rereads, Etc. 2020 1/35

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