Subscriber OnlyBooks

Agency: a sci-fi thriller with no Brexit and Turkey as threat

After a tricky first half , William Gibson’s stylish prose makes for a feverish read

Author: William Gibson
ISBN-13: 978-0241237212
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £18.99

The publication of William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, was delayed repeatedly, and has been accepted as a prequel to Gibson’s previous novel, The Peripheral, though readers unfamiliar with that earlier work will not find themselves inhibited. Both involve people in a future timeline creating new scenarios in the past, wreaking havoc, and the mission of law enforcement to stop the damage created.

Gibson’s novel is a sci-fi thriller split across an imagined, alternative present (2017), and a speculative, post-apocalyptic far-future (2136). The author is known for his prescience, and has been lauded as a sage. This novel’s attempt to depict the present times through the dark mirror of an imagined 2136 is a tough task, when the political situation we find ourselves in is evolving at such a rapid, irrational pace. Perhaps Gibson’s delaying of the novel is a reflection of this climate, and his difficulty in ascertaining enough clarity on it to fix it into a satisfying plot. Whatever the case may be, it is quite difficult to tell what we are supposed to think of his alternative 2017. Would the world have been better with Clinton as president? Was Brexit a mistake? We’re never fully sure, but the fact that the characters in 2017 find themselves on the brink of nuclear war stemming from a volatile political climate in Turkey suggests that, whatever happened, things were never to be easy.

Different timelines

In the first timeline of the novel, someone who closely resembles Hillary Clinton has won the US presidential election, Brexit hasn’t happened, and a young woman named Verity has just been hired into a new role (the remit of which is never quite explained). When she tries on the glasses and headset issued to her by her new employer, she encounters an AI, Eunice, who becomes her counterpart throughout the novel. Eunice, who is African-American, and sometimes exhibits the stereotype of the sassy sidekick, is in fact the book’s most interesting character, and the one who exhibits the most complex relationship with her own agency. Verity, on the other hand, is most often seen being sent from one place to another, and has little driving character of her own. Most of the time, she is perplexed, and spends the novel asking questions and being generally confused.

In the future timeline, in 2136, someone is manipulating 2017, creating darker scenarios among possible past timelines, and it’s the job of special services to mitigate the damage. Eventually, they make contact with Eunice and Verity, recruiting them into a mission to prevent catastrophe. Set in an eminently believable future London, this world is populated by Russian hackers and secret service personnel. The only reason humanity has survived, we discover, is that the necessary technological advances came just in time to avert the imminent climate collapse.


Confusing exposition

The book is structured in short (three- or four-page) chapters, and this creates the illusion of a rapid pace. However, in reality, the first half of the novel is slow-going, concerned with exposition, and often confusing. Characters are introduced without introduction; settings, and new technologies, suffer the same fate. We shift quickly between both timelines, without either being fully explained except through hints and asides. In fact, it is not until the second half of the book, when the two timelines begin to intertwine more closely, that the plot of the novel becomes clearer. From here on in, Agency is an enjoyable, even feverish, read, but the opening section is difficult to get through.

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.

Although the development of the characters is lacking (and there are a few too many to keep track of), Gibson’s world is detailed and convincing. The book’s ending, which is surprisingly optimistic and empathetic, feels a little difficult to combine with the darker vision of the rest of the novel, and may come across as forced. Regardless, this is an exciting read, and won’t disappoint Gibson’s many fans.

Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a teacher, poet and critic