William Gibson has been meddling thought-provokingly with our minds since he coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 story “Burning Chrome,” polishing it to even higher definition in 1984’s “Neuromancer,” his debut novel. Gibson’s subsequent fiction hasn’t been any less prescient, anticipatory, or ahead of the curve, though much of what we might call his near-future imaginings simply mesh with his gimlet-eyed observation of our present.
As “Agency,” Gibson’s latest novel, opens, Verity Jane, a San-Francisco-based “app whisperer,” unboxes a new technology she’s been hired to test: “She put the glasses on, pressing their low-profile power-stud. The headset pinged, a cursor appearing. A white arrow, centered in her field of vision. Then moving down, of its own accord to the empty boxes, the chargers, the black phone. ‘Here we go,’ said a woman’s husky voice in Verity’s ear.”
And we are, indeed, off. The top-secret technology turns out to be “Eunice,” an autonomous, self-learning agent that is both a potent presence of super-intelligent AI software and, unsurprisingly, an extraordinarily powerful multi-tasker. Before you can say “Alexa” or “Siri,” Eunice has turned Verity’s life pretty much upside-down, coordinating meetings with allies, arranging meetups with strangers, procuring wads of cash, and purchasing high-tech drones, all in a mad dash to achieve an outcome that is as yet unknown but has something to do with Eunice’s growing capability toward agency.
Verity and Eunice rapidly bond over the movie “Inception,” and friendly exchanges: “ ’The plus sign is a hipster ampersand,’ ” Verity informs Eunice when Eunice misreads a sign. And Eunice has a knack for the most human of interactions, sharing with Verity how rapidly her self-taught abilities are growing — “ ’More of me, all the time. Doesn’t feel bad. Just different’ ” — and, when challenged with her supposedly limited experience, countering, “ ’I had shoulders … I’d shrug ’em.’ ”
Meanwhile, in 2136 London — post-pandemics, post-extinctions, post other apocalyptic changes — a public relations man, Wilf Netherton, works with his boss, Detective Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer, who can cloak and de-cloak her vehicles at will and who appears to have the power to “nudge” situations in the past toward certain outcomes.
In this London, technology has made it possible to reach into the past — not through time travel, but via a nifty sort of digital-neural-interface connectivity — though that contact will then generate a “stub,” a fork in the past timeline. In future London, some people use this manipulative ability for their own pleasure; Lowbeer seems to be leveraging it on a more altruistic basis. With Verity’s stub in danger of nuclear war — despite Hillary winning the election and Britain Remaining — Netherton and Lowbeer roll up their proverbial sleeves and get to work. In this case, their key target is connecting with Verity, thanks to her new relationship with Eunice.
Gibson brings contemporary San Francisco, future London, and their inhabitants to tangible life. At her local coffee shop, Verity enjoys a McWolven, a savory muffin with a shell-less, soft-boiled egg at its center. A witty barista at the same locale offers terrific plays on her name when he labels her coffees, and has more than a few surprises up his sleeve. A man who works for Verity’s ex, looks “like Janelle Monáe had a twin brother,” while another character resembles “a young but brutally determined Françoise Hardy.” On Fox, talking heads are still blathering on about Hillary’s e-mails
We discover that Marmite made it into the future, but tigers didn’t; that wealthy London citizens enjoy Victorian cosplay; that dancing girl ’bots can generate temporary cones of silence; and that sick leave covers something called “cross-continual nuclear anxiety.” One particularly effective scene takes place in a yurt made of living skin, giving Netherton a palpable bout of the heebie-jeebies.
Peripherals — physical avatars — abound; when not in use, they cool their heels in “a cross between a capsule hotel and a morgue.” In one deeply affecting moment, Netherton’s wife explains why, as a parent, she refuses to use a peripheral: “ ’Fear of it surviving me, after an accident or something. … Terrible for children. Not as though it hasn’t happened, unfortunately, so the risk’s not hypothetical.’ ”
As people in two different time zones work together to save at least one future, we glimpse the human experiment through Gibson’s unerring gaze: We learn why the City of London successfully rode out democracy’s collapse, that money launderers’ strength lies in their flexible adjustment to changing political landscapes, and that those headless military robot dogs on YouTube are the wave of the future. There is a threat of nuclear war in Verity’s stub due to a Middle East situation that is so similar to ours, it’s distinctly discomforting: “ ’You’re too young to remember it,’ ” Verity’s mother tells her, “ ’but we were expecting nuclear war all the time, really, up into my early thirties. Later, all of that felt unreal. But the feeling that things became basically okay turns out to have actually been what was unreal.’ ”
But it’s not all doom and gloom: Even in the future, living too near your relatives remains the bane of some people’s existence.
Gibson’s brief chapters with their brusque headings match the urgency of the novel’s action — there’s no time to lose, no time to waste. A semi-sequel to 2015’s “The Peripheral,” “Agency” stands on its own, too — as well it should, given the title — as an immersive thriller, fueled by an intelligent, empathetic imagination.
By William Gibson
Berkley, 416 pp. $28
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.