Review: Agency, by William Gibson


Agency cover

I enjoy the works of many science-fiction authors, but only William Gibson influenced the direction of my career. Without “Neuromancer” and his depiction of Cyberspace I probably would not have chosen to make Virtual-Reailty the subject of my PhD. For me, the Sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) is one of the classics of modern science-fiction and, pretty much, defnined Cyberpunk. How does his latest book compare?

Gibson’s Bridge trilogy (Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties) is perhaps less “flashy” in terms of the technology on show, but has characters with more depth and shoild, IMHO, be on any science-fuction fan’s reading list. Gibson, famously, wrote Neuromancer on a manual typewriter and this second trilogy feels a bit more technically literate (if my memory servers).

Now, it’s been a good many years since I last read the Sprawl and Bridge trilogies and I’m well overdue for a re-read. It’s quite possible, therefore, that my memory is rose-tinted and they aren’t as good as I remember compared to his more recent work. I’ll be sure to come back an update this if that proves to be the case.

Sigh.

This brings me to the Blue Ant series (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History). I remember enjoying Pattern Recognition. Spook Country was OK. I have still not finished Zero History (and it’s quite rare for me to not finish a book). It’s not that they are badly written - I don’t think Gibson can write badly. It’s just that nothing much seems to happen. Maybe I’m too much of an adrenaline junky and these books were just too subtle for me, but the series was a great disapointment to me.

Then came The Peripheral which, to me, felt like a return to form. An engaging plot; interesting characters and a novel take on time travel. While I wouldn’t rate this book in the same league as Gibson’s first two series I enjoyed it.

This brings us to Agency and I’d like to compaare it with another story about a nascent Artificial Intelligence, Emily Eternal. Both books feature AI’s finding their place in the world and trying to save humanity, but Gibson does it far better with believable characters, better writing and, central gimmick aside, more believably.

Agency, does a credible job of portraying what might happen if a real AI was dumped on a unsuspecting person and some of the confusion and chaos that might unsue as its potential unfolds and its owners worry they are losing control (if they ever had any in the first place). The central character spends a lot of her time hiding and being chased, which is probably pretty realistic - she has little power of her own and she’s being chased and protected by forces she has little to no control over. That said, it’s this realism that, for me, is the main downside to the story: all the real action is “off camera” so to speak. We hear about it via updates from other characters but we experience little of it directly.

Should you read Agency? Yes, it’s a decent book. Should it be the first book by Gibson that you read? No.