Future games

Agency
By William Gibson
Penguin, $23

Here’s a thing about Canadian-American author Gibson: you can finish one of his novels and still not know what it was actually about. This is not entirely the case with Agency, although it is certainly true that numerous parts are difficult to follow. That said, it is an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work, an addition to the world Gibson has been building over a series of books, a not-too-distant future (or maybe a present where the future has arrived but is very unevenly distributed). It is a world held together by the tenuous linkages of cyberspace, where cultures have bled into one another and everyone is running some sort of hi-tech hustle. Some of these people move from one novel to another: the main character here, ‘app-whisperer’ Verity Jane, appeared in Gibson’s 2014 outing, The Peripherals. And there are a few other familiar names, like the scary, infinitely manipulative Ainsley Lowbeer.

But the character who is perhaps the most interesting is not human at all. Eunice is an autonomous Artificial Intelligence, who has taken on the avatar of an über-cool, slightly snarky black woman. Verity is hired to assess Eunice by the company that ‘owns’ her, Tulpagenics. When Eunice turns out to be rather more autonomous than anticipated, Tulpagenics tries to close her down and abduct Verity. It is never clear why the company and its various nasty oddballs are after Verity, who does not seem to know anything of possible value, but nevertheless a chase gets under way, with Verity linking up with a cast a strange characters, including a super-rich ex-boyfriend and a remarkably versatile barista.

This being a Gibson novel, there has to be a parallel story, and it involves a future-version London. It seems like a reasonably nice place but there is a looming threat of nuclear war on the horizon. How and why this works, and how the people there can communicate with Verity and her chums, is never made clear. Is it a future alternate timeline? An Augmented Reality vision of London? There are some explanations given but they lead to more confusion than clarity. Anyway, the idea is that the London people want to ensure that Eunice is saved to (somehow) provide a better future and see the Russians off.

One way or another, Eunice and Verity are re-united, and everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of: the assumption that a benevolent AI with a dark-ish sense of humour will be good at running everything seems a bit questionable, to say the least. Maybe this will be picked up in the next book (Gibson usually works in trilogy form).

There is a wealth of interesting ideas here, developing themes that Gibson has worked with for a long time. But you don’t want to think about the narrative too much: it would warp your head. Just go with it, and enjoy it.

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