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Science fiction author William Gibson's latest book is Agency.Michael O'Shea/Supplied

  • Title: Agency
  • Author: William Gibson
  • Genre: Science fiction and thriller
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • Pages: 416
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Cyberspace, in science fiction author William Gibson’s earliest works, was imagined as a world apart from our own, a virtual place where people went. By the turn of the century – the banality of technology’s infiltration of our lives firmly cemented, and the hype around virtual reality freshly fizzled – Gibson’s Big End trilogy made the case that, perhaps the future of technological progress wasn’t really a separate world at all, but a digital layer on top of the world as it currently existed, a layer that you could see if you had the right tools and knew where to look. But what if the future wasn’t actually a virtual place, or even a digital layer on top of reality, but exactly the world as it already existed? In Gibson’s latest novel, perhaps the future is already here, and we just haven’t yet appreciated how tightly intertwined the physical and the digital have become.

Agency is a sequel of sorts to 2014’s The Peripheral, which depicts a far-future where it’s possible to remotely interact with past, alternate realities – what “continua enthusiasts” call stubs, or branches. Some of these hobbyists treat the stubs like sadistic video games, sowing chaos and conflict, whereas others – such as London police detective inspector Ainsley Lowbeer – try to improve life in the stubs for the better, hoping to prevent the jackpot, a slow-motion environmental and political catastrophe that kills 80 per cent of the far-future’s population and causes most species to go extinct. Lowbeer is assisted by an ensemble cast, Wilf Netherton principle among them, an ex-publicist who previously helped Lowbeer with engagements in other stubs.

In Agency, Lowbeer discovers that someone has made contact with a stub where Brexit doesn’t happen, and Donald Trump doesn’t win – but contrary to what you might think, things aren’t particularly better for it. In fact, nuclear conflict looms imminent in the Middle East, and there is a very high likelihood that a fate worse than jackpot will soon arrive. It is here, in an alternate 2017, that we meet Verity Jane, a highly skilled app tester, who has been laying low after a high-profile break-up with a billionaire Silicon Valley venture capitalist. Verity is hired by the tech company Tulpagenics to test a secretive new product, but instead finds an AI assistant unlike anything she’s seen: a fully autonomous, self-aware, African-American-identifying AI named Eunice. Verity knows that something so advanced shouldn’t be possible, and yet here Eunice is – nudged into Verity’s path, we soon learn, by the influence of Lowbeer and her companions in future London of 2136, who believe Eunice may help Verity’s stub avert nuclear war.

The plot from here is familiar Gibson territory, both for better and for worse: a shadowy corporation with military ties, imaginative future tech, impeccably described clothing, snappy dialogue, telepresence robots, frenzied chases and a miraculously averted near-catastrophe, the pieces falling into place, perhaps a bit too neatly, just in time. But despite nuclear war looming on the other side of the world, the stakes never feel as high as they should. And it’s not always clear what motivates Verity and those in her orbit to go to such lengths to help Eunice achieve her mysterious goal.

But that may be the point. Agency is at its best when Gibson reflects our current reality back at us with startling clarity. Throughout the book, a rotating cast of interchangeable characters are told by Eunice where to go, who to meet and what to buy – and do so with a shocking degree of credulity (Eunice, at one point, finishes an order to her human extensions by saying “execute,” and it could go either way whether this was meant humorously or not). It’s not unlike the blind trust we already afford the directions given to us by a GPS app, or whatever products Amazon’s algorithms tell us are the best. Of course, the way that characters in Agency are nudged is considerably more extreme – and that they even follow Eunice’s directions is perhaps a testament to the AI’s human-passing autonomy – but it also forces us to confront just how much we’ve already been turned into extensions of the software running on our phones and distant server farms all the same, sometimes quite literally, in the case of apps such as Uber or TaskRabbit. As Netherton’s wife, Rainey, remarks of the prejackpot past: “We were in our real singularity all along. We just didn’t know it.”

If the stakes for those in Verity’s stub don’t always feel high, it might also be because, for Lowbeer, Netherton and the others in future London, they aren’t. Although they tell themselves the people in these stubs are real – as real as the threat of nuclear war – there is a sharp contrast between the havoc and chaos in Verity’s world and how the people of 2136 experience it: as a hobby, sitting on couches and in home offices wearing telepresence devices, Netherton taking breaks to check on his infant son, while another character, in another timeline, juggles a job at the White House while providing Verity with tactical support. Netherton has the sneaking suspicion that, to his colleagues, this all feels like a game.

It’s hard not to look at how Lowbeer and her crew influence Verity’s timeline and see some of our own reality – most notably, in the tech companies that, like digital imperialists, have sought influence and control across the globe under the guise of making the world a better place. Not unlike Agency’s continua enthusiasts, they operate from such a remove that when Facebook is used to incite violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, it’s not Facebook that suffers the consequences. That’s assuming we can even perceive how these companies operate in the first place, the ways their algorithms silently shape the pathways of our lives. As with the people living in one of Lowbeer’s stubs, it’s increasingly unclear how much agency any of us truly have.

“But isn’t it better there now, than if we hadn’t intervened?” Netherton asks Rainey of a stub where they’ve effectively influenced the election of the President of the United States – precisely the scenario Verity’s Trump-less stub managed to avoid. “It is, I’m sure,” Rainey replies. “But it makes a joke of their lives.”

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