Tag Archives: William Gibson

William Gibson’s Agency

William Gibson, Agency (Viking 2020)

It’s more than a decade since I’ve read any William Gibson. Picking him up again has been a joy.

The book starts in San Francisco, in roughly our time. Verity Jane, our hero, has just come out of a period of hiding away from the tabloids after breaking up with a celebrity tech billionaire, and has got a job testing a cool new device. The device consists of a headset and glasses: when she puts them on, she is immediately in contact with an entity who identifies herself as Eunice, who sees through the glasses, has a great line of patter and a vast store of knowledge whose origin she herself doesn’t know. Eunice is pretty bossy. She shields her conversations with Verity from the surveillance of the company that owns her, amasses a fortune by playing on the internet, and has soon organised a network of agents who know her only as Verity’s PA. As the story develops we realise that this is a world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, and Brexit didn’t happen, but things aren’t all roses: there’s a threat of imminent nuclear war over an incident in Turkey. Eunice is a miraculous new form of AI who may be on track to prevent the nuclear disaster.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, a group of characters in a weird, technologically advanced future (implanted phones, invisible flying driverless cars, animated tattoos, and un-described things with names like stub, peri, controller) go about their lives looking after babies and getting by in a society dominated by a group called the klept, with ‘the pandemics’ and ‘the jackpot’ mentioned as major past events. These characters are taking a godlike interest in Verity and Eunice.

That’s the set-up. It’s all told with an infectious delight in detailed invention,

Paragraph by paragraph, it’s witty, surprising, and inventive. The stakes are high, the humour is sly. The unexplained technologies and relationships are tantalising. As far as I was concerned nothing could go wrong.

And, though for great slabs there was a lot of colour and movement that didn’t amount to much, and some bits were complete nonsense, I loved every moment.

I was enthralled by Gibson’s first three books of dazzling and often incomprehensible science fiction, the Sprawl trilogy – Neuromancer (1984), Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988). I was less thrilled by the Bridge trilogy, which came next – Virtual Light (1993), Idoru (1996) and All Tomorrow’s Parties (1999). I read the first two books of the Blue Ant trilogy – Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007), and didn’t bother with Zero History (2010). These six books are also science fiction, but set in a time and on a planet very like ours with technology not that different from ours, with a lot of virtual reality, location-based art and social media.

It turns out that Agency, a birthday present from a friend, is the sequel to Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral. If I’d read that book, the not completely unpleasant disorientation I felt in the first half of this one might have been mitigated, though – this being William Gibson – maybe not. I’m attached to these characters and to these (spoiler alert) bifurcating time lines. The Peripheral and whatever comes next are now on my to-be-read list.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Penguin 2013)

0143125753I came to Bleeding Edge prepared to be baffled and intimidated, as I had been by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 more than three decades ago. W S Gilbert pretty much nailed my response to those books: ‘If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, / Why, what a very singularly deep young man / this deep young man must be!’

Well, neither Thomas Pynchon nor I are young any more, and if there’s any bafflement in Bleeding Edge, it’s less of the intimidating too-deep-for-me variety than the mildly irritating I’ve-never-heard-of-yet-another-US–brand-name/alcoholic-beverage / pop-culture-figure kind, with quite a bit of Who-was-that-character-again? thrown in.

It’s a New York novel whose action begins in spring 2001 and ends soon after Christmas that year. That is to say, it’s set in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble burst and includes the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001. The main character, Maxine Tarnow, a wisecracking fraud investigator, Jewish mother of two, is drawn into a network of elaborate intrigues involving denizens of the Deep Web, Silicon Alley mavens, characters who may or may not be part of the Russian Mafia, a super-secret CIA-type agents who may have foreknowledge of the events of 11 September, ruthless neo-liberal working for (or against?) the government funnelling money to the Middle East, to help either terrorists or anti-terrorists, and more. There are murders, gritty-comedic sex scenes, and a lot of New York.

The writing is tough-guy witty. The marshalling of period detail – often in list form – is awesome. The invented period details (such as a running list of improbable movies, including a version of Don Giovanni featuring the Marx Brothers) offer bursts of delight. It doesn’t matter that it’s all a little familiar, that I felt I could stop reading at any point without more than a twinge of regret. Think of a Stephanie Plum adventure in a Neal Stephenson universe, with product placement by post–Pattern Recognition William Gibson, an occasional touch of magic realism to save inventing plausible plot devices, and one or two science-fictional gestures that don’t lead to anything much. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that any of the plot amounts to anything much. One person dies, or does he? A plot is revealed, but exactly what was it? There’s clear filmed evidence of another plot, but again (spoiler alert) we never find out what the evidence means. Revenge is taken on the main villain, but does he even notice?

Maybe I should add Seinfeld to the list of people who make this book feel familiar: for all its vast piling up of incident, its huge cast of characters, and its frequent insights into the times we live in, it wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to describe it as a novel where nothing happens. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.