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William Gibson has contributed many revolutionary works to the science fiction canon since his breakout success, NEUROMANCER. Perhaps his greatest strength is to explore possible outcomes of our technology being pushed to its absolute limit. It’s a treat, then, that for AGENCY, Gibson draws inspiration from the late 2010s to rattle us with a science fiction novel that is equally thrilling and literary at every turn, with a focus on our current, in-use technology and fears surrounding our own devices. The book offers us plenty of opportunities to consider AI advancement and the effect corporate software development has on our personal lives. That, and it’s a blast to read.

AGENCY opens with Verity Jane, a beta tester trying to make ends meet. She picks up a job from a questionable startup tech company for what will become their new consumer service system. Even they don’t know the level of tech they have their hands on. When Verity puts on the company-issued glasses and inserts their earbud, she’s greeted by a new AI system that’s powerful enough to have its own agency. Eunice, the AI, is well developed enough to have her own personality. She’s smart enough to hack into other people’s devices. She can contact nearly anyone and move people like chess pieces to play societal systems from within. Eunice has a plan for massive changes on an international scale, and has ideas of her own about how society should function.

At the heart of AGENCY, Verity wants to get off her friend’s couch and make a name for herself. But when the corporation that created Eunice goes after their loose AI, it’s a constant struggle to survive and evade their grasp. This technothriller begins with an earnest simplicity. Verity forms a quick rapport with Eunice, and much of the early joy of this story comes from their relationship --- their banter, Eunice’s wit, Verity’s modest confusion in being way over her head with the plans Eunice has.

"This is one of those rare titles that reminds me what I love about science fiction. It serves not just as a means to escape ordinary life, but as a way to gain perspective on my life choices and where those will lead me."

Meanwhile, in a technologically advanced London, a team watches Eunice and Verity as the AI sets a series of events in motion, both close to home and in foreign affairs, that could lead to nuclear destruction on a world-ending scale. Wilf Netherton is a somewhat freelance agent working under this team. He seems resigned to accept the slow and steady apocalypse of his futuristic London, but his boss, the iconic Lowbeer, has a personal vendetta and an unknown mission. She will do anything it takes to help Verity, even take justice into her own hands. Netherton must decide if it’s worth risking his family’s lives and his well-being to help her fix Verity’s reality.

The plot really moves. There is a complexity to the world Gibson presents here. Every domino placement is well thought out and calculated, almost as though Gibson the storyteller is one step ahead of the reader the same way Eunice the AI is one step ahead of Verity and the other characters. Gibson drops us into this story without warning and dares us to pick up the pieces as we move along it. But I assure you, while the early plot is complicated, we have the humanity of Verity to cling to, which makes the wild ride desperate and personal. I always felt on equal footing with the characters, and by the time the relationships evolved and the thrills arrived with a quickened pace, the story opened up to me.

AGENCY is a deep character study at times, a severe commentary of our political and social climate at others, and further still, an interesting puzzle of three-dimensional characters all played against each other. The scale of these character networks and the trajectory of Eunice’s power show that there are an almost impossible number of things happening behind the scenes.

Gibson plays it very close to our known reality. Verity’s story held a grounded feel, much like that of films like Her and Ex Machina, where tiny advances in science have drastic consequences. Gibson has his cake and eats it too: the scenes with Netherton have a futuristic glow, more along the lines of NEUROMANCER or the grittiness of Blade Runner. These two distinct tones meld beautifully, allowing for the characters to grow in a way that can only happen in science fiction.

And in doing this, in having us as readers experience these two types of sci-fi bended by each other, it became easy to imagine what unforeseen consequences our current technologies could have on our children and grandchildren, whether that be through the evolution of Boston Dynamics robots, AI, market research or social media.

Gibson’s syntax is shocking, with pangs of hard-boiled language throughout. Not a word is wasted. Each scene, no matter how quiet, is honest and dangerous and exciting. He gives us a mysterious unboxing, Pad Thai, coffee shop hunger, porn couches and contracts. He gives us foreign interference and gritty personality. He gives us robots and computer systems, planet-saving green energy and virtual brain syncing. He leaves the scope for us to sort out. Bundles of cash and dangerous chemicals switch hands, operatives are signaled at perfect times to give rides to Verity for daring escapes, and Verity must remember to wear hoodies at all times, because she can never be sure who’s watching. The book is simultaneously heavy to handle and a pure joy to read.

If you’re a fan of the cyberpunk genre or enjoy stories about virtual reality and AI, I don’t have to tell you that Gibson is an author you already should be following. But if you’re interested in science fiction as literature, and you’d like to explore the ideas of AI a bit deeper than spooky internet articles, AGENCY would be a great place to start. It’s critically engaging, and if you slow down to take it for all it’s worth, you’ll find something incredible on every page.

This is one of those rare titles that reminds me what I love about science fiction. It serves not just as a means to escape ordinary life, but as a way to gain perspective on my life choices and where those will lead me. With the setting close enough to our current time that parts of it feel plausible, and with questions posed that we already should be considering, AGENCY is a must-read for anyone with their eye on fiction.

Reviewed by Austin Ruh on January 24, 2020

by William Gibson