Agency by William Gibson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAgency by William Gibson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAgency by William Gibson

William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency (2020), is a follow-up to The Peripheral which needs to be read first. In The Peripheral we learned that in the not-too-distant future, someone will discover some software on a secret server in China which allows users to interact with people using the internet in the past (our modern day). Contacting people in the past makes a new timeline branch called a “stub.” The future people who create the stub can play around with it, influencing the economy, politics, and even waging war.

The future people we met in The Peripheral are a group of friends named Wilf, Lev, and Ash who live in London, which has been nearly depopulated and is now run by gangsters. There’s also a mysterious woman named Ainsley Lowbeer who seems to be some sort of investigator or maybe even protector of the stubs that are created by time-travelers. We’ll be seeing these folks again in Agency.

As Agency begins, we meet Verity Jane, a software specialist living in San Francisco who’s been hired to beta test a new product. It’s a virtual assistant, developed by the military, that uses an Artificial Intelligence calling itself Eunice. Verity soon realizes that her assistant’s capabilities are far above anything that AI should be capable of. In fact, Eunice seems to be a real person.

Soon, Verity and Eunice are tangled up with our friends from the future who believe that there was a particular event (referred to as “the Jackpot”) that happened in November 2016 that caused the devastation in their future world. Lowbeer and Wilf hope to understand this event so they can stop it from happening in other stubs, and so they can diminish the power of the kleptocracy in their own world.

After the mind-bending experience of The Peripheral, Agency feels a little staid in comparison, especially in a few scenes that went on too long. But it’s still a fast-paced entertaining novel with Gibson’s trademark stylishness and edginess. It’s also got probably the most believable version of time-travel I’ve ever seen. The “stubs” concept (which stems from multiverse theory) takes care of most of those pesky little time paradoxes.

While The Peripheral, published in 2014, offered subtle warnings about our economy and culture at that time, Agency is less opaque, delivering admonitions and sounding alarms.

The audiobook version by Penguin Audio is excellently narrated by Lorelei King. It’s 10 hours long.

~Kat Hooper

William Gibson

William Gibson

Agency by William Gibson science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWilliam Gibson’s Agency is an engaging thriller, with a little AI science fiction and post-apocalyptic time travel thrown in for good luck.

Looking back from the 22nd century, our present and near future were dominated by the Jackpot, a series of destabilizing catastrophes that eliminated 80% of the human population. There were also some technological advances, including the ability to send information back in time. Once established, these connections create stubs, alternate timelines that branch off from the main one.

Gibson’s future heroes are Wilf, a recovered alcoholic and father, and Lowbeer, a powerful inspector whose job is mostly to keep the elites from running away with power relative to the general population. She also takes an interest in stubs and hires Wilf as her agent in them. Lowbeer and Wilf send back information, programs, and manufacturing designs to make contact with people in the past in the hopes of averting or at least mitigating the Jackpot.

The stub’s plot is set in an alternate timeline that otherwise is recognizably our present. (Although the 2016 American presidential election and Brexit go the other way in this stub, people can still order coffee from irreverent baristas.) An AI, Eunice, emerges and makes contact with Verity, an App Whisperer. Eunice, in collaboration with Lowbeer and Wilf, begins working to dissolve the Jackpot, and the first threat is a looming nuclear weapons crisis. Verity is in over her head but thankfully she mostly rolls with the punches so that the thriller can advance its plot. Eunice, who mostly communicates in Helvetica text messages, somehow steals the show.

Post-apocalyptic novels are often about rebirth and renewal, but Gibson’s future is more ambiguous than utopian/ dystopian. With its nano technology, cosplay zones, and huge structures working to scrub the air, it is often amazing. And yet most people have died offscreen, and even here the question of power remains a concern. The elite form the Klept, which, though only alluded to, appears to be a formalized political system built around inherited authority that, branching out from Russia, filled the power vacuum during the Jackpot. People seem to be holding on and making do as best as they can within the circumstances they find themselves. How can they develop agency in these systems?

Gibson has written that all science fiction should be interpreted as a commentary on the era into which it was published. Although Agency is about artificial intelligence and drones, it is mostly a critique of today’s selfish short term thinking. The Jackpot represents every problem we muddle through or kick down the road — climate change, instability, intolerance, class inequality, authoritarianism, nuclear weapons — boiling over to such an extent that our civilization as we now understand it collapses. Eunice specializes in competitive control zones and mostly excels in finding ways to ensure that prisoner’s dilemmas are, as much/ often as possible, resolved cooperatively.

Although it’s easy to read Agency as a commentary on kleptocracy, game theory, and agency, it’s most obviously a fun thriller about a young woman on the run from spooks. There is a temptation to read Agency as a story about two timelines, but it might be better understood as exploring the way structures buried in the background affect people in the foreground of the plot. Recommended.

~Ryan Skardal

Published in 2020. William Gibson has trained his eye on the future for decades, ever since coining the term “cyberspace” and then popularizing it in his classic speculative novel Neuromancer in the early 1980s. Cory Doctorow raved that The Peripheral is “spectacular, a piece of trenchant, far-future speculation that features all the eyeball kicks of Neuromancer.” Now Gibson is back with Agency — a science fiction thriller heavily influenced by our most current events. Verity Jane, gifted app whisperer, takes a job as the beta tester for a new product: a digital assistant, accessed through a pair of ordinary-looking glasses. “Eunice,” the disarmingly human AI in the glasses, manifests a face, a fragmentary past, and a canny grasp of combat strategy. Realizing that her cryptic new employers don’t yet know how powerful and valuable Eunice is, Verity instinctively decides that it’s best they don’t. Meanwhile, a century ahead in London, in a different time line entirely, Wilf Netherton works amid plutocrats and plunderers, survivors of the slow and steady apocalypse known as the jackpot. His boss, the enigmatic Ainsley Lowbeer, can look into alternate pasts and nudge their ultimate directions. Verity and Eunice are her current project. Wilf can see what Verity and Eunice can’t: their own version of the jackpot, just around the corner, and the roles they both may play in it.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

  • Ryan Skardal

    RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.