May 162020

Agency, by William Gibson

Synopsis: The world’s first GAI throws a coming-out party for itself.

Book Review: A couple months ago one of the panelists (don’t recall which one) at the Reason Roundtable commented that “William Gibson is very good at describing surfaces.” He meant this literally, and it’s true, Gibson does indeed do great visual descriptions, and you really get a feeling for how surfaces look and feel. But it works on a metaphorical level too, because this book is beautiful on the surface level, but doesn’t seem to have much depth to it.

At first I thought it was intentional, because the book is about an AI creating the infrastructure to manipulate the physical world, and her first step is to recruit a human agent. The human chosen is perfect for this role because she is pathologically passive. The world is on the brink of nuclear war and her primary concern is where she’s going to get coffee. She doesn’t really care about anything, and it makes complete sense that she’d do whatever the AI says with minimal prompting. The AI scoured the country and chose her mark well. I liked the nefarious implications.

But then the AI is removed from the narrative about 1/3rd of the way through, and things continue apace. Things keep happening to the protagonist, and she keeps getting shuffled forward in the plot, but there’s never much here to make us care. The protagonist doesn’t have motivation or desire, and makes almost no decisions. She doesn’t really have any agency in the story. Which feels like it should be some sort of theme, given the title, but it is never explored in the way a theme is explored… it’s just there.

The “very good at describing surfaces” comment kept coming back to me. Gibson has created a fantastic world. It has complex power structures and entrenched interests. It has a deep history. It is a marvelous place for stories to take place in, and I kept thinking this would make a wonderful source book for a role-playing game. There was even a plot-thread about an AI establishing its powr base that players could be guided through by a skilled GM. But it lacked characters, and so lacked a compelling story. It was a beautiful surface for a story to be painted on/within.

And upon further reflection, I think this is a feature of Gibson’s works. He crafts incredible worlds that are immensely cool to explore and be inside. The more weird and esoteric the world is, the more there is to explore and and be dazzled by. Like, what do you remember from the original Sprawl trilogy? If you’re like me, you recall there was a plot about freeing an AI-in-a-box, but that’s about it. The main attraction in those books was exploring an insane and awesome cyberpunk future (especially since this was the basically first time that had been done). I love that trilogy with a passion. But I don’t recall much plot, just an amazing world and the bizzare characters that peopled it.

The plot of Agency seems to be mainly about giving us a tour of this world, which has two problems. The first is that it’s a near-future world with very few deviations from our own. Someone whose strength is creating breath-taking new worlds should make them significantly different. That’s what made the Sprawl triology awesome. It’s what made Mieville’s Perdido Street Station + sequels awesome. A near future without much devation doesn’t have much to explore.

That brings us to the second problem. Since there isn’t that much difference to explore, the novel feels padded out to fill a word-count it can’t justify. There’s a lot of action that doesn’t have any purpose. And there’s a ridiculous amount of wasted word count. You know how soap operas will pad out their run time by having frequent commercial breaks, and after each comercial break they will recreate at least a full minute of what aired before the commercial break, except shot from a slightly different angle? That happens MANY times in the novel, when perspectives switch from one charecter to another.

You know how before people knew how to make movies we had wasted shots? To take my favorite example – in the first James Bond movie, Dr No, there’s a scene where Bond knocks out an assailant. He the walks back to his car. And the camera stays on him. On his back. As he walks. Slowly. Back to his car. For a good several seconds.

Because people just didn’t know you cut out the boring parts, I guess? That the audience can infer Bond walked back to his car if the next scene is him getting out of his car at the next location? Anyway, Agency was full of moments like this, completely unneeded descriptions that did nothing and were the literally equivalent of walking back to the car. Yes, the descriptions were good. But you skip the boring parts in a novel. You don’t show us the hero sleeping and going to the bathroom if it’s not important. Agency literally has a scene where someone goes to the bathroom, and it’s not remotely important.

Which is just to say, Gibson is great at making worlds, and skilled at wordcraft, but I found the plot and emotional drive in Agency sorely lacking. I do not wish to besmirch the rightly-celebrated author of one of the most influential works of the 80s. But as for Agency – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Some interesting discussion, beacuse the world really is created very well. But not too terribly much to talk about, as there isn’t much theme or story. Not bad, per se, but not something I can recommend, given how much is published every year. So again, Not Recommended.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.