Detailed world-building let down by flat characters

In an alternate timeline, it is 2017, the president of the United States is Mrs Hillary Clinton and Brexit never happened. Nevertheless, the apocalypse still seems to be on the cards somehow.

In the midst of all this, Verity Jane, a San Francisco “app whisperer”, is hired to evaluate a new digital assistant in the form of a pair of glasses, called Eunice.

But Eunice packs a personality of her own – as well as some unprecedented powers – and soon Verity is on the run from her shady employer, aided via drone by Wilf Netherton, a “fixer” from a post-apocalyptic London in an alternate future.

Netherton has been tasked by a mysterious, ageless cop, Ainsley Lowbeer, to intervene in Verity’s timeline, a “stub” that has branched off from their own. Something terrible will happen in her time if she and Eunice do not get involved.

American-Canadian writer Gibson, called the godfather of cyberpunk, has long been hailed as one of science fiction’s great visionaries.

He coined the term “cyberspace”, which he popularised in his seminal novel Neuromancer (1984), set in a dystopian future populated by hackers, cyborg “razorgirl” assassins and rogue artificial intelligence (AI).

The long-awaited Agency is a sequel to his last novel The Peripheral (2014), in which Netherton’s post-apocalyptic London first appeared.

This time, Gibson presses unnervingly close to the present. There is an app for everything, be it ordering Verity’s coffee in advance so the barista has it ready when she swings by, or hiring people off the streets, Uber-like, to stalk her.

Gibson jam-packs the story with technology – drones, robot nannies, invisible flying cars – and rarely stops to let readers catch up, trusting them to navigate the technobabble themselves.

His worlds are stuffed with so many details that they feel worn, practically lived-in.

But Agency lacks the punchiness one expects of Gibson’s prose and falls flat in terms of characterisation. Verity is fairly colourless, even though she has been bulked up with relations, such as a mother and an ex-boyfriend, to achieve the illusion of dimension.

SCIENCE FICTION

AGENCY

By William Gibson

Viking/Hardcover/ 404 pages/$38.79/

Available at bit.ly/Agency_WG

3.5 Stars

She spends most of the novel being chased and bundled around like a human pass-the-parcel. Even her feelings are vague: She describes one such emotion as “another in-betweenness, but between what and what, she’d no idea”.

Eunice has more personality than all the human characters put together – though, being modelled on an African-American woman, she falls into the trope of “sassy black friend”, albeit one who is omnipresent, omniscient and approaching omnipotent. “My ass is legion,” she quips.

The stakes are high, the reader is repeatedly told, but it is hard to muster trepidation for the characters’ fates and the ending feels pat. Gibson’s visions are usually invigorating, but this one is murkier than most. If you like this, read: Exhalation by Ted Chiang (Macmillan, 2019, $29.95, available at bit.ly/exhalation_TC), an exquisite collection of sci-fi short stories that deal with time travel, alternate universes and the relationships that humans form with AI.

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