Thursday, February 20, 2020

William Gibson's AGENCY

Please, tell me I'm not the only person who's already imagining a white-haired Tilda Swinton as Ainsley Lowbeer if The Peripheral and/or Agency ever gets adapted for the screen. Even if it's a century hence and it's a digitally recreated Swinton loping around with an omni-use "tipstaff" protecting continua from hobbyists.*

I didn't realize until my second reading of this book's predecessor, The Peripheral, that Lowbeer was going to be the Hubertus Bigend of this trilogy. Partly this was because so many of the other characters were so interesting that Lowbeer kind of faded into the background a lot (a "problem" Agency doesn't have, but we'll get to that) but mostly because she didn't feel that much like a character yet, more a figurant -- kind of like Hubertus Bigend!

I speculate that William Gibson maybe noticed this and, with this new book, chose to dial back the other characters to let the spotlight shine on Lowbeer, which is laudable, because Lowbeer is cool as shit, but, ah, I'm not quite sure it worked. Because Lowbeer is still mostly a peripheral (heh) character, acting as a sort of dispatcher if not a commander, while most of the action is performed by really boring people.

Ostensibly, the protagonist of Agency is Verity, a young woman in the middle of an exciting if precarious career as a sort of "app whisperer" in 2017.** She's just been hired to test an exciting new product that lives in a Google Glass-ish set-up but is startingly un-app-like to the point of pretty much laughing itself to death at the mere thought of being administered a Turing test. That's right, William Gibson has finally made an Artificial Intelligence into an actual character! But one so awesomely powerful and resourceful and such a quick study that our Verity basically becomes a Lemmiwinks.*** Which could still be cool, only pretty soon the cool AI (named Eunice because the actual name is an acronym I can't remember but corresponds to EUNISS) is absent, and Verity is just left to enact Eunice's plan to Save the World only no one ever, you know, tells Verity the plan (an, to be honest, I still don't understand how all this to-ing and fro-ing Saved the World), so she's just ferried around on motorcycles by surly coffee shop waiters or in funky helicopter-type things owned by her Tech Billionaire ex-boyfriend or, in one ridiculous scene, actually disguised as a dummy and hauled up many stories in a sling, and at this point I just decided Gibson was trolling us with this title. I mean, Lowbeer works for an Agency in the future and there are a few agents of an Agency or two sort of lurking around in Verity's present, but also there is a fully autonomous AI (the world's first!) exercising bucketloads of Agency but, like Lowbeer, only at a remove and meanwhile our heroine has so little Agency she has to hang there in the sling and not move while she is ratcheted up to the penthouse suite via the building's exterior.

Oh, and kind of the least interesting character from The Peripheral shows up and does some stuff, which, whatever, but also the most interesting character from The Peripheral shows up and let's talk about Coner for a moment. Spoilers for The Peripheral, obvs. but it says Ware Spoilers right in this blog description text.

Coner is from the "stub" explored in the first book, which is basically a near-future West Virginia in which 3D-printing has become commonplace but also so advanced that it can be used to manufacture drugs, so think of the Opioid Crisis dialed up to 11 and in this world, in addition to the rather delightful heroine of The Peripheral there is Coner. Coner is a veteran of an unspecified war but we can just assume, really, that it's still in the Persian Gulf area only now there are "haptic recon" units, i.e. soldiers with implanted technology that allows them to, e.g., operate drones a continent away in a very intimate fashion. Except, you know, it was still imperfect tech, so most veterans like Coner are a bio-mechanical mess even with the implants out, and also still have PTSD. But then there's Coner, who also managed to get himself actually blown up, and lost all but one of his limbs and a good bit of his torso and now depends on very advanced nearly-full-body prosthetics to live a very limited existence in his backwater timeline. He gets a taste of other possibilities in The Peripheral, in which the quantum computer that allows contact with The Past from Lowbeer's world doesn't just allow conversation but a limited degree of action via the control of, in Coner's world, dopey telepresence drones that are basically an iPad stuck to a Segway, and in Lowbeer's the full experience of running a vat-grown nearly-human body as though it were your own. In The Peripheral Coner gets to spend some time in a top-of-the-line martial arts training body, and since he was originally a military powerhouse even without his implants, well, just imagine. There's a great line in Gibson's first novel, Neuromancer, in which a "console cowboy" who's been neurologically maimed and can no longer access cyberspace falls "into the prison of his own flesh." Now imagine if that flesh consists of, like, one messed up arm, your chest and your head. That's Coner, after.

But Lowbeer is a benevolent goddess, as well as one that needs mortals to do her bidding, so she has made sure that Coner still gets opportunities to be in better bodies via the mysterious quantum computer.**** As long as he does her bidding once in a while; here he is dispatched to Verity's world, but of course her world doesn't even really have very good iPads on Segways yet, so he's controlling, e.g. hobby drones and various smart devices, while still being very much the Coner that I grew to love in the first book. He gets some fantastic scenes and pulls off some exciting stunts and, really, his bits are the best in this book. I would absolutely read a book from his point of view, telling his actual story. Hint to the universe.

Having him as the POV character instead of Verity would instantly have made Agency a better read, at any rate. Not that, and I feel I must stress this because I feel like I'm bitching a lot, not that Agency isn't a pretty good read. It has lots of interesting ideas and poses lots of interesting questions and contains both Ainsley Lowbeer and Coner, plus a bit of Eunice, so, you know, it's fine. I was never in danger of DNF-ing it. BUT, I didn't risk sleep deprivation and un-done chores to devour it, either. It's not Gibson's best work, is all. But it's still more than worth the reading, and I'm still in for a sequel or two, but please, Mr. Gibson, some more Lowbeer? Please?

*If you're new to this series, and it seems many are opting to go ahead and plunge into Agency without having first read The Peripheral, in Ainsley Lowbeer's far-future post-apocalyptic time, someone has stumbled across a mysterious quantum computer that can connect to digital communications technology in the past, but every time contact is established it creates a new timeline, because Lowbeer's timeline is not one in which contact was ever made. Certain people in Lowbeer's world are so rich and bored that they connect to and interfere with the past for fun. These newly-created timelines are formally referred to as "continua", informally as "stubs" (as in Wikipedia perhaps?), and the people who fart around with them are the "hobbyists" I referred to above. Most just act like tourists but there are a special few who treat the past as their personal Let's Game It Out and deliberately try to ruin everything for everybody.

**Not our 2017, though. See, a continua hobbyist, one who makes Josh from Let's Game It Out look like a merciful angel/fairy godmother who can't coddle his NPCs enough, manipulated events so that in 2016 Secretary Clinton, and not Game Show Host Trump, won the presidential election, only, get this, it was part of a strategy to lead to armagedddon, meaning somehow the outcome I think the lion's share of Gibson's fan base and Gibson himself would have preferred is painted as the Darkest Timeline, an intriguing idea that did not get nearly enough exploration here.

***A South Park joke, referring to a character who has little or no, umm, agency, but is simply bossed around and sent on fetch quests by others. A fetch quest is... why am I explaining all this shit anyway? This is the internet. You can look it up. I've been spending entirely too much time with octogenarians who believe stuff on Facebook (and yes, 80+ year olds use Facebook. It's 2020. Hi, I'm Kate, and this is 2020, and honestly, this is the first time I've made that joke. I get a turn, too, right?).

****Which, I'm trusting there's a third volume of this Lowbeer series in the works, and I hope we get some answers about this tech. Nobody in Lowbeer's world knows where it is or who originally found it, let alone who developed it or how it works. An undercurrent I could have just imagined faintly suggests that maybe Lowbeer's native continuum isn't the "original" and is just as much of a stub as the ones its hobbyists play with, but I'm hoping it's not quantum McGuffin turtles all the way down, you guys.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Sorry about the CAPTCHA, guys, but without it I was getting 4-5 comment spams an hour.