For almost 6 years, since reading William Gibson's last novel, "The Peripheral", I have been waiting for the next. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed all of his books with the exception of "The Difference Engine", which I could not force myself to finish, my anticipation for a new title was heightened when I learned, some 3 years ago, that he would be returning to the world of "The Peripheral".
January of this year brought that long wait to a finish when "Agency" finally dropped.
Having now read the novel, I have to say: I preferred the wait.
Two-thirds in, it occurred to me that not only was it two-thirds done (a milestone which generally leaves me feeling a touch of sadness knowing the experience will be ending), but worse: nothing terribly interesting had happened yet. I felt a creeping dread that with the few pages left, it was highly unlikely that Mr. Gibson was going to pull something extraordinary out his literary bag-of-tricks.
And you know what?
While "Agency" reacquaints us with several of the characters from 2014's "The Peripheral", including Wilf Netherton, the (now much less) mysterious Ainsley Lowbeer, Ash, and the haptic recon vet from the past, Conner Penske, it doesn't manage to rekindle any of the character chemistry that helped propel the 2014 novel.
The new female protagonist, Verity Jane, feels like a thinly varnished mash-up of past Gibson female leads featured in his 'Nineties "Bridge Trilogy" (Chevette Washington) and this century's first decade "Blue Ant Trilogy" (Cayce Pollard and Hollis Henry). The problem with Mr. Gibson's female "hero" this time around is that he doesn't take the time to breath life into her.
We learn she is supposedly a highly talented "app whisperer" (think beta-tester), but we don't get much more than that. Through the course of her interaction with the AI character that is at the center of the plot, she doesn't expose any particularly interesting skills or thoughts. She comes across as either somewhat bored with some of the other characters (as was I) or simply surprised and merely a pawn.
I didn't much care what happened to Verity as Mr. Gibson's story line has her whisked by various handlers from one part of San Francisco to another. Being that she made so few plot impacting decisions of her own, and that I knew so little about who she is, the sense of intrigue and urgency that are typically part of a William Gibson plot didn't materialize.
If you haven't read "The Peripheral", "Agency" presents us again with that world's version of "time travel".
Gibson has created (or at least documented, if he is not the first to conjure this method) an intriguing system of "travel" whereby the folks of the future can create "stubs" into a past time in which individuals on both sides can communicate in real-time. When a stub is created, it is permanent and both sides of the connection travel through their respective times in parallel at the same speed. (Think of two tractor trailers driving side-by-side down the highway.)
It's not the sort of time-hopping, bouncing from time to time, we have typically been presented in such fair as Dr. Who or H.G. Wells "The Time Machine". Nothing can be physically transferred from one era to the other. Thoughts, words and information can be exchanged, but nothing tangible. Clever. Avoids the usual concerns over paradoxes.
The characters from the future, for good or worse, attempt to steer events in the past by providing information that alters the earlier era's citizens' choices and resultant outcomes.
Another important facet of Gibson's cross-time connections is that once a stub is created, that past is no longer the past of the future - it has been forked because of the creation of the stub. The people of the future can continue to dabble in the past of the stub, but whatever the results may be, there is never any impact on that future world.
If it sounds complex, or even confusing, that is because I am not Mr. Gibson, and surely am not giving his concept the justice it deserves. If you haven't read "The Peripheral", I would suggest reading that book before this current title, as that novel, as with the characters, achieves a much more detailed and compelling presentation.
I could go on, but I don't want to have to say "Spoiler Alert", so I won't get into any deeper details. Suffice it to say, I came away from this book very, very underwhelmed.
I think Mr. Gibson was one of two things when writing this book: Too comfortable or too uncomfortable. Either way, he seems to have relied to heavily on his "formula": Female lead with unusual job. Check. Mysterious and powerful forces lurking in the background. Check. A technological hook. Check. Etc.
Is this a bad book?
No. And yes. It's a slick work of wordmanship. Not his strongest. I didn't find myself compelled to jot down snippets of text to want to quote later as I often have with past books. But this is still head and shoulders above most of what else is on the shelves.
Should you read this book?
Yes. But set your expectations accordingly. If you loved "The Peripheral" and it's fresh approach to time travel and taught plot, know that "Agency" ain't that. If you haven't read any Gibson since his very early titles, I think you might enjoy seeing how far he's come in his craft in 30+ years.
If you have never read any of Gibson's work, I would start somewhere else and come back to this, if so inclined, later.
As much as "Neuromancer" is his best known work, I can't recommend that book for the quality of the read. While it is an important work from the perspective of science fiction history, aside from an academic approach, having read it again myself about 3 years ago, it has not aged well. It is very much a product of its time; what was fresh and forward thinking in 1984, is extremely dated and trite in 2020. Not to mention, Mr Gibson's writing style at the time (it is his first novel after all) is much less refined than today.
I would suggest, as a first William Gibson book, picking up either "Pattern Recognition" or "The Peripheral". If you go with "Pattern Recognition" and like it, continue the trilogy with "Spook Country" and "Zero History".
Mr. Gibson has amassed an impressive body of work and "Agency" is not horrible book.
Only the future knows how well this book will age.