February 2020

Arts & Letters

Days of future passed: William Gibson’s ‘Agency’

By Michael Lucy
The cyberpunk pioneer’s latest novel continues his examination of the present from the perspective of a post-apocalyptic future

Well, here we are. The year is 2020. Australia is on fire. A new deadly virus is spreading from China to the world. Fascism is coming back. Surveillance capitalism, online disinformation, amoral billionaires, drone strikes. Inequality rising everywhere and riots from Hong Kong to Chile. The future is getting real.

So what to read? You could do worse than pick up Agency (Penguin), the latest from American science-fiction sage William Gibson.

The times are Gibsonian. Cyberpunk, the jerry-built electro-noir sci-fi subgenre he pioneered in the 1980s, is coming back in style. Last year Elon Musk launched his electric Cybertruck, which looks like a low-polygon render from an antique videogame. A few months from now a blockbuster videogame starring Keanu Reeves, titled simply Cyberpunk 2077, will hit consoles and PCs near you. Even the future has to be retro these days, as if we can’t really imagine anything new.

The man himself, now in his seventies, has moved on from pulpy paperback territory. He has been recognised as a keen observer of our fast-shifting technology and what it’s doing to us, as well as a sometimes startlingly accurate foreteller of the future. At the same time he’s an astute anthropologist and lover of postmodern weirdness, as much an heir of Borges and Pynchon as Burroughs and Ballard.

And his recent work has found a splintery late style, holding contradictions up to the light without feeling the need to resolve them. Set between 2017 in a parallel universe and a 22nd century in our own post­apocalyptic future, Agency offers an illuminating perspective on the dark years ahead. Just the thing if you’re bunkered down inside while the weather turns cataclysmic, or commuting quietly to work while the world does.

Times were different when William Gibson published his debut novel, Neuromancer (1984). The book told the story of a burnt-out hacker and a body­modified “street samurai” hired to pull off a heist on a space station by a shadowy entity that turns out – spoiler alert! – to be an artificial intelligence trying to escape the limits of its programming.

Neuromancer and its sequels – Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) – made an indelible impression on generations of nerds, not least thanks to Gibson’s vision of “cyberspace”:

A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation … A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding …

Neuromancer won two of sci-fi’s most prestigious awards, the Hugo and the Nebula, and was instrumental in kicking off the cyberpunk genre. Marked by a fascination with information technology, virtual reality, and the transcendence and commodification of mere bodies, cyberpunk also asked how ordinary folks might survive in futures designed for the rich and powerful.

In the 1990s Gibson built a new future: starting with Virtual Light (1993), he wrote a trilogy set in a less straightforwardly dystopian early-2000s America. In his earlier books he had established that cyberspace could be a field of action in itself; now he turned his eye to how that virtual world would be overlaid on the real one.

The result was a society rapidly going mad from media poisoning – think augmented reality, insane fan cultures, toxic reality TV and celebrity weirdness (one driver of the whole trilogy is the marriage between two massive pop stars, one real and one virtual). What seemed implausible satire now reads as fairly tame, in an era when mass shooters give shout-outs to YouTube stars during their livestreamed massacres.

By the time the 21st century really did roll around, Gibson had given up on the future. With Pattern Recognition (2003) he began telling contemporary stories of start-ups and trend-spotters, big money and brands and designers. In these books the merging of virtual and real worlds is almost complete: everything has been financialised, meaning has been reduced to memes, the thing has been replaced with the idea of the thing.

And if writing about realistic events in London or San Francisco or Brussels seemed futuristic, that was simply because – as Gibson has pithily observed – the future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.

But by Zero History (2010), which largely revolves around the search for a secret brand of jeans, this avenue seemed to have reached a dead end. Gibson’s futures had in one sense been made obsolete by reality. If you wanted to read about a world where a significant chunk of life takes place inside a global computer network, where governments are becoming vestigial as vast corporations duke it out amid crumbling megacities, where rogue software reshapes the lives of unknowing humans – well, you didn’t need to turn to speculative fiction.

But at the same time, the acceleration of the real world’s day-to-day weirdness had made guessing at the near future a fool’s errand. As one character put it in Pattern Recognition:

… we have no future. Not in the sense that our grandparents had a future … things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient “now” to stand on.

(This was written before smartphones, before the global financial crisis, before Facebook and Twitter; when climate change was still a future worry instead of a present catastrophe; when Donald Trump was yet to begin his reality­TV career and controlled no nuclear weapons. Before things really started getting volatile, in other words.)

Another difficulty is that the large-scale trajectory of the 21st century will be one of nature in crisis, and Gibson is the opposite of a nature writer.

Gibson wasn’t alone in averting his gaze from the future. As Amitav Ghosh argues, we have suffered a “great derangement” about climate change. It is so vast and its likely consequences so dismal that our usual perspectives won’t let us see it properly.

This is particularly true in fiction, which tends to centre individuals and their choices rather than systems and social structures. A recent small surge of interest in “cli-fi” notwithstanding, even science fiction has tended to look away rather than confront climate change head-on.

Take the winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, for example: in the 1980s, more than half were tales of the not-too-distant future, and another quarter focused on our distant descendants millennia away. That proportion has been changing steadily since: in the decade just gone, less than a quarter could bring themselves to look at what’s just ahead.

In part this is due to winners that come at climate change from a different angle, like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) and its sequels, which tell the story of a socio-geological apocalypse in a fantasy realm, or Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (2014), an oblique tale of uncanny eco-horror.

But it’s also because it’s very hard now to imagine what life will be like in, say, 2040. Not just intellectually difficult, but enormously emotionally difficult.

Eventually, Gibson found a way back to the future. The Peripheral (2014) takes place in two different futures: one populated by trailer-park dwellers in the late-capitalist wasteland of 2040s America, the other a post-apocalyptic London in the 2130s, run by descendants of Russian oligarchs known as “the klept”.

The defining feature of the 22nd century in The Peripheral is that it exists in the aftermath of a protracted worldwide crisis known as “the jackpot”. (The name is presumably a reference to Robert A. Heinlein’s 1952 short story “The Year of the Jackpot”, in which numerous historical cycles sync up to destroy civilisation and eventually Earth itself.)

The jackpot is more or less what you get by extrapolating present technological, political and climatic trends:

It killed 80 percent of every last person alive, over about forty years … droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone … collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves … A progress accompanied by constant violence … by sufferings unimaginable.

It’s a vision that sticks with you, plausible not only in terms of how the catastrophe plays out but also how it is remembered. From the point of view of the future, the impending horrors that loom over your life and mine are troubles like the Black Death or World War Two or the European conquest of America.

“I had real trouble coming to that,” Gibson told a reporter last year. “I couldn’t really think about it. I just had to get to the point where I could write it really quickly. Afterward, I looked at it and was just … It was the first time I’d admitted it to myself.”

The other key conceit of The Peripheral is that the people of the 22nd century have found a way to communicate with the past – but this act of communication makes the past timeline split off onto a new historical path, which the jaded denizens of the far future can then manipulate for their own entertainment.

The new book, Agency, loosely follows on from The Peripheral, though half is set in 2017 in a world where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 United States election, and the United Kingdom decided against Brexit. Despite those changes, the world is still headed for the jackpot.

Agency describes the entanglement of Verity Jane, an “app whisperer” who helps start-ups tweak their software, and Wilf Netherton, a PR guy in the future – of course there are still PR guys after the apocalypse – who is pulled back from paternity leave to help his boss interfere with events in Verity’s world.

Wilf’s boss, a sort of intelligence operative slash detective slash executioner, says that the situation in 2017 is “grim … what with every other ordering principle and incentive still in place … they’re being driven into the same blades we were, but at a less acute angle.”

Verity’s story kicks off when she is hired by a sketchy start-up called Tulpagenics that wants her to test a sort of augmented-reality headset with a built-in personality named Eunice. (If you google “tulpa”, Eunice tells Verity, “you get Tibetan occult thought forms”.) Verity doesn’t know what’s going on, and neither does Eunice.

I will skip any more details of the plot, because watching the meticulously planned dots join up is one of the great joys of reading Gibson, but the questions in play revolve around the idea of agency. Who has the power to do things? Who, really, can affect the course of events?

The history of science fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) onwards, is a record of our anxieties and hopes about technological advance since the industrial revolution, and how it will change us and our world. Nietzsche posed the basic question neatly more than a century ago: “The press, the machine, the railway, the telegraph are premises whose thousand-year conclusion no one has yet dared to draw.”

While scientists have begun to draw a dire version of that conclusion in recent decades, fiction has found it hard to follow along. As the great Ursula K. Le Guin noted: “Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive … somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.”

But staring at the real prospect of apocalypse is no easier, nor perhaps more useful, than staring at the sun. What Gibson delivers is a vertiginous shift in perspective that comes from the leap across the abyss – the view looking back on the present, where the future might still be changed.

That view can make quite a difference. As one character from the future puts it, early in Agency: “Nothing before the 2020s has ever seemed entirely real, to me. Hard to imagine they weren’t constantly happy, given all they had.”

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


Cover image of The Monthly, February 2020

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