Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
William Gibson seems concerned with humanity’s impending future and our overreliance on technology more than most, and in the second book of The Jackpot Trilogy, titled Agency, he tells a new story centred on a development most of us are already familiar with. It follows an app whisperer, Verity Jane, who takes up a job as a beta tester for a new AI assistant, soon realizing it has capabilities beyond anyone’s expectations.
Table of contents
William Gibson Explores the AI Issue
Artificial intelligence (I’ll simply refer to it as “AI” for obvious reasons) is a concept which needs no introduction in modern society; even someone who has been living under a rock would have heard of it. Our increasing reliance on it is, on one hand, allowing some to push the boundaries of human knowledge… on the other hand, it makes others over-reliant on something which might suddenly work against them, an issue faced by the characters of William Gibson‘s Agency.
I do recommend you go back and check out the previous novel if you haven’t yet, but rest assured that you can still jump into this one first, if such is your wish. It tells, for the most part, a new story and can be digested without former knowledge, but there are certain segments, which I’ll discuss later, where you would indeed benefit from starting The Jackpot Trilogy in the logical manner.
Anyhow, the plot begins by introducing us to Verity Jane, an app whisperer (something which I’m dreadfully fearful will become a real profession soon, if it isn’t already) deemed gifted by her peers. She lands herself a job as a beta tester for a brand new product meant to take the world by storm: an AI assistant in a pair of glasses called “Eunice”.
She seems rather disarming at first, being given a human face and even a manufactured past, dotting her with a minimum amount of personality. For some reason though, Eunice also shows an alarmingly strong grasp of combat strategy, leading Verity to understand just how powerful of a tool she could be, making her intent on hiding the secret from her employers… for as long as such a thing is possible in the first place.
Meanwhile, in the 22nd century we once again meet Wilf Netherton, living the slow and steady apocalypse known as The Jackpot. His boss, Ainsley Lowbeer, has the power to peer into the past, and nudge things along in ways which she sees fit. Verity and Eunice happen to be her latest project, and though the two puppets don’t know it, they might just end playing a key role in the decline of human civilization.
The Real Future of Agency
When science-fiction works come along portraying various unpleasant futures for humanity, we have the refuge of being able to say it is, in fact, a product of fiction where the author jumps to many conclusions for the sake of thought experiments. However, things aren’t so with Agency, and while I won’t claim William Gibson can predict the future, his guess as to what awaits us is about as educated as it can get.
Naturally, I’m largely talking about the plot taking place in our modern age, following the development of Eunice and Verity’s way of handling her situation. The near future as portrayed by Gibson is one we’re essentially already familiar with, one rife with technological wonders born from too much wealth and too little thought of potential consequences.
As you might have already guessed, one of the main topics explored in this work is the impact a truly powerful AI might have on our society, how it would tempt us to delegate more and more to its supreme powers, potentially gaining control over our entire civilization one day. Rather than being about the AI, I’d say it’s more about our relationship with it, and where the pitfalls of the human character would lead us.
Now, I do think it needs to be said, for the sake of those who aren’t familiar with Gibson‘s other works, he doesn’t shy away from expressing his thoughts and designating somethings as “good” and others as “bad”, not to mention the heavy political overtones to Agency. It is quite possible you’ll disagree with some of his statements and his appraisal of humanity’s future, but even then, I find it difficult to fight back against his extremely well thought-out arguments.
Going a little bit beyond black-and-white statements, he also tackles some greater topics with no concrete answers (as of yet, anyways), chief among them being our freedom of choice; how much of it is truly ours, and how much of it only an illusion? All in all, there’s quite a bit of food for thought in Gibson‘s vision of our near future.
The Unpredictable Nature of Timelines
As heavy as Agency might be in terms of philosophy and politics, it also remains a fairly exciting techno-thriller in its own right, threatening the reader with whiplash from all the jumping back and forth between timelines, all told through very short and explosive chapters. Even though what I’ve written in the previous section might not have given you such an impression, this novel is actually a fast-paced and action-packed adventure.
Going back and forth between 2017 San Francisco, an apocalyptic American South, and 22nd century London, we never get a moment to rest and get our bearings. Ideas keep hurtling in our direction at a hundred miles an hour, practically overwhelming us with the amount of new information we’re given about these alternate worlds developing at the same time.
I don’t think any author is capable of including time travel in their science-fiction story and make it completely foolproof, and there’s no shame in it, since as far as we know it might very well be forbidden by the fundamental laws of nature. However, Gibson does come mighty close to it, doing his best in tracing the consequences of revisionist histories and the directions they could have branched off to.
Personally, I quite enjoyed the glimpse we got into an America where Hillary Clinton won the elections against Donald Trump, and especially Gibson‘s descriptions of the way politics work in alternate timelines. He has a true knack for making it all feel believable, like a logical extension of the facts we’re already privy to in real life.
Ultimately, this exciting adventure through different timelines, not without its fair share of twists, felt to me like a reflection on our modern age in the real world, and how quickly it has become utterly unrecognizable from the recent past. Along with technological progress, our lives have also become increasingly strange and prone to senseless behaviour, and chances are, our future will continue along the same path… a path William Gibson sees and share in his books.
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The Final Verdict
Agency by William Gibson is an essentially flawless middle chapter in The Jackpot Trilogy, delivering philosophical ruminations, political observations and a thought-provoking vision of our potential future through a truly exciting plot delivered like a true thriller.
If you’ve enjoyed the first book in the series, or are looking for the kind of sci-fi work seeking to push boundaries and make its readers reflect on topics which truly matter, then I can only urge you to give this book a chance.
William Gibson is an American-Canadian writer and essayist whose greatest contribution to literature, to many, was pioneering the sub-genre of cyberpunk. Neuromancer is his most widely-acclaimed novel, his other notable works including Count Zero and Agency.
He is the recipient of the 1985 Nebula, Hugo, Philip K. Dick, 1995 Prix Aurora and 2016 Inkpot awards, not to mention his countless other nominations.