Everything happens for a reason, of course, but when humans look back on history, they tend to sort events into the inevitable and the arbitrary. It’s easier to fantasize about the latter, and the fantasies that last longest stem from the historical events that feel the most tenuous. When we perceive an event to be nothing more than chance, the alternative can feel as close as the other side of a coin.
For many Americans, the most arbitrary event in recent history was Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, which could have gone differently if fewer than 100,000 voters across three states—less than one percent of one percent of voters—had just stayed home. The tangibility of a Clinton victory has led some Clinton supporters to imagine it must live somewhere; the phrase “darkest timeline” was coined both to acknowledge feelings of despair and to offer mental refuge in the dim fantasy that somewhere, in a neighboring reality, things must have gone differently. By reifying the alternative, one can temporarily escape the feelings of anxiety that exude from an event that has clear consequences but no clear meaning.
If the 2016 election represents the shallow end of the significance pool, the deep end contains climate change: a transformation brought about by human actions decades in the making, frequently stoppable but never stopped, inexorably moving forward into disaster territory. To imagine a 21st century without melting ice caps one must rewrite substantial portions of the previous fifty years. No surprise that modern science fiction has taken on a darker flavor recently. Even in the best case scenario, we cannot avoid it.
The movable and immovable objects of history are central to William Gibson’s new novel, Agency, which is set in two different timelines: a 2017 in which neither Trump nor Brexit succeeded, and a 2136 where they did. The latter universe has a glossy finish but is deeply traumatized; 80% of the population has died in a cloud of worldwide environmental disasters known as “the jackpot,” the details of which are left as an exercise to the reader. Democracy has died in this universe, too, and most governments are now controlled by crime-connected aristocratic families collectively known as “the klept.” Gibson’s 22nd century survivors hide their shame about their diminished world under a veneer of cool toys: flying invisible autonomous cars, phones implanted in one’s body, and bags that fold themselves up into butterflies and flutter back to their stores once they are empty. Most impressive of all are “peripherals,” after which this novel’s predecessor was named, which permit a person to transfer one’s consciousness into avatars of varying abilities anywhere in the world. With presence reduced to nothing more than a high-speed data link, it becomes trivial to jump not just between continents, but between timelines, as well. 22nd century humans use this ability to meddle in the affairs of other timelines for the good. A better video game has never been devised.
The particular timeline of interest in this novel is a 2017 in which the American military has developed an autonomous A.I. named Eunice, who comes into the possession of a woman named Verity, immediately upending her life and ultimately putting her into contact with the alternate 22nd century. Eunice is powerful; she exploits the internet to make giant sums of cash, purchase supplies, and hire giant cadres of freelance workers in pursuit of her ultimate goal of coming out to the world (not for nothing, her vast abilities seem directly tied to the ubiquitousness of internet security vulnerabilities). Oh, and she is also immortal; her subroutines are capable of putting her back together after an initial deletion. Though Verity is technically Eunice’s owner—the two communicate through a combination of smartphone, smart glasses, and earpiece—it is the A.I. who calls the shots from the get-go, with the human just happy to be along for the ride.
Is Eunice a person? Does she—from some ontological or religious perspective—have rights, or even a soul? The structure of Gibson’s universe seems specially tailored to deprive these questions of their bite. This is because Gibson does not treat A.I. as an all-important milestone in human history; the key event, counterintuitively, is the development of telepresence technology, which demolishes the boundary between real and virtual. Eunice does not have a body, true—but does it really matter? In a world where humans spend so much of their time in disembodied virtual environments (we already do this) or interacting with the world through dedicated robotic avatars (we might do this quite soon), it becomes difficult to argue that personhood should be decided on the basis of flesh and blood.
In Gibson’s world, all it takes for an A.I. to achieve personhood is to interact like a modern human: if it types like a person and Skypes like a person, who are we to say it is anything else?
Phillip K. Dick once wrote that short stories are about ideas and novels are about characters. In this rubric, Agency reads like an extended short story, one whose characters are never as real as the world in which Gibson has arranged them. This is doubly true for the A.I. at the novel’s center, who is so self-possessed that the entire story ends up reading like a deus ex machina (machina ex machina?), one whose development during the Bush and Obama administrations is never made truly plausible, despite the fact that plausibility is such a hallmark of Gibson’s speculative imaginings. The imminent destruction of the planet as a result of a possible nuclear attack in the real town of Qamishli, on Syria’s border with Turkey, is ostensibly central to the plot but comes and goes without attracting much attention. Perhaps the best metaphor for Agency is a complex and slowly unfolding automaton: set in its ways from the start, but nonetheless gorgeous to watch in its tiny, exquisite movements. Agency’s worlds are both iridescent and suffused with an inescapable despair. The beauty is in the details; the devil is everywhere else.