William Gibson likes to refer to himself as a “late adopter,” a person who waits a while before making use of new technology. This might seem counterintuitive coming from the critically acclaimed, hugely influential author who first used the term cyberspace in a novel, and has written a series of books exploring the interface between humans and the computerized world.
But, says Gibson, “my personal approach to technology is I prefer to watch a new technology when it’s emerging, not do it when other people are doing it. To use it is to be changed by it; you’re not the same person. I’m not someone who works from assumptions about where technology might be going. My method of writing is exploratory about that.”
That’s certainly the case with Agency, Gibson’s latest, a densely structured, complexly plotted novel that takes place in two separate time frames, which he refers to as “stubs,” and has as one of its central characters an AI named Eunice, who is one part uploaded human consciousness and another part specialized military machine intelligence.
In one stub it’s 2017, a woman is in the White House, and Brexit never happened. But the threat of nuclear war nonetheless hovers over a conflict in the Middle East. In the other stub, it’s 22nd century London after “the jackpot,” a grim timeline of disasters that has reduced the Earth’s population by 80 percent and left Britain to be ruled by “the klept,” which Gibson describes as a “hereditary authoritarian government, [with its] roots in organized crime.”
Given these scenarios, it’s no surprise to discover that the 71-year-old Gibson’s latest work was heavily influenced by the 2016 election and the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency. “The book I had been imagining had been a kind of a romp,” says the U.S.-born Gibson down the phone line from his long-time home in Vancouver, B.C.. “But then the election happened, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh, my whole sense of the present is 24 hours out of date, and that’s enough to make the book I’ve been working on kind of meaningless.’ It took me a long time [to re-think and re-write the book], and I thought the weirdness factor of reality, finding some balance—what can I do with the existing level of weirdness, and that level kept going up. I wanted to write a book that current events wouldn’t have left by the time it got out, and I think Agency works.”
It does, and on more than one level. Thanks to Eunice, for example, Agency affords another opportunity to ponder where exactly AI is going, and what this means in terms of the singularity , the projected future time when machine intelligence far surpasses that of humans. In this respect, Gibson’s thoughts on this much discussed concept are not exactly what you might expect.
“What if we are in the singularity right now?” he says. “What if it has taken about 200 years to get going, and it’s going to take another 200 years? Maybe a real singularity is when we started burning fossil fuels on an industrial level, and it’s the culmination of the technology that is making this planet uninhabitable. I’ve always imagined a sort of half-assed singularity; that seems much more naturalistic in terms of what humans are capable of doing.”
Gibson sees that “half-assed singularity” being embodied in the klept, which he says “is not an alternate future, but it’s our future. I picked a 20 percent survival rate because when [English chemist James] Lovelock wrote his non-fiction prediction about climate change, he said we needed an 80 percent reduction in the human population to have a sustainable human population. The klept just seemed to be one of the potential directions we’re headed in.”
Gibson isn’t always this downbeat. Asked about the fact that the opening line of his 1984 breakthrough Neuromancer—“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”—is now widely regarded as one of the best opening lines in the history of the novel, he chuckles and says, “It makes me wonder how many times I revised it. I probably revised it several thousand times. What comes up about the line on the internet is that, ‘Hey, when there’s nothing on the channel, the screen is blue,’ and I did not know that, because I did not own a TV set, and maybe I knew one person who owned a TV set, so I was thinking of this mid-’60s experience.”
Which is just another example of how long Gibson has been around—he remembers when TV test patterns signaled that programming was over for the day—and yet he has still learned to keep up with contemporary happenings in both technology and popular culture. Agency, for example, contains references to Pikachu, Pixar, Area 51, the gig economy, Pussy Riot, and Janelle Monae (he refers to someone as “looking like Janelle Monae had a twin brother”). But he also throws in scientific terms (I had to use a dictionary at times while reading the book) like laminar agent and haptic tech. Once a person who was late in the game to have his own email address—Gibson says he held off getting one because “It involved a certain learning curve, and I said I’ll do it when dogs and children can do it”—he is now on Twitter, but not on Facebook.
What all this means is not just that one of science fiction’s most famous authors is, in his own way, as involved in technology as the rest of us, but that the world we are all living in has become more and more like one of his novels. “It’s an interesting time for science fiction now,” says Gibson, “because there are people writing contemporary fiction who are effectively writing science fiction, because the world they live in has become science fiction. Writing a contemporary novel today that doesn’t involve concepts that wouldn’t have been seen in science fiction 20 years ago is impossible. Unless it’s an Amish novel.”