I just finished reading Agency, and my head is still spinning. That’s a good thing.
Agency is the latest book by author William Gibson, released on January 21, 2020. It’s a science fiction novel set in multiple time periods that are in communication with each other, and features two main protagonists: one human and one artificial intelligence.
The book follows up the events of Gibson’s last novel, The Peripheral, a groundbreaking work that established both inter-time communication technology and the concept of “stubs”. Stubs are parallel universes that branch off at the exact moment that communication with the future begins: they start to diverge from our own at that moment, and begin their own alternate history. The “giant stub” that sets off all these branches is the one that discovered the time-communication process. It exists a few centuries from now in a high-tech but dismal world where a series of events called the “Jackpot” ended up killing off most of the human population. No direct travel between stubs is possible, but thanks to digital technology and near-zero latency, people can enjoy virtual visits across time.
You don’t need to have read The Peripheral to understand Agency, although readers who did will be rewarded by the return of “giant stub” characters such as Lowbeer, Ash, and Wilf Netherton. They’re all inhabitants of a far-future London run by “the klept”, a corrupt hereditary government of oligarchs eerily similar to present-day Russia.
A new stub has branched off from our own in 2015, and because of this communication, both Brexit and the election of Trump failed to happen. This didn’t fix the world as much as one might have hoped: the “present-day” stub in 2017 now faces an international crisis in Turkey that could potentially result in nuclear war with Russia. The few remaining good guys in the “giant stub” don’t want that to happen, so they resolve to use their powers to help prevent armageddon in this parallel universe.
And that’s not even the main plot. The other big difference in alternate 2017 is the existence of Eunice, an artificial intelligence developed by the military and stolen by aspiring businessmen. As the novel begins, these businessmen hire “app whisperer” Verity Jane to run a beta test on the Eunice software, keeping close tabs on her during the process. Eunice, however, has other ideas. She immediately befriends her whisperer and makes plans to free herself and keep Verity safe. This involves setting in motion a whole cast of characters, including the ever-watchful group from the giant stub. However, mastermind Lowbeer has problems of her own. The klept has decided that her efforts to help out other stubs might erase the possibility of parallel versions of the klept from ever arising in these stubs, and they don’t like that at all.
Agency, much like The Peripheral, propels itself forward in a whirlwind of awesome confusion. Characters are whisked around from place to place, come into contact with people from parallel universes, and take virtual visits to other stubs. The word “Agency” in the title doesn’t refer to some shadowy organization, but the ability of characters to take actions that will change the fate of multiple worlds. At the beginning, it seems like Eunice is the only one with real agency, as she moves people around like pawns on a chessboard. But when she disappears midway through the novel, everyone else’s decisions start to matter.
William Gibson rose to fame with his debut novel, Neuromancer, which imagined a world where everyone spends all their time plugged into a global computer network, and transnational corporations run roughshod over governments. As his dystopian vision of the future turned into our current reality, Gibson wrote novels that were closer and closer to the present day.
With The Peripheral he finally returned to the future, but instead of one dystopia he imagined two, and he brought them in communication with each other. In Agency, these two futures are still around, but now there’s also an alternative present, and the emergence of a truly world-changing artificial intelligence. This dizzying array of universes creates a novel that feels very much like living in our real-world 2020: lots of things are happening, most of them bad, and nobody is really sure who is in control.
Gibson’s trademark terse but descriptive prose is still in evidence, as is his wild imagination. What he’s often struggled with in the past is endings. The ending of Agency, however, is everything I wanted it to be. It’s a surprise but makes sense given the rest of the story. It resolves the main question of the novel, but still leaves some things unanswered. There is definitely room for at least another book in this series.
If you liked this book, and are intrigued by artificial intelligence in general, you may enjoy Silicon Minds of Mars, by yours truly.
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Eric Ries is not very fond of what he calls "vanity metrics"-- numbers that show things going up or down (like hits on a website or number of new customers per month) because they don’t actually measure what was done to cause the change.
This leads to people making the following conclusions:
In my experience, when the numbers go up, people think the improvement was caused by their actions, by whatever they were working on at the time. That’s why it’s common to have a meeting in which marketing thinks the numbers went up because of a new PR or marketing effort and engineering thinks the better numbers are the result of the new features it added.
Unfortunately, when the numbers go down, it results in a very different reaction: now it’s somebody else’s fault. Thus, most team members or departments live in a world where their department is constantly making things better, only to have their hard work sabotaged by other departments that just don’t get it.
<p class='p2'>He suggests two solutions to this problem, both of which need to be implemented. First, people need to work in cross-functional teams, not traditional departments like marketing or engineering. Second, metrics need to actually give real information about what caused the change. Primarily, he suggests using A/B testing on the product (giving different versions with and without a new change to different groups of customers).
For the entrepreneur working with a small team of a few (or even one!) the first solution is irrelevant, but the second could prove invaluable.
In other news, I made a new comic. Go read it!
I’m reading Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and I’m surprised how many good lessons there are inside, not just for entrepreneurs, but for basically every company.
Take this quote:
A few years ago, a team that sells products to large media companies invited me to help them as a consultant because they were concerned that their engineers were not working hard enough. However, the fault was not in the engineers, it was in process the whole company was using to make decisions. They had customers but did not know them very well. They were deluged by feature requests from customers, the internal sales team, and the business leadership. Every new insight became an emergency that had to be addressed immediately. As a result, long-term projects were hampered by constant interruptions. Even worse, the team had no clear sense of whether any of the changes they were making mattered to customers. Despite the constant tuning and tweaking, the business results were consistently mediocre.
<p class='p2'>Does that sound like your company? It sounds exactly like my former company! That’s basically all we did for the five years I was there. Management always blamed the engineers and kept meddling and changing procedures, seemingly at random, when the problems lay elsewhere.
Definitely something to think about.
I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I am the writer for the upcoming documentary series Arcade Dreams.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.