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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Steve Jobs lived a fascinating life, and there has been no shortage of writers wanting to tell his story. The latest attempt, the movie Jobs (2013) starring Ashton Kutcher, is a mixed bag. The movie comes so close to being great, but misses where it matters.
What’s wrong with it? I don’t think it’s the acting. Ashton Kutcher is actually an underrated actor, and he clearly spent a lot of time observing Jobs and mimicking his posture, voice, and mannerisms. He did a really good job conveying the intensity of Jobs’ emotions and outbursts. The other actors were also excellent—Dermot Mulroney was particularly good as Mike Markula. There were some nice cinematic shots and decent music.
The only thing left to criticize is the writing. The screenwriter, Matt Whitely, was given one of the most interesting businessmen and visionaries in modern history and failed to tell a compelling story about him.
The movie starts off in 2001 at an “Apple staff meeting” that looks more like a typical Jobs product launch event. An older Jobs introduces the iPod with his usual stirring words about how it will “change the world”, and the crowd bursts into applause.
Then we immediately jump back in time to the 1970s. Jobs is in university, talking to his friend Daniel about how he dropped out but is still auditing classes. Then, out of nowhere, a man appears and steals Jobs in order to talk at him. Who is he? The movie never explains it. I’ll call him “Professor Exposition” because that’s what he does. He then disappears forever.
The third person we meet in a movie shouldn’t be a throwaway character. The audience needs to get on board quickly to figure out what the movie is about. Instead, Jobs wanders off and meets a girl named Julie, who he immediately sleeps with, and then she’s never seen again! Instead, Jobs takes the acid tablets that Julie gave him and shares them with Daniel and his girlfriend (who, despite later giving birth to his child, is never actually named in the film).
After taking the acid, Jobs complains about being adopted and then goes dancing in the fields while hearing music. This acid trip scene is interspersed with shots of him sitting in university classes watching bad educational films about IBM computers. It feels clumsy and thrown together. Then he and Daniel go to India, which means another montage that goes on a little too long.
These are supposed to be formative experiences that shaped Jobs’ entire life, but there is no coherent message in the montages.
The movie then jumps to Steve working at Atari and upsetting the engineers there, and then leads to him getting his friend Steve Wozniak to build a Breakout game, emphasizing how Jobs screwed his friend out of $2500. Then Woz shows him the computer he’s working on, which will become the Apple I.
The essential points of these scenes are factual, although the movie gets a lot of little details wrong. The worst offender is the Homebrew scene.
Homebrew was essentially the incubator for Silicon Valley’s home computer industry in the mid 1970s. In the movie, Woz has to be forced by Jobs to demonstrate his computer, whereas in reality Woz had already showed it there himself before Jobs knew about it. Worse than that, the movie shows the Homebrew audience as being completely unimpressed with the Apple I, when it was at least on par with other products that were being shown at the time. The nerd in me screamed when the presenter after Woz began introducing a RISC chip, which wouldn’t be invented until the 80’s at Stanford University!
Some scenes are decent. I enjoyed seeing Jobs negotiate with Paul Terrell, the owner of the hobbyist Byte Shop, to buy 50 Apple I boards even when he thought he was getting fully assembled computers. The introduction of Rod Holt, the iconoclastic power supply engineer, was well done. I liked the part where Mike Markula shows up, meets the Apple employees working out of Jobs’ parents’ garage, and gives them the funding to start Apple Computer. But the scene where Steve denies the parentage of his daughter by his nameless girlfriend seems thrown in and doesn’t connect to the rest of the narrative.
Then, with no buildup, we jump first to Steve giving a speech at the Westcoast Computer Faire, and then immediately jump again to Apple as a large company.
At this point, the movie goes full throttle in promoting the legend of Steve as inventor-of-everything. Xerox PARC isn’t mentioned at all; instead the idea of the GUI seems to have sprung directly from Jobs’ head. He callously fires an engineer who doesn’t share his vision about fonts. In fact, the Lisa computer mimicked a lot of what PARC had already done. Jobs’ genius was to get his engineers to refine and polish these ideas.
We get some scenes where Jobs screws his friend Daniel out of founder’s stock right before the Apple initial public stock offering. These scenes further the storyline of how Jobs was an asshole, but doesn’t do anything to explain why he was that way, or how his behavior affected his life. Instead, we suddenly get… DUN DUN DUN… the antagonist, in the form of venture capitalist Arthur Rock.
Rock is portrayed as a caricature, an evil ignoramus hell-bent on destroying everything Apple and Jobs stood for. We don’t get any nuance about how Steve’s views didn’t always line up with reality. Instead, we get ridiculous lines from Rock like: “IBM has moved on to minidex (??) and so should we” and “I think it’s time to reconsider the viability of the personal computer”. At one point he says, after the introduction of the Lisa and the Macintosh, that “IBM beat us to a better product by two years!” This is all utter nonsense and babbling, but the movie just rolls right along to Jobs’ hiring of John Sculley from Pepsi to be the new CEO of Apple. Then we get a confused series of events leading up to Jobs being ousted by the board in favor of Sculley.
This moment is arguably the most important part of Jobs’ life, and the movie makes a muddle out of it. We need to know exactly why Jobs would be cast out of the company he founded. Sure, it happens a lot in real life for no real reason, but this is a story. It’s the job of the writer to make sense of things.
Instead, we just skip ahead to 1997 (Steve’s creation of NeXT gets a single sentence, and Pixar gets nothing at all) and see poor Gil Amelio struggling with Apple’s decline and inviting Jobs back into the company. Mike Markula arranges for Steve to come back in a consulting role and a new chairman of the board sets up a new coup to let Steve take control again. We see Steve “discovering” industrial designer Johnny Ive hiding in an office somewhere, and he tells him to put the speakers on the inside of the iMac, presumably the single most important design decision that will make the computer a smash success. “But Steve, they’ll never let us do that!” Really? He also takes the time to complain about his “piece of junk” Sony Discman, which I guess is supposed to tie in with the movie’s first scene. It’s suggesting, of course, that Steve “invented” the iPod in his head, fully-formed, at that moment. You know, the way he invented the GUI and everything else.
In fact, Steve even gets to invent (and personally record) the “Here’s to the strange ones” commercial that was actually voiced by Richard Dreyfuss. He can do anything, it seems.
Steve then gets rid of Mike Markula and the rest of the board, gives some more inspiring speeches, and we fade to black with the text “In 2012 Apple became the most valuable company in the world”. Neat! Would have been nice to have seen how Steve accomplished that. It would have been even better to have seen how Steve was able to do it only because he had learned from his past experiences and his mistakes.
Ultimately, every movie has to find the core of the story it wants to tell. It seems that this movie wanted to tell the story of how Steve singlehandedly invented Apple Computer, had it stolen away by evil people, and then took it back. That’s a story, sure, but it’s not the most interesting one. It doesn’t tell us anything about Steve the person. It doesn’t tell us how he had to learn when to be an asshole and when not to be. It doesn’t show him struggling in the wilderness during his NeXT years to learn these lessons.
Jobs (2013) is a movie that is done in by poor writing. It didn’t have to be this way. We can only hope that the upcoming Aaron Sorkin movie does a better job telling the story of an interesting man’s life that is more engaging to watch.
I'm a writer and occasional programmer. I write science fiction stories and novels.
I also write technology articles for Ars Technica.
I'm the creator of newLISP on Rockets, a web development framework and blog application.