By William Gibson
Agency isn’t exactly a sequel to William Gibson’s 2014 novel The Peripheral, but instead, to borrow the language of today’s franchise filmmaking, it’s a book taking place in the same universe.
That universe, however, is only one of many that are in play. In the future, or one possible future, a way has been invented to allow information (including consciousness, but not a physical body) to travel through time. Once such information arrives at it destination it can operate by way of a peripheral, or “quasibiological telepresence avatar,” and rewrite history.
In our own time, or something like it, Verity Jane, an “app whisperer,” is given a bit of cutting-edge tech to test drive in the form of a next generation AI personal assistant that goes by the name of Eunice, or UNISS: an Untethered Noetic Irregular Support System. The plot takes a while to become clear – Gibson doesn’t write about or for dummies – but it involves steps being taken by some people in the future to make changes in our timeline so as to head off a nuclear war.
Eunice is one of a long line of AIs in science fiction with more personality, and more agency, than the humans around her. Even Verity has to be turned into a kind of cyborg in order to function in different timelines. And it is precisely this notion of agency, of who is in the driver’s seat shaping the co-evolution of humans and machines, that remains a nagging question in the then and now.