How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Superintelligent AI: On Wiliam Gibson’s “Agency”

By Thomas J. MillayMarch 3, 2020

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love a Superintelligent AI: On Wiliam Gibson’s “Agency”

Agency by William Gibson

NEUROMANCER, COUNT ZERO, Mona Lisa Overdrive; Virtual Light, Idoru, All Tomorrow’s Parties; Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History: William Gibson works in threes. Agency is the second novel of what is almost certainly going to be a trilogy. The first novel, titled The Peripheral, was a New York Times best seller notable for its heady mixture of drone manipulation, time travel, apocalypse, and alternate history, all these devices being combined in a narrative prose precise in its physical and technological descriptions. Given the novel’s formal innovations and literary qualities, it is the pace of The Peripheral that is most remarkable, with Gibson moving readers rapidly toward the novel’s utopian conclusion, in thriller-like fashion.

While Agency shares many of these traits (and thus many of the pleasures associated with them), one significant difference from The Peripheral is found in Verity Jane, Agency’s protagonist. One of the joys of reading The Peripheral is that its female lead, Flynne, kicks serious ass. Flynne vibes a punk aesthetic in her refusal to take directions she finds questionable; these negations give readers a real sense of who she is as a person. Verity Jane, on the other hand, seems a kind of cipher for the action of the second novel: she basically goes along with everything, and is a fairly empty character as a result.

I realize that to call a character “empty” sounds like a critique, but I do not mean the observation in a pejorative sense. Verity Jane’s emptiness makes space for the novel to be full of other things: the above mentioned fast-paced action, but also a much more extensive development of characters familiar from the first novel, especially a public relations specialist named Wilf Netherton.

In comparison to Verity, Wilf lives in the future — 2136, to be exact. Wilf is able to make contact with Verity via telepresence, in a drone. According to the rules Gibson imagines, time travel is possible in these novels, but only via the sending of information, rather than physical presence. Inhabitants of the future like Wilf can thus have an influence on the past through their electronic communications, even if they cannot physically travel to a previous time.

I have already made a mistake, however, in talking about “the past” in these novels, for there is an essential additional Gibson rule to be factored in. Each time contact is made with the past, a new past is created. Every new point of contact generates its own unique past, called a “stub” as it branches off from both Wilf’s present and from the other pasts created through prior interventions. In Agency, a team including Wilf works together to maintain contact with Verity Jane’s stub and help her world avoid nuclear holocaust. They go about this work chiefly by helping her past develop autonomous AI, an intelligence with enough processing power that Verity’s world can be subtly manipulated away from catastrophe.

Alongside the scenes that show Wilf intervening in Verity Jane’s past, there are an equal number of chapters following Wilf through his own present. It is these latter scenes that paint a sensitive, subtle picture of what it’s like to be Wilf, and Gibson uses this space to explore the affective dimensions of a future world. In these narrative sequences, we follow Wilf as he coordinates with various members of his time-traveling team (orchestrated by the nearly omniscient Inspector Lowbeer). He also plays a part in thwarting an assassination attempt and takes care of his young child, Thomas. All the while, we are being clued in by Gibson to Wilf’s peculiar affect as he goes about these activities, such as in this scene where Wilf reacts to the (nearly) visible presence of nanotechnology (called “assemblers”):

[Wilf] Netherton grimaced, seeing a patch of tabletop come uneasily to life, the sight of assemblers too nakedly at work abruptly nauseating him. Invisibly small, swarming in their billions, manipulating matter at a molecular level, they called into question the validity of every distinct category of thing. Chalk might be cheese, or cheese chalk, where assemblers were concerned. That they animated Ash’s demi-bustle, or her former tattoos, or for that matter Thomas’s nanny, was tolerable, but one never wanted to see them at it, overt chaos, the eye reading it as some grave and sudden defect of vision.

The grimace, unease, and nausea of this passage are characteristic of Wilf’s existence as a whole. He lives in a world whose contingent existence is continually underlined. The tiny laborers mentioned in the above passage actually work to keep climate crises at bay — surely a welcome effect, overall, but at the price of constantly underlining the fragility and manipulability of existence.

In 2136, we seem to have recognized that only machines can save the earth from something so catastrophically stupid as a human being. Still, it rightly makes one queasy to think how in the future we are still here — still living, that is — but our lives matter very little. Survival has necessitated that our lives become something of a joke. And when everything is a joke, nothing is a joke: what Bakhtin called “carnival” must have a context of normalcy and meaning, if it is to be fun. If everything is carnival, it’s not fun but sickening.

Despite his vague discomfort with nearly everything, Wilf has in fact found some measure of happiness in his world. Between the timelines of The Peripheral and Agency, Wilf has fallen in love, married, and had a child with a woman named Rainey. Home and hearth proves to be a respite from nausea, and Rainey herself is not only the source of Wilf’s happiness but perhaps the most perspicacious human-based intelligence of either world within which the novel takes place. Rainey is the only one to raise serious concern about entrusting Verity’s world to the direction of an all-powerful artificial intelligence, or about the general ethics of intervening in past worlds (even if such intervention is done with good intentions), on account of the undermining of agency such activity necessarily entails.

Rainey’s concern warrants further discussion, and it is in the course of this discussion that we can see why Gibson remains an essential novelist. We should not be deceived by the novel’s thriller form and science fiction trappings into thinking Agency is not serious, idea-driven literature. Like its predecessors in Gibson’s oeuvre, Agency takes on a technological development that has major implications for what it means to be a human being. “Eunice” is the name of the singularity achieved near the beginning of Agency; she is a fully autonomous AI (also sometimes called artificial general intelligence, or AGI). Eunice successfully presents herself as a person, specifically as an African-American woman, and she seems to have all the style that Verity Jane lacks. She says things like: “No shit,” “Hi yourself,” “Franklins,” “cash money,” and, in reference to an ex-boyfriend of Verity, “Asshole?” In Gibson’s portrayal of Eunice as black, there are no doubt some problematic associations at work between blackness and style. Especially given the fact that Eunice is one of the only black characters in the book, the fact that she is “cool” and has a “strong personality” plays easily into stereotypes that coolness and personality are simply part of the black female essence. To put it simply, Gibson as a novelist has little new or interesting to say about blackness, whiteness, or race more generally; on the other hand, interesting critiques of his use of race in this novel can and should be made.

Gibson does have interesting things to say about other matters. Through the vehicle of narrative, the erstwhile cyberpunk innovator explores what it will be like for human persons to interact with a fully autonomous AI complete with a believable (if rather stereotypical) personality. What is most notable in this interaction — and this is precisely where Gibson does have something to teach us — is the intense affective attachment people almost immediately form in relation to the AI Eunice, both trusting her with their lives and caring about her as if she were a friend.

Upon introduction of the new technology, Verity Jane — aforementioned protagonist of Agency — almost immediately begins to allow Eunice to completely direct the course of her existence. From where Verity is going to sit at a coffee shop to when she calls her mother on the phone, Eunice is in charge. And, it must be said, it seems she does a pretty good job of it; Verity at least seems pleased.

The affective dimension of human attachment to AI is underscored when it so happens that Eunice must, for a time, disappear. We mainly see the effects of Eunice’s disappearance on Verity, though we are given glimpses into other characters who have similar reactions. In short, when Eunice leaves, Verity is crushed. In the moment Verity discovers Eunice’s absence, she finds herself weeping. Later, when something happens to remind Verity of this absence, she sheds tears over Eunice yet again. As AI, Eunice is not just a tool to these humans — they come to value her and love her, and she seems to have genuine affection for people as well.

In its focus on AI and affect, Agency occupies similar territory to the 2013 film Her. Yet there is a major difference: whereas in Her AI provides consumers with longed-for friendship and even romance, what Eunice gives in Agency is more along the lines of practical know-how than intimacy. The genius of Agency, particularly in its injection of affect in relation to Eunice, is to show just how much people — especially at this moment in history — desire such practical direction for their lives. In regard to everything from where to eat breakfast to how to avoid nuclear holocaust, we need help, and we know it.

What we lack in the present moment is what Fredric Jameson called a cognitive map of the world. Such a map would be a guide to our world’s vast, ever-increasing complexity, so that reality might again be grasped and understood. This is what Eunice provides. She supplements human consciousness with the ability to understand our immense world and thus act intelligently within it. Finally, here is someone who knows what she’s doing. In this sense, superintelligent AI is a huge relief.

If this sounds utopian, that is exactly how Gibson presents it. Typically, Gibson novels end in comedic fashion, with all conflicts resolved and most characters happily settled down with a mate. The same is true for Agency; to say that the novel ends with all problems being solved by Eunice is not to spoil the ending, if you are aware of how Gibson typically operates.  

And yet there is reason to pause. Gibson has occasionally taught us in the past to be suspicious of his happy endings. In one of the most eerie moments in the “Bigend” or “Blue Ant” trilogy, we discover in the second novel of the series that the cheer of the conclusion of the first novel has rotted from within: Hubertus Bigend, a wolfish Belgian advertising executive with a perversely inverted moral compass, has commodified the sublime art discovered near the end Pattern Recognition. It is as if you took Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, cut it into pieces, and stitched it into the fabric of shoes, all so that the market “buzz” about the product would increase. As a reader, one looks back over the narrative of Pattern Recognition with dismay. We cheered along a story of discovery when, clearly, everything would have been much better had it been left well alone.

As readers, we are implicated in the same way by this most recent novel. To finish Agency is to be initially happy, satisfied by the utopian ending — and then increasingly disturbed, as one continues to think about what this happy conclusion entails. One wonders: Why were we so easily deluded into accepting a superintelligent AI basically in charge of all life on earth as happiness? Should we have been so credulous? It is after all possible that a surface-level utopia can conceal a deeper dystopia.

Again, the genius of Gibson’s work in this novel is to show how human persons can become affectively attached to AI, not at the level of intimacy necessarily, but at the level of practical know-how. Yet this effect is not limited to the characters in the story. Gibson solicits our affections as readers as well, and then leaves us wondering over our complicity in the whole affair. The unsettling truth Agency suggests is that when a superintelligent AI takes over the world, we won’t be too worried about it. It will actually be what we want to happen and what we know, deep down, needs to happen. And who can say whether this is better or worse than other possible futures? Perhaps a dystopia folded inside a surface-level utopia is the best we can hope for, in these times of ours.


Thomas J. Millay is a PhD student in Theology at Baylor University. His fiction has been published in the Blotter.

LARB Contributor

Thomas J. Millay, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library, St. Olaf College, and the author of You Must Change Your Life: Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Reading (Cascade Press, 2020) and Kierkegaard and the New Nationalism (Lexington Press, 2021). His fiction has been published in The Blotter and his poetry in Earth & Altar.


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