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Clinton wins 2016 election... and a world on verge of nuclear war

Sci-Fi: Agency

William Gibson

Viking, hardback, 416 pages, €26.59

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Gritty sci-fi: William Gibson

Gritty sci-fi: William Gibson

Agency by William Gibson

Agency by William Gibson

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Gritty sci-fi: William Gibson

In one of those funny little twists of happenstance that come along every now and again, the new William Gibson novel Agency landed on my desk just as I'd begun reading Philip K Dick's classic A Scanner Darkly.

In several ways, Dick could be described as an earlier version of Gibson. Both are profoundly influential on the genre of science fiction, and more than that, on the broader culture. Both are rightly regarded as spookily prescient in how they identify, well ahead of time, future trends, in technology, society, politics and culture. Both are undisputed giants of sci-fi; the sort of visionaries who'll still be read in a hundred years.

Where they dovetail, for me, is two-fold. First, countless Dick stories have been adapted for film and TV; amazingly (to me, at least), only two Gibson novels were filmed, both pretty awful (although his fingerprints can be seen all over movies such as The Matrix, a Gibson story in all but name, and a TV adaptation of The Peripheral, Agency's precursor, is currently in development). Secondly, Gibson is a much better writer. Dick, like Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Wells and many other sci-fi legends, was prone to awkward phrasing and flat characterisation: the flipside, I suppose, of an incredibly vivid imagination and great prolificacy.

Gibson is a real stylist, his mind-melting concepts and grungy future visions filtered through an elegant, easy-to-read coolness reminiscent of Elmore Leonard. His novels don't just challenge and tantalise, delivering a roundhouse kick to obscure, previously untapped regions of the brain; they're also a pleasure to read, paragraph by paragraph. As someone who's tried, and failed, to write sci-fi, I can testify that this is much harder than it sounds.

Agency takes up where The Peripheral left off - well, sort of. Let me explain: that book explored time travel, although with a typically Gibson-esque twist, it's not quite time-travel; it's closer to time-communication.

In the mid-22nd century, someone has invented technology which can reach back to the past. However, it doesn't affect their present. Rather, this jiggery-pokery splits off the past into a new continuum - they call it a "stub" - which then moves forward at the same pace as the "original" present.

Furthermore, the two realms can talk to each other. Apparently, it's all to do with how everything is essentially information, and information can be packaged, digitalised and sent back-and-forth.

Like all time-travel stories, it's all probably closer to magic than science-fiction; rather surprisingly, indeed, for a "hard" sci-fi writer like Gibson, whose fiction is of a gritty, sounds-and-smells-of-the-streets flavour, rather than those faintly ridiculous "Galactic empires at war among the stars" space operas.

But it's so smoothly-done that you won't mind suspending belief - okay, basically throwing out the window - and getting on-board with the story. And that is: in a new stub in 2017, Hillary Clinton won the election and the world is on the verge of nuclear war. (Not sure if those two are connected…)

In 2136 London, scary policewoman Lowbeer and PR fixer Wilf are working to prevent this catastrophe, by sending back Eunice, a self-aware AI who befriends and assists Verity, a woman with a preternatural understanding of apps, and a surrounding cabal of friends and helpers. One of those is Conner, an edgy army vet from a different stub (that one began in 2015, and was the subject of The Peripheral).

Confused? Probably, but that's part of the deal with any sci-fi involving time: you can't overthink it, you just go with the, ahem, flow.

Agency is smart, funny and entertaining for the most part, although - like The Peripheral - the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and I was (pleasurably) baffled by book's end as to what exactly had happened.

It's not a lot more than entertaining, though. Unlike classic Gibson work such as Neuromancer, Burning Chrome or All Tomorrow's Parties, this book doesn't feel particularly vital, cutting-edge or revolutionary. You could call it Lesser Gibson - which, in fairness, is still better than what most writers will ever produce.

Indo Review