Agency (novel)

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Gibson, William. Agency. New York: Berkley Books (Penguin Group), 2020. Also available as an audiobook (from

From the ("stub") Wikipedia entry as of April 2020, Agency is a:

 'sequel and a prequel'[3] to his [Gibson's] previous novel The Peripheral (2014), reusing the technology from the novel to explore an alternative 2017 where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Presidential Election. The story line further explores the concept of the "Jackpot", a back-story element of The Peripheral.
One plot is set in the alternative 2017, with a young woman named Verity testing a new form of avatar software developed by the military, for a start-up in San Francisco. A second plot line involves people in a post-apocalyptic 22nd century meddling with 2017.[1]

That "new form of avatar software" is highly relevant here: gendered female, ethnized African-American, derived from a human with military/intelligence talents and skills, and named UNISS ("Eunice"), for "Untethered Noetic Irregular Support System" (p. 68 according to a useful on-line review).[2] The degree to which UNISS/Eunice is "real" — the Pinocchio Question — is developed in detail and in terms of personality, consciousness, feelings, and agency. To what extent is she a "she" and not an "it"? How "untethered" — free — is she, or any human? Cf. and contrast such notable AI entities as HAL 9000 in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as film and novel, or Mr. Data in ST:NG generally, and explicitly in such episodes as Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Data's Day"; note the issue in ethics of such AI as product or person in such works as I. Asimov's The Bicentennial Man or the ST:NG episode Star Trek: The Next Generation, "The Measure of a Man". When UNISS introduces herself to the world at the climax of the novel, she deals with such issues and emphatically claims herself person, not product, and identifies herself as culturally African-American and definitely American (given her accent in English) but a citizen of the world — she is performing simultaneous translation into Earth's major languages (ch. 106).

Around chapters 30-31, and 50 f., note idea of "the next level" of AI as a biological/human consciousness/AI combination, with this possibility juxtaposed with a relatively long scene of a major character in telepresence with/"within" a sophisticated robot acting like a "peripheral" ("peri"), for an older variation of the human/machine interface updated with advanced I.T. and cybernetically-controlled mechanism. Also involved: roller-skates and a discussion of birds' ankles. More generally, note the interfacing of different biological and technological modes and their interpenetration: as with uploading (human) skill-sets to combine with AI for UNISS, for peripherals' described as quasi-biological, telepresence avatar[s]. 
As a minor theme of interest, note technology of child-rearing, with the armored and armed pram of The Peripheral replaced in Agency by emphasis on a high-tech Nanny of a number of balls (six altogether it sounded like in the audiobook) that can form up into what looks like a panda, combining, we infer, the mechanical, electronic, and low-key cybernetic with imagery of an extraordinarily cute mammal[3] with just a hint — for the over-sophisticated in microbiology — of slime mold.[4]
Misc. technology of interest for grownups: Continued use of a "cloaked" flying car, one that can render itself not transparent but camouflaged to invisibility; six identical "girl 'bots" formerly of the variety that in Futurama and such venues would be called "sex 'bots," but here used to form a zone of privacy[5] like an elegant Faraday cage, combined with a suggestion of a small humanoid swarm (cf. and more so contrast the swarm suggestion with the almost magical "assembler" nano-technology).[6]

Of almost philosophical interest: the "Aunties," algorithms acting in coordination — figurative swarms? crowds? — to analyze data and perhaps do much more. Even as biological viruses and prions[7] (and virinos?)[8] raise the issue of what is and is not "living," even so, such coordinated algorithms can raise the question of how abstract an entity or phenomenon can be and still be called "mechanism" with some relationship to physical machines. Note that the idea of "Algorithmic Agency" in Gibson's Aunties is developed in a papers apparently by Kathleen P. Brennan and certainly, as of 5 April 2020, announced on her website.[9] After a period of the cybernetic equivalent of her being kidnapped and rendered unconscious, when UNISS reassembles she compares the activity of her subprograms — "branch plants" (also "lamina") —acting together like swallows: complex flocking (which is not a swarm).[10] 

Reviewed by M. John Harrison, "Agency by William Gibson review – a world in an instant," Wednesday, 22 January 2020.[11]

RDE, Initial Compiler, 22Mar20 f., 6Ap20