This post is excerpted from an email thread I had with Bill in January, 2020. I put in some photos from the SF Women’s March this month, also a couple of my recent paintings. And I included some quotes from Agency to convey the flavor and attitude of the book. Spoilers alert.
They returned to her car, where it awaited them invisibly, a few dead leaves clinging to its roof, as though magically suspended.
The Agency advance reading copy is here and I’m reading it, trying to take it slow, as it’ll be a while till the next fix of Gibson. I’m often in that Valencia Street, San Francisco, neighborhood that you write about, as our son Rudy Jr lives near there. And now I’m reading about your squat robot-like peripheral in Oakland. A couple of months ago Rudy Jr. bought an old empty warehouse in Oakland, huge, a city block, using part of it for his ISP, Monkeybrains.net, but most of the building is empty, way too much space, it’s almost like a joke , we were all roller skating in it. Kind of spooky and fun to be seeing our local scene through your virtual eyes. And your emails are feeling like Eunice messages coming in. Synchronicity all over the place. Total immersion.
I adore the “soft grunge girls in pastel plaid flannel” And the plot is picking up speed.
You’ll see that the pace changes in the Verity thread after a certain point, like time starts moving more slowly. I’m worried I’ll lose any really straight thriller readers then, but it was like something was really trying to tell me something.
It’s fine with me if the thriller pace slows down. I like your meditative stuff. so nice to have you doing real SF again! “Slash is electric once more.”
I like how Netherton is expecting to be in a superhero Iron-Man-type peripheral, and then it’s squat and small, like part of an oil filled radiator. He’s a good anti hero, and you have fun tormenting him. He still works as a character being sober, still has the same outside attitude. When I had my character Sta-Hi be sober in Realware, some of my older fans were mad about it, grumbled that “Rucker has gone religious, he’s no fun anymore, etc.” But if they’d notice, Sta-Hi stays exactly as crazy as before, as does Netherton.
Extreme close-up of gray tweed. The high-resolution texture of an alternate universe.
For me, what took over for Netherton in this book was his co-parenting! My first POV character with a baby to take care of! When I discovered how different that felt to write, I guess I decided to roll with it, getting some perverse satisfaction out of imagining poor fuckers who bought the book in an airport, just before jumping on an 8-hour flight, expecting to get the generic thriller hand-job, and bang, they’re parenting!
“Don’t forget the milk.” [said Netherton’s wife.] As her sigil dimmed, a sliding shadow eclipsed the road. Looking up, he saw the segmented ventral surfaces of a particularly large moby [blimp], quite low, a flock of gulls wheeling behind it. He stopped, to stand beneath it as it passed, wishing [son] Thomas were here, who might make a sound perhaps, reaching out to touch it, not understanding how high it was. The city so quiet, in that moment, that he could hear the gulls. Then a car passed, an antique Rolls, unoccupied, its driver a dash-top homunculus, in what he took to be a tiny chauffeur’s uniform.
[At home, Netherton was] drawing one of the [milk] bottles from the carrying bag. Sensing this, the bag crinkled, trying to origami itself into the butterfly it needed to become in order to fly back to the newsagent. … Netherton, fumbling to return the bottle to the bag, almost dropped both bottles, the bag escaping, fluttering clumsily away.
I finished Agency in a final two-day swoop. Very engaging, and studded with your usual gems. And a heavy take on current events. Nice to end with a cool, happy party.
As you were telling me in advance, the thing you did with Verity is non-standard. She has almost no agency, and little real effect on the story arc. It’s almost like she never gets a decisive turnaround moment. And you seem to say this a deliberate move, meant to emulate our individual helplessness before the firehose of global history as generated by criminals and assholes.
I’m getting tired,” [Verity] said, “of nobody telling me where I’m going.”
Another surprising move is that, in the end, the nuke-war avoidance is achieved basically by Hillary alone, with only a light, unseen nudge from Eunice. Maybe this is a bit of a twist of the knife on your part, as it’s pretty clear that our man T would be certain to eff up a delicate nuclear stand-off negotiation, and in the worst possible way.
Even so, I’d been counting on Eunice to stop the war. But then, re. Eunice, you do a subtler meta-move. Eunice is going to open up the internet and global AI to everyone. Universal agency! Product support by a benevolent god. A ray of hope that the “good internet” represented by Eunice can save stubs from kleptdom. Love it.
“My mother,” Netherton said, “held that everything would invariably collapse, if the klept [the perennial ultra-one-percenter cabal of biz / crime / government] were left to their own resources. Do you believe that?”
“But for the occasional pruning,” [Lowbeer] said, “[with the pruning] under the auspices of an impartial eye, yes [the klept would destroy the world]. Their tedious ambition and contempt for rule of law would bring everything down, around their ears and ours. They managed to do that with the previous world order, after all, though then it was effectively their goal. They welcomed the jackpot [social/environmental collapse], the chaos it brought. The results of our species’ insults to nature did much of their work for them. No brakes magically appeared then, and I don’t see them appearing now, absent someone free to act, with sufficient agency, against their worst impulses. The biosphere only survives, today, by virtue of what prosthetic assistance we can afford it. The assemblers might keep that going, were the klept to founder. But I don’t trust that some last convulsive urge to short-term profit, some terminal shortsightedness, mightn’t bring an end to everything.”
I’m intrigued by your Guardian interview remark to the effect that you’re setting the stage for something like a multiversal 3rd vol. Multiverse stories are hard, I think, due to the “if everything happens, then nothing matters” problem. I notice you’re trying damp down this prob by saying only the “big stub” can spawn stubs, and when you return to a spawned stub you don’t spawn a substub, so may there are only, like, a few hundred or thousand stubs, including those to be initiated from big stub futurians down the line. A whisk-broom of timelines. Tricky to get overarching plot in that. Will be interesting to see.
I think what’s going on with Agency is that it fucks with the reader’s expectations. Part of that is me, and deliberate, and part of it is packaging, the publisher having gone with “thriller” as a substitute genre label for SF.
Verity isn’t a protagonist in the sense of the genre universe of the thriller, but a witness. She doesn’t become the possessor of personal agency to a degree that so few of us ever do, to do so being the key fantasy we go to thrillers (and often SF) for, but someone who has about as much real agency as we ourselves generally do.
There is a bit of a turnaround when Verity she sees the girl from Followrs being dragged into the truck, she endangers herself to try to rescue her, which you or I might do, the baddy getting instantly taken out by Conner’s drone. I hope I’d do that, anyway, but I’d have no Conner to back me up, so the guy might well kill or cripple me. But that withholds the genre candy from a reader expecting it. All of the ins and out, the meets and greets, are a depiction of quotidian life, albeit in various levels of crisis, as is the plethora of characters, life presenting us with much the same.
In the park below, hunched on a bench, one of two skater boys released a startlingly opaque puff of white vape, like a winter locomotive in an old movie.
Meanwhile, though, the text is going other places, and I’m definitely getting some readers picking up on those. The grown-up stuff is violently antithetical to a genre thriller, and, in my opinion, amounts, paradoxically, to a punk move. If you’ve never read Blood Meridian, say, and you start it thinking it’s a western, it seems to me you could experience it as the worst western ever written. Not that I think any comparison whatever is deserved, but just for example.
I think of Verity, who I believe in very differently than I believe in Flynne, as some kind of breakthrough for me, though not necessarily one a lot readers will welcome. Flynne is much more a fantasy figure, out of genre. Verity’s more like someone your son might know, say. Less like a character in a book.
“Rush Hour” acrylic on canvas, November, 2019, 40” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.
Re. Verity, that’s pretty much what I thought. She’s a witness. I have a local California friend who was at the Altamont concert, and I’m always asking him to tell me his account again, even though he basically did nothing. He was there! Verity met Eunice! Muse of the good Internet.
And it is indeed a cool move to have the good grown-ups refraining from killing people. Overall the book fascinated me—the cool tech, the wonderful dialog, the keen observations, the flattened out who-gives-a-fuck punkness of the adults.
A woman in surgical gloves … arrived for Conner’s rifle. Picking it and its magazine and the lone cartridge up, with what Netherton thought of as a full-nappy [full diaper] expression, she exited.
I saw in the paper this morning they found some seven billion year old stardust in meteor frags retrieved from manure pile in Australia. I was thinking these are analogous to the “good bits” in what I write…
And then I saw your NY Times Sunday Book Review interview. Cracked up over your remark about the young and the old versions of imposter syndrome. Young: I never had it. Old: I’ve lost it.
I probably spent longer inside Agency than with any other book. Like I feel like Joe-Eddy’s apartment is a major character, to the point that I’m worried about what’ll happen to it. The British SF historian John Clute once told me that I tended to put characters inside “Cornell boxes” that were more carefully drawn than my characters, and proceeded to rattle off half a dozen or so, so after that I consciously tried not to do that, but with this book that really came back, and I just let it.
[Looking at Ash’s table,] Verity glanced over decorated gourds, bundles of feathers, basketry, ethnic musical instruments both stringed and wind, ceramics, rolled tapestries, candlesticks, a tall samovar, and, most distinctively, what appeared to her to be a completely rusted submachine gun, covered with the dingy yellow plastic letters of fridge-magnet alphabets, spelling nothing Verity recognized.
I think there are other ways I just let it all hang out with this one, like that whole “landscape” sequence on the way to Coalinga, where I’ve never been, but a friend who I was sending pages to happened to drive past that field and tree and water tank, photographed it, emailed it to me from her phone, and I just expanded out into it, this uncharacteristic sense (for me) of nature and space. And because the whole world seems to be doing some weird new thing now, I relaxed and gave myself permission. So I fucking love that whole part, but I’m sure a lot of readers will be going what the fucking fuck is this shit? And I actually can’t decide whether that was irresponsible of me, or extremely responsible.
“Where are we?” Peering through the tint at an expanse of sere autumn pastureland, the odd grazing cow, scattered stunted oaks standing leafless and bleakly hieroglyphic. Another planet. Earth.
When I was an English major, I read this essay by the novelist E.M. Forster (still the only thing of his I’ve read) called “Aspects Of The Novel,” and in it he says that if your characters aren’t entirely in control of the narrative, you simply aren’t doing the work. This idea is still utter heresy in most SF-writing circles, I imagine, but it sort of blew my mind, then when I started trying to write fiction, I discovered that that was literally the only way I could get it to happen at all. And if I’d pull out of the character and let my non-writing mind make practical narrative decisions, the really intense dreaming thing was suddenly gone. So I’ve always tried to cover up the fact that I do it that way, and just keep my fingers crossed.
I hear you. For sure I miss my milieus and characters when I’m done.
I now have a contact hypnagogic flash of your field and tank scene , having driven in that area, and it overlaps with a thing I saw around there, a man in a field, dark clothes, white gloves, waving his hands high to herd a cow up the hill, me seeing this going by at fifty miles per hour and never forgetting it for the rest of my life, the springiness in the guy’s step, the yokel bounce, me intuiting his pleasure at being under the open sky. The moment frozen like an Andrew Wyeth image.
Funny thought about all those dumpster-crate-hideouts of Verity’s being Cornell boxes. And of course there’s an Airstream trailer in both Agency and The Peripheral. Do you own one yet? I’ve wanted one ever since reading about them in the Last Whole Earth Catalog a hundred years ago.
And, yeah, I totally go for having my characters wake up and become autonomous and I “just” watch them and write down what they say and do. Even laughing in delight at some of the shit they come up with. Although it’s risky confessing this to interviewers who somehow interpret it in a way that makes the author sound crazy or stupid. “Hail, ennyone could do thayut.”
I have a whole computation-theoretic argument about why it’s in fact impossible to predict how a seriously-written novel will end up—because you’re in fact computing at your max possible flop when you write, and therefore, by the unsolvability of Turing’s Halting Problem, it’s literally impossible for you to perform in advance a quick little side-computation to determine where you’ll terminate.
[His remark] felt like a category error, as if the moon were to inquire after the cantaloupe you’d bought the day before, both being spherical.
Dancing with the Muse. Only way to go.
“Dinosaur Balloon” acrylic on canvas, January, 2020, 30” x 24”. Click for a larger version of the painting.
And, on the on the occasion of launching a book, here’s a passage I always take comfort from, which maybe you know, from a John Updike piece, “Henry Bech Redux” in a 1971 NY Times Sunday Review.
“It isn’t merely that the reviewers are so much cleverer than I, and could write such superior fictions if they deigned to; it’s that even the on-cheering ones have read a different book than the one you wrote. All the little congruences and arabesques you prepared with such delicate anticipatory pleasure are gobbled up as if by pigs at a pastry cart.”