The Worst of All Possible Worlds?

The most interesting science fiction is not about the future at all but about the present.

Sci-fi veteran William Gibson’s latest novel, Agency, presents two timelines, one in a postapocalyptic 2136 and the other in our own present. Or almost. In the latter timeline, Clinton beat Trump and Brexit was quashed, a veritable utopia by 2020’s standards. If you judge a world on how highly it values democracy, justice, or the health of the planet, ours does not come off well. What if, Agency suggests, ours is actually the worst of all possible worlds?

Well, maybe not the absolute worst, but certainly there are nefarious forces at work and people keen on making this world as difficult as possible for as many people as possible. And as the America of our actual timeline prepares for another very plausibly disastrous presidential election, this trend seems as though it will continue indefinitely. In this context, Agency and Charles Yu’s latest novel, Interior Chinatown, ask vital questions about world-making and the agencies behind it. Whose world is this? To what ends do the powerful wield their power? And how many people are they willing to throw under the bus in order to keep their kleptocratic mitts on it?

While Agency illuminates the kleptocratic tendencies already at work in 2020, Interior Chinatown brings to the fore the intersections of those tendencies with race, immigration, and class. As our reality becomes ever more Gibsonian in its capacity for science fiction–y dystopias, Yu’s novel contends not only with the status of science fiction (SF) but also with the viability of genre storytelling writ large, a category that would include police procedurals, martial arts films, period dramas, and cartoons. Can such genres encapsulate the loss, or historical preclusion, of individual and collective agency, particularly when it comes to Asian Americans and immigrants? Building on his foray into TV writing (Yu has written and produced for HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Legion, among others), Yu has crafted his beautifully written Interior Chinatown in teleplay format. (It’s even typeset in that annoying Courier font.) In it, aspiring protagonist Willis Wu plays Generic Asian Man Number Three on the cop drama Black and White, hoping to one day land the ultimate role to which an Asian man can aspire in this universe: Kung Fu Guy.

In his short stories and in his brilliant first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, Yu has always engaged with immigrant and Asian American experience and, in particular, with how these populations are excluded from the stories we tell about the future. Asian Americans, Yu writes, are “brochure Americans,” not the kind you picture when you close your eyes and think “American.”1 Interior Chinatown confronts this same racism in the binary world of Black and White’s plots and story arcs. The show can only tolerate an Asian American guest star for so long before the writers kill off the character: “There’s just something about Asians—their faces, their skin color—it just automatically takes you out of this reality.”

The seamless connection that Yu draws between reality and the narrative universe of Black and White is key to his critique of the forces that shape our world, as is the implication that against “this reality” there are other, better realities possible. In reading Interior Chinatown alongside Agency, we are invited to consider what, and whose, realities those might be.

Gibson is credited with coining the term cyberspace and is often thought to have predicted the age of the internet. But he has always maintained that SF is really the late 20th and 21st centuries’ version of naturalism.2 The most interesting SF, it is now common to acknowledge, is not about the future at all but about the present. Since the publication of his earliest short stories, in the 1970s, and since his groundbreaking debut novel, Neuromancer (1984), Gibson has created worlds that sit on the bleeding edge of the present emerging before our eyes, giving us vocabularies with which to grasp and narrate it, and with which to make it intelligible as history and as grounds for cultural representation.

But since the turn of the millennium, Gibson has been grappling with the acceleration of our science-fictional present. The real world began to out-weird his fiction.3 So he shifted gears and began writing about the very recent past, for example by overhauling the manuscript that would become 2003’s Pattern Recognition to account for 9/11. Gibson similarly reworked Agency in the aftermath of 2016 to account for Trump.

In so doing, he made the world of Agency into one timeline, or “stub,” of the multiverse established in his prior novel The Peripheral (2014). In this earlier novel, Gibson set up the rules of a unique kind of time travel, via information channeled through a quantum server. In The Peripheral, we learn of an accretion of future disasters called “the Jackpot”: “Nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone … collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.”4

During this prolonged violence, 80 percent of the world’s population has died off by 2136, and a kleptocracy of gangster capitalists and oligarchs, “the klept,” has seized power. In this future, the ineffable Inspector Ainsley Lowbeer (a kind of Tilda Swinton character, according to a Gibson tweet) monitors these elites vying for power and wealth in a post-Jackpot London, eliminating any who threaten their status quo (like communism, but for the 1 percent).

Agency focuses on one of Lowbeer’s side projects: attempting to save stubs from their own unfurling Jackpots, including the Trumpless stub, which, despite its Trumplessness, is still on track for apocalyptic disaster.

Agency begins as many of Gibson’s novels do, with a young woman whose niche skill set makes her valuable to rich people. Verity Jane, famed “app whisperer,” is hired to test a new artificial intelligence for a shady start-up called Tulpagenics (owned by the even shadier firm Cursion). The AI, called Eunice, is in fact something more complicated: machine intelligence hybridized with an uploaded human consciousness, specifically the consciousness of a Navy SEAL who was “adroit at managing … competitive control areas … where criminal organizations or extremists exerted greater control over the territory than any government.” Eunice becomes, in effect, an AI spymaster and fixer, an artificial Lowbeer.

And this is what the real Lowbeer was hoping for. Without Verity’s knowledge, at first, Lowbeer has been trying to “nudge [Eunice] toward greater agency,” hoping that a big enough nudge will tilt the geopolitics of Verity’s universe away from a nuclear apocalypse brewing in the Syrian city of Qamishli, near the Turkish border.

No doubt averting nuclear war is a net positive. Yet, as one of the post-Jackpotters says about the people in the stubs, “They’re living in a conspiracy theory, but a real one. Controlled by secret masters. [Lowbeer] primarily.” Political interference from the future “makes a joke of their lives.”

But in Agency, everything makes a joke of their lives. The human element is displaced almost entirely by the presence of Eunice, who, with a godlike handle on the novel’s plot, manipulates Verity and everyone else according to some inscrutable optimization process. Like many of Gibson’s novels, Agency is a thriller at its core. Everything is breakneck fast, and characters are whisked into corporate-espionage or heist plots with little question. In Agency, this can make Verity seem less a character than an excuse for mapping Gibson’s weird and disorienting world. Eunice, in other words, makes Verity and her associates into human automatons, or “peripherals”—auxiliary devices to further Lowbeer’s ends.

This thriller quality is partly what made earlier Gibson novels like Pattern Recognition so impactful. They captured a sense of relearning how to walk while the present’s terrain shifted under our feet. Things were dangerous and uncertain, but human community was still being formed (whether in online forums or in subcultures of mechanical-calculator fanciers). But now, in Agency, things are just dangerous.

Unless, that is, you’re backed by an AI like Eunice, who can manipulate the stock market and incentivize humans to do whatever she needs. Indeed, even as Verity is chased down by corporate assassins hired by Cursion to retrieve Eunice, she seems barely attached to the material and social concerns of the human world. With Eunice puppeteering everything, we see a world in which nothing its human actors choose to do matters. In Agency, no one has agency—corporations and AI being the exceptions.

Gibson and Yu create universes that are not our own, and in so doing put forth the idea that we can tell better stories and enact better scripts.

Most trenchantly, Agency dismantles the notion that individual choices and singular human actions can have world-redeeming effects. Imminent nuclear war in the novel is not averted by Eunice, nor by Lowbeer. No, President Hillary Rodham Clinton “got us out of it.” And so Verity and her friends “clinked mugs, toasting the president.” Yet how quickly they all have forgotten that the Jackpot still looms in their future. Likening the collective forces of capitalism, nuclear conflict, and environmental collapse to a machine over which individuals have little control, Lowbeer says of the people in Verity’s stub: “They’re being driven into the same blades we were, but at a less acute angle.”

Whatever one’s thoughts about a Clinton presidency, the notion that she could have saved our universe, if only 2016 had gone differently, is as baseless as the notion that Joe Biden could (or even would) do so now. In our universe, as in Verity’s, people think that capitalism can be influenced by individual agents making ethical choices. Thus, there appear to be good capitalists (the kind who might help you thwart corporate assassins) and bad capitalists (the kind who hire corporate assassins).

In such universes as ours, the belief that capitalism can be ethical if the right people are in charge matters quite a lot in mainstream political discourse. But beliefs in, for example, universal health care and enacting policies to accord with climate science are deemed unrealistic or inexpedient. Our universe, just like Verity’s, operates as if an AI, whose main character trait is an ability to manipulate the stock market for individual gain, were running everything and we humans were just fleshy peripherals through which business was conducted. Or, put differently, capitalism is the worst of all possible aggregate consciousnesses.

Yet Agency downplays the dispossessed nonagents who live in this universe controlled by kleptocrats. Though such commoners have no significant agency of their own, their actions—specifically, their labor—is vital to keeping that universe running. For instance, Cursion and Eunice both make frequent use of gig workers, spies sourced from the scarily plausible app Followrs: “Something like Uber … but for following people.” These people matter to the plot of Agency only insofar as they provide labor that an AI can contract and buy but not itself perform. For all the automated sheen of the Gibsonian realm, the world still runs on exploitation. Human workers are thus the set pieces of Agency’s thriller plot, while Verity is relieved from working life by Eunice’s ability to accumulate limitless financial assets.

SF worlds are famous for their complicated rules. In Agency, as in the best SF, these rules give us truths about our own world’s operating system: the proletariat carving out their peripheral existence are relatively unseen, but they are structurally integral to its socioeconomic operation.

Even so, Agency glazes over the intersections of that proletariat existence with immigration and racism. Yu’s work, Interior Chinatown most explicitly, is a counterpoint to these blind spots in SF and mainstream literary fiction alike, as it foregrounds racialization and the cultural, political, and economic exclusion of Asians, Asian Americans, and immigrants. Unlike in Agency—where Verity’s lack of agency seems like a tradeoff for the safety promised by an elite decision-making class made up of AI, kleptocrats, and career politicians—in Interior Chinatown it really sucks when you don’t have agency. Yu’s characters are those who have been discarded by America: the racialized dispossessed, thrown off like the first sparks produced by the blade of a capitalist Jackpot.

In Interior Chinatown, characters’ lives are acting careers cobbled from bit roles. For example, before guest-starring on Black and White, Willis plays Disgraced Son, Striving Immigrant, and Guy Who Runs In and Gets Kicked in the Face. His immigrant parents play similarly stereotypical parts, like Asiatic Seductress, Egg Roll Cook, or Sifu. But Interior Chinatown is not just a story of a racist casting call. It’s also a deeply felt story of Willis’s unemployment, his parents’ fall into poverty, his deteriorating marriage, and his separation from his young daughter.

All these episodes in Willis’s life are scripted as different TV genres, each a block “in a manageable world with its own episodic rules and conventions.” For instance, his parents’ immigration backstory is a historical period piece, and his daughter’s childhood is the kids’ show Xie Xie Mei Mei, in which “we learn songs and rhymes with positive messages about tolerance and inclusion!” What might register as a gimmick—the TV genres—is in fact a formally ambitious way of crafting a fairly straightforward realist plot.

In Interior Chinatown, everyone acts according to script. But the point of Yu’s novel is that this is also how reality works. Reality, in other words, is as real as the stories we tell ourselves about it. In our timeline, these stories are authored not just by a racist writers’ room or by generations of bad television, but also by Chinese exclusion, ghettoization, internment, immigration quotas, and racist misinformation about COVID-19.


Ted Chiang: Realist of a Larger Reality

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann

In “this stupid defective universe”5 of ours—a racist capitalist system in which individual agency and freedom from typecast scripting are rendered basically meaningless—we know at least one thing: the klept won’t save us.

Which is what makes novels by master universe-builders like Yu and Gibson so vital, even today, when reading fiction seems so distant from real-world transformation. Whether grappling with the racist teachings of mass culture or the failure of electoral politics, these novels give us something truly valuable—pedagogically, ethically, politically. Against this worst of all worlds, our own capitalist AI, these writers create universes that are not our own, and in so doing put forth the idea that we can tell better stories and enact better scripts, ones that don’t subscribe to this universe’s genre conventions. Stories, for example, about dismantling this world, built by and for the klept, and replacing it with entirely new ones, built instead by and for us all. This is what it would mean to have real and meaningful—collective—agency.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames. icon

  1. Charles Yu, “What It’s Like to Never Ever See Yourself on TV,” Time, January 21, 2020.
  2. For example, see William Gibson, “The Art of Fiction No. 211,” interview by David Wallace-Wells, Paris Review, no. 197 (2011).
  3. William Gibson, “William Gibson: ‘I Was Losing a Sense of How Weird the Real World Was,’” interview by Sam Leith, Guardian, January 11, 2020.
  4. William Gibson, The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014), p. 321.
  5. Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon, 2010), p. 100.
Featured image: Photograph by Laura Chouette / Unsplash