Missing The Jackpot: William Gibson’s Slow-Cooked Apocalypse

With his latest novel, Agency, set in an alternative present, without Trump and without Brexit, William Gibson talks multicausal Armageddons – and Dominic Cummings

Credit: Stuart Simpson

“There’s never been a culture that had a mythos of apocalypse in which the apocalypse was a multi-causal, longterm event.” William Gibson speaks in the whisper-soft drawl of a man who for a long time now has never had to speak up in order to be heard. Though a certain edge had crept into our conversation by this point, watching him stretch out on the leather chaise longue of this hotel library (“my second home,” he calls it, as we make our way up from the lobby), it struck me that few people are able to seem at once so apprehensive and yet so intensely relaxed about the prospect of the end of the world as we know it.

“But if we are in fact facing an apocalypse,” he continues, getting now into the swing of this particular riff, “that’s the sort we’re facing. And I think that that may be what makes it so difficult for us to get our heads around what’s happening to us.”

When I met Gibson back in early February, the slow-cooked nightmare of the coronavirus was still very much in its infancy here in Europe. The word ‘pandemic’ had not yet been uttered by the World Health Organisation and nor did it come up in our conversation. But it does appear in Gibson’s (2014) novel, The Peripheal, the first part of a trilogy split between two timelines: one taking place before and one somewhat after an event known as the ‘jackpot’. “No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war,” future Londoner Wilf Netherton explains of this ‘jackpot’. “Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate: droughts, water shortages, crop failures, honeybees gone like they almost were now, collapse of other keystone species, every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less that they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves.”

It also appears in his most recent book, this year’s Agency. “They’re still a bit in advance of the pandemics, at least,” another character from the future says of one from (almost) our present.

At the time, back in 2014 when he wrote The Peripheral and arguably at the beginning of this year when Agency came out and even still in early February 2020 when we met, this last mentioned on the list was the only item on the agenda that wasn’t already basically happening.

“There’s nothing in the classics to cover this,” Gibson said to me then. “We’ve never had men in bathrobes standing on street corners wearing sandwich boards saying, the world is ending in… maybe 200 to 250 years? It doesn’t make sense to us.”

Since the publication, more than thirty-five years ago, of his debut novel Neuromancer – and the preceding short story ‘Burning Chrome’ in which the word ‘cyberspace’ was first coined – Gibson has proved such a consistent guide to the immediate future, that these days he’s even getting name-checked by the prime minister’s roving senior advisor, much to the author’s chagrin. “We need some true wild cards,” wrote Dominic Cummings in a notorious blogpost from back in January, “artists, people who never went to university and fought their way out of an appalling hell hole, weirdos from William Gibson novels like that girl hired by Bigend as a brand ‘diviner’ who feels sick at the sight of Tommy Hilfiger or that Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB.”

Gibson sighs when I ask him about the post. “I thought that he probably had understood relatively little of Pattern Recognition,” he says. “And I also thought he imagined himself as Hubertus Bigend. Because that was the name he remembered. He didn’t remember the name of the protagonist in the book who he simply referred to as “that girl” that Hubertus Bigend hires. But he doesn’t strike me as someone that Hubertus Bigend would hire. He strikes me as somebody that Hubertus Bigend would trick an opponent or enemy into hiring.”

“One thing I was curious about with Dominic Cummings,” Gibson continues, “is I wondered if he had noticed that Bigend’s mother was a Situationist – or someone who hung with the Situationists –and I wondered if he knew who they were and what their schtick was, because I somehow doubt he’d get that.”

But I guess he sees himself as some sort of disruptor, shaking things up – albeit perhaps in more of a Silicon Valley kind of way, than in a Situationist vein.

“But disruption is not hot anymore!” Gibson exclaims. “That’s an old meme.”

He’s trying to borrow from some futurist gloss from Silicon Valley, but he’s picked up yesterday’s Silicon Valley. Already old hat.

“Yeah, in Silicon Valley they’re already taking pains to distance themselves from that. They’re all saying, no, no, we don’t disrupt anything! We don’t do that!”

“When the Brexit vote happened,” Gibson smiles wryly, settling into the riff once more, “I made an effort to get in touch with Hubertus Bigend,and say, what the fuck is going on, can you give me a clue? And he refused to talk about it. It was like it was too stupid and he turned his back on me and vanished. It’s a different universe. We’re not in the Bigend universe here. We’re in another one.”

There’s a moment towards the end of Agency where it feels like you’re implying that if a crisis like the one in the book were to happen in our reality, then the actual President of the United States would not handle it nearly so well as the one in book’s alternative reality. Would it be fair to say?


Are you particularly worried at the moment about the prospect of some sort of nuclear jackpot within the next few years – or the next six months even?

“Well, I’m more worried about it than I was ten or twenty years ago, that’s for sure.”

Agency by William Gibson is published by Viking

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today