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Courtois-Agents-cover“Do you finally know who you are?”

This question, coming near the end of the French surrealistic science fiction novel, The Agents, encapsulates the entire two-hundred-plus-page journey that is this strange, hypnotic text. While its implications and lessons are rich and laden with meaning, its characters, setting, and action are all spare, stripped down to the bare bones, just like the forgotten skeleton that Agent Laszlo discovers in an abandoned cubicle—a skeleton that changes his life and the lives of everyone in his tower forever.

Courtois’s premise, at first, seems unremarkable. In the far future, humans have walled themselves up into towers and separated themselves by floors and cubicles. They’ve never been outside (and have never seen the need for it) and the only thing they know about “the street” is that it’s the surface upon which the constant stream of suicides lands. The only thing these agents do is ... work. What that work actually is is unclear. They monitor computer code for anomalies, but the only actual typing they do is in private text messages to one another. “Management” is really just a bunch of machines, keeping humans in check by making them work with few breaks, just enough food, and, for entertainment, the pleasure of killing each other in semi-regular sector battles. If you’re thinking “this sounds like The Matrix,” you’d be right, only the illusory world of the humans in the film is much more interesting than the lives of those in The Agents.

You might recognize in The Agents an increasingly popular theme: that of humans disconnecting (literally and figuratively) from machines to regain a lost vitality. Given that in our world two generations have now grown up without knowing what life was like before the internet, it seems inevitable that we’re collectively nostalgic for a time when computers were rare, expensive, lumbering, and interesting only to a few technical people. I remember the time when everywhere I looked, I saw a face turned down toward a smartphone screen. Now, just fifteen years later, it’s cool and retro to flash your flip phone.

I’ve seen this literary tendency as well in the Italian science fiction I translate. Indeed, two recent stories I worked on, together, form a similar picture to that set out in The Agents. One told of a world of high-rise buildings, where the inhabitants believe that no one can survive in the toxic wasteland outside that the Earth has become. Another, “Chronotope” by Raul Ciannella (in Ab Terra 2020), depicts a team of data-entry employees who have become enslaved by their machine overlords and eventually try to break out of their mechanical chains.

Courtois combines these tropes to deliver a story about one group of agents, each of whom is desperate to stand out from the cookie-cutter workers that populate all of the other sectors, floors, and buildings across the globe. Some disfigure themselves, some eschew the usual uniform for bright colors (or wear nothing at all). Solveig gets pregnant (which is unthinkable since humans are now bred by machines). Laszlo, the artist (and father of Solveig’s baby), takes a camera everywhere he goes and records that which is surprising or out of the ordinary. He films Clara performing disfigurement operations on other agents and records himself talking through what really bothers him: the uniformity of life, the lack of humanity in humans, and the certainty that all of them will die eventually, either by falling out of a window (voluntarily or not) or by natural causes (at which point decomposition bots will destroy every trace of the body).

Each death triggers the entry of a replacement agent, who is eventually absorbed into a guild. Guilds periodically attack each other to gain more office space, with bloody battles being waged only during break times (the agents must be conscientious about their work, after all!). Hick, the replacement agent who eventually joins Laszlo’s guild, throws things out of balance. He dresses in a purple tunic, speaks loudly, and asks way too many questions. Basically, Hick is the anomaly in the system, which Laszlo uses to his advantage when crafting a scheme to break himself, and every other agent, free from the machine-ruled tower.

Courtois’s point—about humans becoming the zeros and ones in a vast computer that rules the world—is not subtle, and I don’t think it’s meant to be. And while I won’t give away the ending here, I will say that it’s anything but happy. And yet, The Agents isn’t interested in whether or not people are happy; what does that even mean, anyway? Does “happy” mean that all of your physical needs are met and that’s it? If that’s the case, then Laszlo and company would rather be anything but that.

Ironically, this novel about freedom and determination is itself a study in skillful manipulation of the reader. Courtois speeds up and slows down the action, interspersing vague battle scenes with hushed conversations in heavily-armored cubicles. The novel also wraps back around on itself by conflating Laszlo with Courtois himself as we learn more about the former’s escape plan. We feel compassion for Solveig as she tries to understand what is happening to her body as her baby grows inside of her (recall that humans have generally stopped having sex and giving birth—that knowledge is mostly lost). Translator Rhonda Mullins keeps the English in the right key for each of these shifts, enabling us to enjoy Courtois’s new take on a theme that will only grow in importance as we hurtle further into the twenty-first century.

Rachel Cordasco has a PhD in literary studies and currently works as a developmental editor. When she’s not at her day job or chasing three kids, she’s writing reviews and translating Italian speculative fiction. She runs the website, and can be found on Twitter.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
Issue 23 Jan 2023
Issue 16 Jan 2023
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Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
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Issue 19 Dec 2022
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Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
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