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.