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Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006

Silver Screen

By Justina Robson

Pyr Books, 2005, $15 ISBN: 1591023386
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

In its first year of existence, Pyr Books, an imprint of Prometheus Books (gotta love that!) has taken the sf field by storm. Through a mixture of reprints and original publications, Pyr seems to have assumed the mission of bringing to the attention of US readers some of the hottest British sf writers of the current generation. Justina Robson, a critically acclaimed writer with several novels already in print in the UK, certainly stands in the forefront of this new British invasion of hard sf that includes Ken MacLeod, Iain Banks, Charles Stross, Ian MacDonald, and many others. Originally published in 1999, Robson’s first novel, Silver Screen, now is available in the US in a reasonably priced trade paperback edition.

Several threads weave through this novel, not the least of which is the question of the rights of Artificial Intelligences. This problem is skillfully debated, both among the proponents of AI rights and those who see AIs as threats or property, as well as the AI in question. How does one secure rights to something that exists primarily in circuits and between connections? If the owners of the hardware decide to shut it down, does an AI have any recourse, any way to leave and thus survive? Or, is an AI bound by its physical limitations, and the rights therefore constrained and not on par with human rights? Robson gives weight to many sides of the argument, but in the end AI survival does seem to hinge on being able to physically exist and move beyond any servers on which the consciousness resides.

Anjuli O’Connell, the novel’s human protagonist, is far from your usual hero. She’s overweight, self-conscious almost to a fault, and possesses an eidetic memory: she has total recall of any page she reads, any conversation she hears, and can recount these verbatim, with no memory degradation over time. On the other hand, she seems to lack the ability to fully understand concepts, or fears that her memory merely compensates for not comprehending the meaning behind things. What does it matter to know why something works, if you just need to recall the exact ways in which it does work? Considered a prodigy for her memory, she grows up at a school for the remarkably gifted, where she meets others like her, and later works with many of the same individuals.

Among Anjuli’s friends are the talented Croft siblings, Roy and Jane. Social misfits amid their superlative intelligences, the Crofts diverge in later years. Roy delves into the study of machines and AI, hoping to find a way to meld his mind into the network, while Jane eschews technology in a hippie-like commune. Both Roy and Anjuli end up working aboard a space station on an AI project, the current iteration of which is called 901, a tightly controlled project owned by a private company dead set on protecting its investment. Anjuli, faced with despair over her lack of understanding the underlying concepts behind all the facts she absorbed, turned to AI psychology as a career. As the novel opens, Anjuli is called into Roy’s room to find him dead. The apparent suicide becomes a mystery she feels compelled to solve, even though this will put her at odds with the company, and place her life and those she loves in great danger.

As Anjuli begins her investigation, led each step via enigmatic clues provided by Roy, Jane, and even 901, she enlists the help of her lover, Augustine, who is in the midst of wiring his body for a cybernetic suit with a brain of its own. Augustine’s willingness to undergo radical surgery to discover how this suit works is chilling, yet at the same time no different from the acts of countless scientists who experimented upon themselves while trying to reach some radical new discovery. In many instances these scientists are fully aware of the risks, and when it comes to trying something new on a human subject, they feel compelled to make themselves that subject so as not to put other individuals at risk.

Meanwhile, questions swirl around whether 901 is a self-aware AI with individual rights. Anjuli carries an implant which links her to 901, and she is privy to many insights about AI, making her a major player in a trial case about 901’s rights. One might be tempted, on the basis of 901’s sense of humor and ability to parse out nuggets of information sparingly rather than all at once, to think it’s a human machine, but 901 might be the best AI to have on your side since Robert A. Heinlein’s Mike in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Throughout the course of her investigation, Anjuli and Augustine decide to make use of Augustine’s suit in an attempt to break into a religious stronghold to retrieve Roy’s diary, which supposedly contains vital clues about Roy’s death. The results of the sortie into the religious stronghold—a church run by Roy and Jane Croft’s fanatic father—prove in the end almost too costly for those involved. What looked like a simple in-and-out action turned out to be a more evenly matched battle, as Roy a long time ago built some serious defenses into the church. Couple that deadly hardware with his father’s willingness to do anything to protect what he now views as a holy relic, and nothing is certain. This sub-plot seemed almost to me like an unnecessary detour, although perhaps is the most readable part of the novel through the intense action and high-tech gizmos employed by Anjuli’s team and the defenders. The variance between this scene and the rest of the novel made me wonder if Robson patched together two stories, rather than created one cohesive work.

As a whole Silver Screen proved an enjoyable read, brought down only a few times by the protagonist’s almost too human self-doubt, along with the irritating leakage of clues by characters who knew a lot more than they wanted to let on, even when it seemed in their best interest to provide more information. The novel is an interesting blend of mystery, hard sf, and debate on the nature of consciousness and the basis for individual rights. Justina Robson raises many interesting issues, and does so in a prose style that’s clear and relaxed. Her characters, though at times complex and eccentric, are well-drawn and believable. She’s certainly an author to watch, and I’ll be looking for more US publications of her work with interest and anticipation.

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