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Silver Screen
Justina Robson
Pyr, 384 pages

Silver Screen
Justina Robson
Justina Robson lives in Leeds in Yorkshire, UK. She began writing as a child in the 70s. Her short fiction has appeared in various magazines in the UK and the USA. Her first novel, Silver Screen, published in 1999, was nominated for the Arthur C Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Best Novel Award. Her second novel, Mappa Mundi, won the amazon.co.uk Writer's Bursary.

Justina Robson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Silver Screen
SF Site Review: Natural History
SF Site Review: Natural History
SF Site Review: Mappa Mundi
SF Site Interview: Justina Robson

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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Pyr, the SF and fantasy imprint of Amherst, New York-based publisher Prometheus, has done the service for those of us in the colonies lacking Amazon UK accounts of re-issuing Justina Robson's first novel, which originally appeared in 1999. Oddly enough, this edition of Silver Screen retains original British spelling conventions; more distracting is a clunky typography that serves only to underline an at-times clunky narrative.

To be fair, Robson is working the twin genres of murder thriller and hard SF that tend to rely on dialogue to move the plot forward and express thematic ideas, a style that has always struck me as awkward. Consider this:

"...I prefer to analyse (sic) things rather than make them myself. Try and make them work."

Lula smiled at her in recognition of a kindred spirit.

"Are these suits alive, in your estimation?" I asked her.

She looked at me as if I had asked her if they danced the chacha. "They are living things," she said, and then hesitated. "And the living tissues exist in a in a kind of dependent bond with the inorganic elements of the construction. They're also connected to the AI system, part neural, part silicon. It's hard to say." She lifted her hands and shrugged. "That's the central question of biomechanics, isn't it? Where does the life end and the machine begin?"

This is the central question of Silver Screen (though it doesn't really answer it). The title refers to the black and white cinema of the mid-twentieth century when movie stars were literally larger than life depictions back in the days before Internet circulation of celebrity sex tapes shrunk them down to size. The analogy is that the interface between human and machine intelligence mimics the quality of these films in that they are seemingly real, but at the same time obviously not. It also underlies a conceit where avatars projected by the machine to interact with humans appear as classic screen idols such as Humphrey Bogart and James Dean and, of course, the symbolic baggage they carry. It's also important to be familiar with Casablanca (is there anyone who isn't?) to understand the ending. Whether you find this kind of gimmick annoying or not may depend on your own affection for old movies.

The narrator is Anjuli O'Connell, whose total recall for some reason or another not clear to me gets her selected for implants that hardwire her with a corporate-controlled artificial intelligence designated 901 (and which contains previous enumerated versions of itself, which serves a plot twist at the end). The clashing cultures represented by the character's first and last names might be meant to symbolize the contrast between biological and artificial intelligences, though not much is made of this except in a few throwaway references. Anjuli herself is a bit bland, her most distinguishing trait is her insecurity -- unsure of her own talents, in a relationship that is more one of convenience than emotional commitment, overly reliant on food to relieve stress. Probably the intention was to create a "real-life" character, complete with the humdrum flaws we all face; the problem is she's sufficiently irritating with her mundane neuroses that it's hard to much care what happens to her. (There is at least one nicely drawn character, though, a corporate executive whose political scheming make it difficult to determine whether she's one of the good guys or the bad guys. She was the one character I found intriguing.)

Anjuli seemingly would have been content to continue with her humdrum existence were it not for the suicide of her close friend (though the friendship is one of situational convenience, two outcasts who get lumped together more because of what they don't have in common with everyone else than what they have in common with each other). He's a computer genius who leaves clues for her to discover his grand plan for the AI, though why it necessitates his suicide isn't clear.

There's also a side plot about Anjuli's boyfriend's transformation into a cyborg, and though I understand it as a counterpoint to the resolution, it is undeveloped, primarily because the boyfriend's character isn't presented as much more than a foil for the narrator (though maybe that's part of the point in a first person narrative, reflecting most people's daily egocentrism). When Anjuli and her boyfriend's consciousness merge as part of an effort to reclaim a missing notebook needed to solve the mystery, Anjuli realizes that their relationship is hollow at the core; by implication her relationship with 901 is more intimate if only because it doesn't involve any pretensions. The problem is that you wonder if Anjuli is capable of intimacy with anything other than a high-caloric snack.

The question of when is artificially-created life equivalent to biological life and, moreover, what obligations do the creators have to the created is a classic SF trope dating back to the conception of Frankenstein's monster (which itself is born from the Biblical themes of John Milton's Paradise Lost). Silver Screen doesn't quite have the thematic subtlety of its forebears, however. A lot of ideas and questions are raised, but other than suggesting that the true Turing test is the one we don't realize has already been passed, I'm left uncertain of what else is going on here.

On the other hand, Silver Screen was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, so what do I know, but it strikes me that Robson's reach is slightly beyond her grasp here. Still, even with the flaws, worth checking out, particularly if you're a fan of cyberpunk and "Elementary, my dear Watson" kinds of discourse.

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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