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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 Writer's Bursary.

Justina Robson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
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 Jakob Schmidt

AI-psychologist Anjuli O'Connel's friends really give her a hard time: the obsessed genius Roy Croft is suddenly lying dead in his bedroom, leaving her with cryptic clues obviously designed to make his dreams of machine evolution come true. Just before his death, he filed against OptiNet, the company employing him and Anjuli, at the World Court of Human Rights. His case is about granting legal subject status to the artificial intelligence 901 -- an entity attached to Anjuli by more than just a professional relationship. Suddenly, Anjuli finds herself at the clashing point of opposing interests: while OptiNet is determined to prevent 901's emancipation, radical proponents of machine rights threaten Anjuli with death in case she decides in favour of her company and against 901. Moreover, despite his death, Roy still seems to manipulate Anjuli's every move...

Finally, Justina Robson's first novel has been published in America. It's a little mystery why it took so long: Silver Screen doesn't have to hide behind her later novels Mappa Mundi and Natural History. In fact, it's a much more accessible novel than those two. That's mainly because Robson limits herself to one central character. As one has come to expect from Robson, she depicts Anjuli by no means as a typical SF-heroine: an academic with a slight eating disorder, prone to laconic comments on her own self-consciousness. It's a main character that could be taken out of the pages of an accomplished textbook on writing novels: sympathetic despite all of her quirks and growing with the challenges the story makes her face. That alone makes Silver Screen a joy to read -- so much so that one might forget that it's also a high-concept SF-Novel.

Admittedly, in terms of SF-concepts, Silver Screen doesn't offer anything wholly new. What we get in terms of concept is a downright systematic treatise on machine evolution. Robson confronts several models of machine evolution -- artificial computer intelligence, physical merging of human and machine, robotics and emerging consciousness in the global data stream -- with each other and links them to different patterns of experiencing reality. While robotics and cyborg technology are associated with models of animal and instinctive behaviour, the AI 901 at once appears as the most familiar and the most mysterious form of machine evolution: a complex psyche, as opaque as any human being. And then there's the Shoal, the emergent data stream intelligence, in which Roy projects his hopes for a kind of immortality. Occasionally, some elements in this arrangement seem a little forced, their purpose being more to complete the thematic structure and less to contribute to the plot. It's as if Robson first had to recapitulate some well-known SF-concepts in Silver Screen to set sail for more distant shores in her following novels. Nevertheless, with Robson applying her distinct outlook to these concepts, Silver Screen becomes a highly innovative novel. While she closely keeps her SF-eye on machine evolution as a wondrous phenomenon in itself, she also takes into account the political and ideological conflicts this phenomenon arouses. There may be a heap of novels on AI -- but there are probably only few where a lawsuit about their status as legal subjects plays a vital role.

Robson's knowledge of the long tradition of her topics becomes obvious by numerous references to classics of the genre -- for example, it's certainly not a coincidence that Roy resembles a "turned around" version of another character of the same name from one of the best-known SF films. And despite the firm middle-brow quality of Robson's literary style, Silver Screen commits itself strongly to the thriller side of the genre: especially towards the end the novel is picking up more and more speed, and the inconspicuous Anjuli gets her chance to prove herself a heroine who's not willing to let herself be pushed around any longer. Stylistically sound and permeated with dry humour, Robson's first novel is an impressive achievement which has been rightfully nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke and Philip K. Dick awards.

Copyright © 2006 Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact ( and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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