Published by Pyr
Should beings with Artificial Intelligence, or constructed people, be granted the same rights as humans? This is one of the essential quandaries raised in Justina Robson’s stimulating debut novel, Silver Screen. Even though Silver Screen was Robson’s first novel, published in the UK in 1999, it is her second book to appear with a US publisher, her third book, Natural History appeared earlier in the year from Bantam Spectra. Again, Pyr is doing a fantastic job of publishing books in the US previously unavailable to American readers.
As for the tale between the pages, our story is told from, perhaps, unreliable narrator Anjuli O’Connell, a psychiatrist for AI beings. In the future Robson envisions, AI beings are nearly considered people. Roy, a member of Anjuli’s work group, dies in the beginning, and from that point, Robson takes the reader through a mystery wrapped up in a science fiction trench coat. For the most part, the narrative flows pretty well. There were only a few places where the story did not flow as well as others, but that is often to be expected with first novels. We learn very early on of Anjuli’s perfect memory, this combined with Robson’s first-person narration immediately echoes Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun. While the themes and setting of Robson’s novel are different, the feel of the protagonist is similar. As Anjuli leads the reader through the mystery, more echoes of great SF can be heard and felt. While the future she envisioned is not quite as dark as many of Philip K. Dick’s novels, the story did have a similar vibe to his landmark novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Via Anjuli, Robson provides a fascinating character through which to view her future world. We see the everyday technologies, which may seem somewhat novel by today’s standards, take root. Like the best thought-provoking science fiction Robson finds intriguing ways to extrapolate how people will adapt to these plausible advancements. Of particular note were the emotions and development to the character of 901, the sentient computer, which made the AI a fleshed out character in its own right. The interactions between 901 and Anjuli provided some of the more interesting scenes in the novel.
The title of the novel itself, and perhaps the manner in which Pyr decided to package the novel was a bit of misdirection. With the title, Silver Screen, on a film reel, it was difficult NOT to envision something of a feel for Hollywood. While the interactions 901 did take the form of film icons of the 20th Century when interacting with Anjuli, the title was a much deeper metaphor that flavored the tenor of the whole novel.
Even in a post-911 world, the future Robson has mapped out in her 1999 debut novel still holds relevance and bears consideration. AI is nothing new to the Science Fiction genre, but Robson manages to take this plot element down an interesting path. While Anjuli is a well-developed character, as is her boss and co-workers, I felt a little more development could have been given to Roy. Initially in the story, this made it a bit difficult to fathom how deep a loss his death was to Anjuli. One thing that became apparent more upon reflection rather than the sweep of the narrative was how many of the characters were female. This seems natural from a female writer, but in SF, particularly SF with more of a Hard SF flavor, female characters aren’t as prevalent. Whether this can be considered a feminist novel, I can’t quite say, but the characters were fairly strong and distinct and helped to make the novel a successful story. While the ending wasn’t perfect, Robson’s misdirection via earlier hints left me a bit surprised, which is a good thing indeed.
Despite the minor flaws I’ve hinted at, Robson’s novel raised many significant and relevant questions and stimulated a great deal of thought, both while reading it, and upon reflection. Silver Screen was one of the more interesting novels I’ve read this year and I would recommend it.
© 2005 Rob H. Bedford