‘When I finally made it downstairs, wearing an old tracksuit I had found in my cupboards, she [my mother] put her hand to her mouth. “You look very sick,” she said. “Your eyes are like pits of tar: yellow and black. And your skin is the colour of white people. What were you trying to do? Die?”‘ (Silver Screen — 347)
Oh. My. God. I think I have a new favorite book. My mother says that to me whenever I come home to visit.
Justina Robson is fantastic. Silver Screen is an excellently realized sci-fi novel, featuring nanotech, artificial intelligence, and psychiatry. AND THERE’S MORE. There are several strongly developed female characters who do more than preen. Anjuli O’Connell, our narrator, has 2 believable female friends, a delightfully wry mother, and a profession crucial to the plot. This last point stands in marked contrast to many other SF novel’s (such as the Dan Brown reviewed below), where the female character might be the bestest at her job, but all the stunning realizations come from someone else. Anjuli’s special abilities (both innate ones, like her memory, and learned ones, like her ability to work with AI) make her the one person in the novel able to push the plot forward.
She’s a psychiatrist who specializes in AI-systems, which is neat in and of itself, has perfect memory,* is chubby and has a love-life. Her race is not the point of her characterization, except insofar as it informs her overarching insecurities. She does, once or twice, describe herself as small, round, and brown, but that’s a support structure for her overall issues regarding self-worth. She’s desperately insecure about her intelligence and worth to her friends. She’s not insecure about her race. Robson handles this point deftly — you never forget that Anjuli isn’t white, but you also aren’t cued to treat her identity as being something not normative. Shit, Anjuli is one of the most normal characters in the novel.
Um. As you can see, I’m in some deep fan-girl mode over here. But, the plot:
Anjuli works with 901, the latest version of an AI intelligence whose growth has not been monitored since version 357. She also works with Roy, a friend of hers from HS whose talents are only matched by his insanity. By this I mean he’s incredibly smart and incredibly crazy. Anyway, Roy kills himself, setting in motion a series of events that lead to a UN court-case regarding the legal status of 901. It’s very much a plot about freedom, about the individual, and the impact good people can have when an unjust and implacable system is arrayed against them. The ending is ambiguous, heartrending, and very real. Ultimately, Robson is asking the reader to think about three things. Firstly, what does it mean to be a person? Secondly, what does it mean to be someone’s friend? Thirdly, and most importantly, what would you sacrifice for someone else’s freedom?
* This was gambit that almost made me not like her, until I saw the parallels between her memory and one of the issues driving the novel — do AIs count as people? Arguments against this normally hinge on perfect memory not entailing perfect comprehension — that is, a computer might have all the info in the world, but it wouldn’t necessarily understand it, or be able to produce its own independent work. 901, the AI in question, has perfect memory and imperfect comprehension — just like a person. <3