I shall be honest. I did not enjoy Silver Screen when I first read it, back in 1999. Rereading it for this review, I am not clear what my precise objection was, other than that a space port in Bradford, England was somehow implausible. That might seem to be a shallow response, and in one way it was. However, thinking about that now, I realise that the Bradford space port represents something I had not properly appreciated about Silver Screen before, which is that it sits very firmly in the tradition of—I hesitate to use the word "domestic," but it is the correct word in this instance—British domestic science fiction. I am not talking about the much discussed but vaguely defined "cosy catastrophe" as such, but about the work of such people as John Wyndham, Richard Cowper, and Keith Roberts, who used the tropes of science fiction to bring difficult issues right to our front doors. This is what Justina Robson does with Silver Screen.
On the one hand, the book is concerned with artificial intelligences and the developing belief among many groups, including the more developed AIs, that they deserve, even need, autonomy. It’s science so cutting-edge most people have trouble getting to grips with what autonomy for AIs might realistically mean. When in doubt, when fearful, when ignorant, people tend to respond by attempting to constrain and limit that which they don’t understand, even if it is more powerful than they are—in fact, especially when it’s more powerful. So on the other hand, Robson gives us the bureaucrats who are nominally in charge of the AIs, though it’s patently obvious that they really do not understand what or who they are dealing with, and that includes the brilliant young people they employ to make everything work for them. When the AIs and their supporters actively campaign for rights, the bureaucrats try, pathetically, to clamp down on the movement. The results are what you might expect, and yet still disturbing, perhaps because the setting is, for the most part, so very ordinary.
Robson’s evocation of a near-future Britain is full of texture. Her characters, like Anjuli O’Connell—unhappy, overweight, fearful that her "skills" are nothing more than the result of an eidetic memory and having the right friends—are convincing in their emotional range. They inhabit a world which is cobbled together, the gleaming and new jostling for position alongside the old and worn. It’s also a playful world. When the AIs play tricks on the people they don’t respect, one can only laugh; their preoccupation with film tropes brings to mind Connie Willis’s ongoing fascination with film, though Robson in fact handles this aspect of the novel very differently.
What seemed to me implausible six years ago is, of course, the inevitable and obvious result of how we nowadays assimilate the new, the unfamiliar, and build it into our lives. As the pace of life moves faster, the assimilation is quicker and mostly unremarked on, while that which we still find difficult to deal with, in this instance artificial intelligence, is thrown ever more shockingly into relief. Anjuli and her colleagues engage with the AIs on a daily basis, familiarity breeding respect rather than contempt. It is the fear of the administrators, who represent the populace, which causes the damage. It is this line of tension that Robson maps with such skill and verve in Silver Screen. and will revisit in later novels—for example Natural History, which explores the slipperiness of existence for the Forged and the Evolved. As for the AIs in Silver Screen, their struggle is that between the old and the new; the attempt to avoid being forced into rigid but familiar structures.
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a freelance copyeditor, a part-time student taking a degree in English Literature, and a full-time reader; in her spare time she eats, sleeps, and grows plants.