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Silver Screen, US cover

Silver Screen, UK cover

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.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and freelance copyeditor. She reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation, and was assistant editor of Foundation. She was senior reviews editor at Strange Horizons when she died in September of 2022. You can read a 30 January 2023 special issue devoted to Maureen.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
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By: RiverFlow
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