Friday, 31 August 2001

Justina Robson: Silver Screen (1999)

Edition: Macmillan, 1999
Review number: 931

One of the most important themes of science fiction since at least the publication of Neuromancer in the mid eighties has been the future of computing. Silver Screen is a novel in this tradition, and is, like Neuromancer itself, about the nature of artificial intelligence.

The central character, Anjuli O'Connell, stands out from those around her because of her high intelligence and perfect memory. Ever since her childhood in a school for gifted children, she has worried about the nature of her own mind - she may seem to be an unusually intelligent human being, but does her memory mean that she is actually some sort of freakish machine? She cannot convince herself that she relates to the world and, more specifically, other people, in the same way that the other pupils do and this creates a massive feeling of inferiority in her.

Years later, and she is one of the world's most prominent AI psychologists; she works on 901, latest in a series of evolving, self-replicating and massively complex systems. Following the suicide of one of her closest and oldest friends, the unstable Roy Croft, a legal bid is made to have 901 declared a person with the same rights as any human being. Anjuli's employers OptiNet are fighting this, and she is clearly going to be the major expert witness. Roy's death is also connected in some way to the theft of some dangerous nanotechnology from OptiNet's laboratories, and Anjuli's boyfriend has become obsessed with military cyborg technology; both of these problems are things she finds very disturbing.

While it is possible to criticise aspects of Silver Screen - Anjuli's ability to do mathematics better than her classmates because of her memory is unlikely, there are inconsistencies about the levels of technology required for some of the different computer systems, and the way that the trial goes ahead quickly and apparently without any legal wrangling is very unlikely - it is a clever novel which has something interesting to say about our relationships to computers, now and in the future.

No comments: