an interesting AI novel

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Fri Jun 02 2000 - 21:17:54 MDT

My pal Jonathan Strahan, who lives in Perth Australia but works for Locus
magazine in the USA, reviewed the following novel for Locus recently. I
haven't seen it, but I've had a little contact with Justina as a
`transrealist' writer. The book probably isn't available in the States yet.


Justina Robson, Silver Screen (Macmillan, 0-333-75437-9, 9.99, 374pp, pb)
August 1999. Cover by Steve Stone.

Silver Screen, the first novel from new British writer Justina Robson, is an
engaging look at the barriers which exist between humankind and any possible
artificial or mechanical intelligence that we may create, and sits somewhere
between the work of Greg Egan and Dennis Danvers.

Anjuli O'Connell is a behavioural analyst working with 901 -- an artificial
intelligence housed in an orbital facility from which it runs a global
communications network for multinational corporation OptiNet. When long-time
friend and co-worker Ray Croft commits suicide - apparently by uploading his
personality into a virtual processor that claims unused processing time on
computers known only as "the Schoal" -- her life is thrown into disarray.
Croft, an advocate of machine rights and member of the Machine Greens, has
left a mysterious message for her on Earth and initiated a case in the World
Court of Human Rights to have 901 declared "human". These two elements
provide the narrative drive for the novel. Croft's message leads O'Connell
back to Earth, where she tries to recover his notebook that apparently
contains an algorithm that will enable machines to achieve independent life.
The court case drives OptiNet into a panic where it tries to cut off the now
suspect O'Connell from access to 901, and to sufficiently disable it before
the court can provide a ruling. The action reaches a peak when O'Connell's
boyfriend undertakes a night raid on a religious cult using a terrifying
biomechanoid weapons-suit that pull its wearer into a mental symbiosis, a
new "I" continuous with the old but different.

There's a lot going on in this complex and complicated novel. Robson uses
O'Connell to ask just how could we hope to understand a truly artificial
intelligence? Why, other than for reasons to do with the history of its
programming, would an artificial intelligence be interested in us? And why,
given that we don't compete for similar resources, would an artificial
intelligence be hostile to biological life as postulated in Gregory
Benford's Galactic Centre novels? Robson also uses the experiences of Roy
Croft to pose questions that I've often pondered while reading novels like
Danvers' recent Circuit of Heaven and Egan's Permutation City: why would we
want to upload our personalities into a virtual environment, and why would
we imagine that it wouldn't fundamentally change us.

For all that a lot of the issues raised in Silver Screen have become the
normal stuff of science fiction since the publication of Gibson's
Neuromancer back in 1984, Robson's novel provides one of the more balanced
considerations of recent times. Less romanticised that Danvers, warmer than
Egan, Justina Robson's Silver Screen is a rewarding science fiction novel,
and a promising debut.


Jonathan adds: It's since won an award or two.



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