Novel: Silver Screen by Justina Robson

A novel full of interesting science fictional ideas, Justina Robson’s Silver Screen (1999) ended up being a  curious read for me. Even as it drew my respect, it never quite won my passion. The novel takes place in the mid-twenty-first century and centers on Dr. Anjuli O’Connell, a scientist working on a corporate orbital station, who finds herself entangled in a complicated political mess when her close friend Roy commits suicide and the artificial intelligence she monitors, 901, becomes the subject of a controversial machine rights trial. Anjuli’s perfect memory gets her singled out by her corporate superiors as a key witness in the trial, but being at the epicenter of a power struggle between factions on either side of the AI debate comes with its dangers, both physical and emotional. As she learns the true fate of her friend, and contributes to an  international controversy with her testimony, she struggles to keep it together under the world-changing pressures of an historic situation.

While it’s quite well written, this one just never really connected with me as engaging narrative; despite moments of real character insight and SFnal interest, I found it slow-going and difficult. I did appreciate its thoughtful treatment of the AI premise, and its unconventional examination of the perils of machine-human interface; the novel serves as a creepy counterpoint to the familiar, often more cheerful “rapture of the nerds” SF meme involving upload to the virtual. The general theme, as symbolized in the title, is quite well realized. The glossy Hollywood façade served up for public consumption often reveals only a fraction of the truth behind the production; just as a filmgoer only sees a particular, individualistic angle on a film, Anjuli learns that she’s only catching glimpses of the truth behind the faces (and interfaces) of the people (and AIs) in her life. It’s thought-provoking material, and quite well articulated in places. But elsewhere, the story feels distant and sluggish.

Obviously mileage will vary, and Silver Screen is a well regarded SF novel with award-nomination credentials, so clearly it worked very well for others. But for me, while it’s conceptually and thematically a strong book, it didn’t quite add up to an entertaining read.

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