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Silver Screen, Justina Robson

April 24, 2012

Silver Screen, Justina Robson (1999)
Review by Cheryl Morgan

The philosopher John Searle believed that he had a watertight proof of why computers could not be intelligent. He called it the Chinese Box problem. Imagine if you will a large box whose task is to translate from English to Chinese. English words are fed into the box through one hole, and the translated ideograms come out of another.

Inside the box is a man with a long list of instructions. Each time a word comes in he consults the instructions to see what he should do. Some times he simply moves to another part of the instructions, and others he takes cards illustrated with Chinese characters out of a file and passes them through the output slot. He has no understanding of what he is doing; he just follows the instructions.

Can the box speak Chinese? Can the man inside it? Clearly not. But, said Searle, the box is doing exactly what a computer does. Computers have perfect memory, and can follow complex instructions flawlessly, but they don’t understand anything.

Meet Anjuli O’Connell, half Pakistani, half Irish, with a serious self-esteem problem and an addiction to comfort eating. Anjuli has been rushed through a hot house school and university, the better to serve the burgeoning needs of the UK’s high tech industry, yet she comes from a society that is deeply mistrustful of any technological advance. Remember, we British invented Luddism. She is, it seems to me, a perfect heroine for a British SF story.

Yet although Anjuli passed every exam the educational system could throw at her with flying colours, she has little faith in her own intelligence. You see she has a perfect memory. Every book, every picture, every smell, sound or texture she can recall with utter clarity. She remembers everything, and can reproduce it on demand. But, she wonders, do I ever understand any of it? It is perhaps no surprise that she is now one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of artificial intelligences. 901, the software she is employed to monitor, is closer to her than most humans.

Anjuli’s best friend through school and university was Roy Croft, though they were in many ways complete opposites. Roy couldn’t be bothered to learn to spell, but he could work anything out from first principles. He could write code like no one else, and he loved computers. The ancient alchemists had a dream of turning base metals into gold, but no such paltry ambition would suffice for Roy. He wanted to turn base metals into life.

Roy followed Anjuli up the corporate ladder, his undoubted technical skill more than compensating for his crazy ideas and involvement in lunatic fringe pro-AI pressure groups. But even Roy could go too far. Now he is dead. The company investigation described his death as suicide. Anjuli isn’t too sure. 901 doesn’t like the story either, and is worried that it might be next.

Just roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.

The night’s busting open, these two lanes can take us any-where.

What follows is a rollicking ride of a cyberpunk thriller cut with Ken MacLeod style radical politics, one of the most imaginative sex scenes I’ve ever read, an undeniable feminine touch and heaps of chocolate. There’s some lovely imagery too. 901 sends cryptic messages to Anjuli by manifesting as characters from old movies. Roy is equally obscure, having posted her a copy of a favourite comic book before he died.

The comic stars a female character called Thunder Road who undertakes miraculous journeys. It is no accident that the favourite god of the ancient alchemists was Hermes, the patron of travellers. Roy too sees himself leading mankind, and machine-kind, down a new and perilous road to enlightenment. And Justina, I suspect, has been reading Jung.

With all this psychology floating around it is tempting to crank up my Freudian sub-program and ponder upon the significance of the wealth of dysfunctional relationships described in the book. Family, friends, boyfriend, work mates: nothing seems to go right for Anjuli. And Roy is clearly worse. The surprise ending adds a further bizarre twist to Anjuli’s social scene. It is all a bit strange.

I should also point out that winning the fight to be deemed alive is only the first step along the way to AI rights. Many authors have taken that as a matter of course and have concentrated on subsequent issues. Robin Williams’ film of Asimov’s Bicentennial Man will provide a good primer to the issues (although it is of course a parable about racism).

But this is nit picking. For a first novel Silver Screen is very good indeed. It is good to know that in a society that is as deeply distrustful of technology as modern Britain there are still people prepared to see the wild ride ahead of us as a challenge rather than a threat. Justina Robson has looked into the future, discovered that it looks like Hell, and has walked right in with her eyes wide open and a laugh on her lips. I think she deserves some company.

This review originally appeared on Emerald City.

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