Roy is a genius who wants to upload himself into the cloud where he can be forever free and where his father's religious dogma is forever proven false.
Jane, his sister, has run away from society altogether to live off the grid. But when Roy's found dead she has to face the rising legacy of the past.
Anjuli's boyfriend, Augustine, develops military AI power suits. They only need a soldier to wear them in order to come alive in faultless legions. But they remember the bodies who wore them after those bodies have gone.
And then, high in the cloud, a curious child, unnamed and bodiless, gathers itself together from pixels and code and watches...
Turns out there are ghosts everywhere, in everything, in everyone.
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About the Author
Justina Robson is the author of Selling Out, Going Under, and Chasing the Dragon (Books 2-4 of the Quantum Gravity series). Her first novel, Silver Screen, published in August 1999 in the UK and in 2005 by Pyr, was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award, and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award. Her second novel, Mappa Mundi, together with Silver Screen, won the Amazon.co.uk Writer's Bursary in 2000 and was also short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2001. A third novel, Natural History, a far-future novel, placed second in the 2004 John W. Campbell Award, was short-listed for the Best Novel of 2003 in the British Science Fiction Association Awards, and was also nominated for the 2006 Philip K. Dick Award, receiving a special citation. A fourth novel, Living Next Door to the God of Love, was a finalist for the BSFA Award.
Visit Justina Robson's Web site at www.JustinaRobson.com.
Read an Excerpt
By JUSTINA ROBSON
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One We were good friends.
No. That's not true. I'm saying that because I'm sentimental. I needed a friend too much to actually make any. But we were in the same classes together. Sometimes we shared a workbench. Roy made a lot of jokes with me as the butt, and I sat aloof and lonely in his room or Jane's, watching them work and trying to get inside their heads to see how it was that they saw things I didn't. There was never any doubt in my mind that I was the outsider, tolerated because I supplied chocolate and cappuccino on demand and could always remember the details they forgot to record. I guess I could be funny, too, in a dry, self-deprecating kind of way. I spoke like a critical encyclopedia, and still do under stress, as you've probably noticed. I was pitiable, but fortunately nobody had time to pity me.
The school at which I first met Roy and Jane Croft was called the Berwick School, for no reason I have ever discovered. It was in Derbyshire and owned by the Massey Foundation, an organization funded by large corporates and used specifically for the hothousing of children who were exceptionally gifted in one of the Foundation's areas of interest. Broadly speaking, these areas were math and anything applicable to the fields of technology and science. Since by that time it was possible to turn almost any kind of ability to the service of these studies, Berwick had a very diverse population of children. They lived there in splendid isolation with their teachers, a nurse, and a small number of animals who were chosen to provide us with some vague sense of our link to the natural world. Considering recent days, I have to say that this last intention failed 100 percent.
At the time of my arrival the only thing which struck me as unusual was the range of places from which the other children had come. All races and many subdivisions were represented in a relatively small number of pupils. In total there were fewer than 500 of us, including the senior years and the "thick kids" who had to stay on until they were sixteen before being allowed to leave for university. A lot of them didn't even come from Europe, I learnt later, but by then I'd forgotten that there were any differences between people except the level and style of their intelligence and the scope of their memories.
The thing about Roy and Jane was their strangeness in a sea of strange people. At ordinary school I had learnt to pretend a combination of lower intelligence and complete invisibility. Coming to Berwick it was at once obvious that most of the kids had the same self-preserving routine off pat. As the first weeks passed, these habits wore off. It was only Roy and Jane who remained constant, but they had stood out from the first.
We met in the playground-the scrub field inside the athletic track. I was slow to leave the classroom that day and emerged into the scratchy spring heat at a docile pace, ready to flee from anybody who seemed suspicious or aggressive, but curious to watch the goings-on. My spectacle was already waiting. A large group of children from my year were gathered in a loose circle. I was short and couldn't see past them, so I tagged on into the edges of the formation and slowly worked my way forwards, pushing taller ones aside. They didn't mind or even notice, so riveted were they by the action at the centre. A few rows from the front, I got a good position.
Roy and Jane Croft were standing with three kids from the older years. I knew them instantly. Roy's white-blond crewcut and brilliant turquoise fleece marked him out like a parakeet, and Jane's corresponding blackness-topped with dirty blonde aggression-was almost as visible. They were outstripped in just about every way by the older children, who were looking down on them with incredulous loathing as Roy's voice became high and reedy in his anger. They were arguing about Artificial Intelligence, and I soon gathered that it was the smaller pair who had infringed on a private discussion the other three had been conducting as part of some homework.
"Of course 898 can't be more intelligent than a human being, you little cretin," one of the big girls said, her fists on her hips in readiness-even though none of us were used to physical fighting. "It's not possible to create a thing more intelligent than you are. You wouldn't know how to do it."
"The creating bit of 898 stopped hundreds of generations ago," Jane pointed out.
I wondered how they knew so much about OptiNet's giant AI.
"But the source materials are the same as they were," the older boy retorted. "They're what it's made of."
"What?" Roy exploded. He literally was one moment standing and staring, the next his hair was puffed out, what there was of it, his arms and legs shot wide in all directions and his entire body quivered with glee and contempt. It was a frightening sight and as one mass the front row leant back. "Can you listen to yourself?" he peeped, his unbroken voice squeaking and cracking. "Didn't you ever hear of evolution? How do you think you got here-by magic? Once this planet was nothing but a lot of hot rocks and gas. Don't you think we've come on a bit since then? There wasn't even any us." His head looked this way and that, as if searching for strength to cap his astonishment. "Who organized that lot?"
"God did," said the other girl, who hadn't yet spoken.
Roy turned to her slowly, incredulously, his shoulders hunched up to protect his ears from her words. "God did," he repeated quietly, looking at her and nodding. "Well, thanks for telling me. God did it, Jane." He looked over his shoulder towards his sister, who was standing like a statue, watching the proceedings with her sharp, pale eyes. "And of course-" he walked up to the boy and patted his chest in a familiar way "-we are as smart compared to God as old Fergus here is to a hot rock."
"Hey," said Fergus in a low, menacing tone. He smacked Roy's arm away, but Roy just let it fly with the blow and it swung back to his side.
"Maybe God took my missing pen case, too," Roy suggested, his face angelic, blue eyes looking up at the girl. "Maybe He is responsible for everything that's gone missing or hasn't got an explanation. What a great idea. But wait a second." He held his arm out to forestall a step forwards by the first girl who had spoken. "If God created us from a hot rock, maybe he created 898 as well, and maybe it has quite a long way to go before it starts beating old God at chess, huh? Maybe we aren't the end of the line."
"We are God's image," the religious girl said, holding her ground.
"Ah, human supervenience," Roy said, appearing to lapse into a whimsical introspection. "What a charming idea. How very Victorian." He walked up to her and, instead of lifting his head up, spoke directly to her neck. "How very fucking stupid. How did they let you in here? Did you walk in following the dog when the gate was open?" Sky-blue eyes measured them all, one by one, with excruciating and passionate hatred. The contrast of his pure features and the emotion was shocking, and made the force of it double. They all took a step away from him, even as their own faces twisted into ugly expressions.
Jane didn't move from her original position. Only her eyes flicked back and forth, coolly assessive. There was a time of stillness and silence as we all waited to see what would happen next.
"Well, if it is smarter than us ... why does it do everything we say?" the first girl demanded.
All eyes stared at Roy.
"Ah, a mote of intelligence at last," he said, unable to keep himself from sneering, but apparently pleased. "Could it be because we have it completely cornered for the time being and it knows that if it stops, then we can destroy it and that, being such great and worthy and Godlike beings, we wouldn't hesitate? That's how smart and generous we are as a race, you see. Kill anything that doesn't comply. I bet ... I bet you even have nightmares about AIs deciding that the human race is a needless plague upon the face of the deep-um, don't you?" He began to walk, pacing rapidly back and forth around the corral we had created so that we had to twist and turn to keep him in view. "Pow!" He made two guns with his hands and shot each of the three silently. "You're dead for being stupid enough to create me! Hahaha! Pow! Pow!" And he ran in a tiny circle laughing, jiggling his guns at shoulder height and suddenly shooting an arm out here or there to randomly murder one of the audience. Someone behind me gave a nervous giggle.
"Oooh, look!" he exclaimed, running faster, tighter, looking at the bewildered faces of the taller ones with an animal light, raw and hungry. "Who am I? Who am I? Pow! Pow! Don't you recognize me by my merciful acts? Blam! You're dead. Oh, sorry, you're a waste of time. Pow! It's me. It's God Himself. Take that!" He dropped his sixguns and grabbed an invisible machine gun to plough us all down into the dust. "Ny-ahah-ahahah!"
Everyone, including the three he was attacking, was so bemused that nobody moved.
"See, that's your fantasy of God the destroying, jealous creator. Only it's you. That's me. I'm you. You stupid, fuckwit idiots with your aggravated fear response. Nothing but a bunch of cheap endocrines desperate to make any case at all for saving your worthless, shitty little lives. See, it's you who know you're a plague and a menace. That's how you'd deal with yourselves if only you had the guns and the guts." During this speech he slowed down, halted, and his voice returned to normal, his automatic fire reduced to a single forefinger barrel. He put it to his own head. "Pop," he said and let his arm fall, forgotten. Tired and panting he stood in the middle of them and then a beatific smile spread across his face, making his red cheeks into tiny apples and showing his new, white teeth. He began to laugh as if the entire thing was hysterically funny.
The boy Fergus found his central nervous system was still operative at this point and lunged forwards suddenly, shoving Roy backwards, hands balling up and ready for trouble. Behind Roy, as he fell, the crowd parted nervously, but our side rushed forwards, eager for violence in one part, horrified and hoping someone would intervene in another. But we were not quick enough.
Jane Croft, ice maiden, took four rapid strides forward and rabbit-punched the assailing boy square on his nose with her bare knuckles. "Leave it," she said, cramming her hand into her armpit and clenching her jaw with the pain, which otherwise didn't show.
The boy staggered, hands to his face. One girl began to go to help him whilst the religious one made a grab for Jane's hair. Jane pivoted on her hip and pushed her out of the way with her free foot, a kickboxing move slowed right down so as to just get rid of the threat, not intended to do any real harm. Obviously she had had a lot of practice at being her brother's protector. I stared at her in admiration and fear.
There was no more to see. Jane stood next to Roy, who was lying on his back in the dusty clumps of grass, catatonic. The three slouched off towards the basketball hoop after making a few face-saving noises. Little by little, our classmates trickled away in ones and twos. I was the last one left, staring down at Roy, his eyes closed, breathing lax. I looked up to find Jane giving me her impersonal once-over. We both looked at Roy on the ground, a fallen prophet, and I couldn't decide then if he was mad or gifted or simply strange, but I knew he was more interesting than anyone else I had ever met. Him and his sister. I had some sherbets in my pocket. I took the bag out and held it towards Jane.
She seemed tempted but shook her head, unwilling to draw out her injured hand. "No thanks."
"Get me one, Jane," Roy said, without opening his eyes.
"Get it yourself." She gave a twisting sort of shrug and slouched away, scuffing the grass with her feet as she went.
I felt crushed by her response, but tried not to let it show. Roy got up. He picked a lemon sweet out of the bag and stuck it in his cheek. "Ignore her," he said. "She's cross because she had to hit him. I should have wound it up better."
"It was great," I said, instantly sorry I'd said anything so utterly contemptible, and hung my head.
"It was rubbish," he answered, as I expected he would, but his sentence carried on regardless. "I'm going to my room to play Planetbuster," he added, naming the latest and most difficult space shoot- 'em-up. "Want to come?"
From then on we formed a kind of alliance, although it was never an easy enough relationship on either side to be a typical friendship. Roy was too much of an individual, mercurial in mood; a kid one minute and a haughty professor the next. Jane was simply abrasive when she came into contact with anyone at any level, smoothing occasionally when she forgot herself, but these moments never lasted. Neither of them needed me. I was the one doing all the work, and I knew it. I felt disgusted that I had to scrape for friendship this way, but not so disgusted I could stop. On that afternoon I decided that these would be my friends, and I shut myself off from the chance of making others. I had found them.
Ask me now why I felt that kind of decision was necessary and I still can't tell you. Maybe it was just a sixth sense that tying myself to them would make it impossible to keep other friendships-they required all my energy to keep up. Or, to be honest, maybe it was that they had that star quality, and I couldn't resist the chance to let some of their kook glamour fall on me by association. I didn't so much want to be their friend as I wanted to be them. I used to want to be cool and witty-Mae West, Bette Davis-and in this day and age a great brain is almost as much of a status symbol as a sharp tongue and the satin curves of a starlet. But I wasn't at this school because of my intellect-I knew that if no one else did yet-and one day that would become apparent, so somehow I had to find another path into the limelight.
That afternoon we sat in Roy's dorm room with the blinds shut and I asked him questions while he played the game, feet on his desk, screen magnified onto the undecorated wall opposite the bed.
"How do you know so much about 898?"
"We talk," he said, watching the wall, his hands moving like a jazz pianist's in their black motion-tracking gloves. I believed him. It didn't occur to me not to. We were forbidden to hack and were told we wouldn't get contact with the bigger AIs (those of us on the AI stream) until much later. I always obeyed rules. My eyes grew large and round.
"You hack?" I said, shocked out of my little puritan shoes.
"We wouldn't get to it if it didn't want to talk to us," he said, and shot me a glance away from the silent screen. His gaze said that it was only idiots who got caught. "Don't you?"
"I don't know how," I said, sitting on my hands on the bed. I felt clumsy. I was about the only kid in the AI stream who had not started out in life as some kind of wizard programmer or manipulator. My key skill wasn't even a skill. But he had gone back to concentrating on his low-flying attack plane. He didn't ask me about it any more or offer to tell me what I should do, even though I wished he would.
One thing Roy did have was a shelf full of books. Actual paper books, each one wrapped in a coat of smart plastic, and about the only thing in there which wasn't broken, discarded, or scattered in a mess where it had fallen. I alternated looks between the game-which he was very good at-and the shelf. Some of the titles were just visible in the dim light from the screen. Wildcats, The Silver Surfer, Rogue Centurion, Lotus Explosion, Thunder Road: comic books. They looked old. All books looked old to me.
I thought about asking to read them, but felt he would say no, so I didn't. I wanted a sweet from my pocket, but then I would have had to offer him one, too, and he had the gloves on and all, so maybe I would have had to put it in his mouth and I didn't want that intimacy, so I didn't do that either. I waited.
Jane came in a short time later, her hand strapped up with white webbing. She gave me an incredulous look as she strode in, but no more. "Haven't you finished that yet?" she demanded of Roy, going to his desk and sitting down without looking out for anything which might get crushed.
He didn't reply, but kept playing, jabbing the invisible gun control, curving the plane around in a spiral with his other hand. Jane turned her head and looked at the wall. "You haven't got enough fuel to get out of the labyrinth," she said in a deadpan voice, "so you might as well quit now."
Excerpted from SILVER SCREEN by JUSTINA ROBSON Copyright © 2005 by Justina Robson. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of the best AI books I've ever read. The only thing I felt was a little off was the handling of the character Augustine, who never seemed like he quite fit properly into the narrative, although maybe that was intentional.
Set in the future where the lines between man and machine have begun to blur, we follow Anjuli O'Connell as she tries to sort out the suicide of her dear friend Roy Croft, as he wishes to live in a semi-immortal state as part of an AI program. While the debate of what will happen to machines and their affect on the human population has been done again and again, Robson presents to us a viewpoint that we might have overlooked the first time through. Giving a much needed human element, this promises to be an interesting read that will hold your attention more than one of those philosophy textbooks you find lying around. I won't say it's the best book I've read so far, but it is certainly one worth checking out.