April 16, 2009

Tales from the Completist: "Silver Screen," by Justina Robson

(Just like anyone else who is a lover of great books, I find myself sometimes with a desire to become a "completist" of certain authors; that is, to have read every book that author has ever written. This series of essays chronicles that attempt. Don't forget, a list of all the other books reviewed as part of this series can be found on CCLaP's main book review page.)

Silver Screen (1999)
By Justina Robson

Although this is by no means a regular occurrence yet in my life, I do now have a growing amount of appropriate yet friendly relationships with publishing companies out there, where they simply send me review copies of books instead of me having to track them down through the local library, but with them having no control over what I say about these books, and with none of them (so far) threatening to pull these free books in retribution for a bad review. (In fact, most publishing executives tend to be a lot more tolerant of bad reviews than, say, indignant fans of that author, yet another of the thousand surprising things I've learned since becoming a book critic.) One of these companies, for example, is the generally excellent science-fiction and fantasy publisher Pyr; and so when their spring catalog arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, I took advantage of the situation exercised my rights as a semi-legitimate member of the press to not only let them know of the upcoming titles I was interested in, but to also request a whole pile of back-titles that I've always meant to get around to one day reading. And what do you know -- they actually sent them! Thanks, suckers hardworking staff of Pyr!

Silver Screen, by Justina Robson

The first of these older titles I ended up tackling, in fact, turned out to be a real doozy, one of the best SF novels I've now read in years and years -- Justina Robson's instant classic Silver Screen, which originally came out in the UK exactly ten years ago and garnered a bunch of British award nominations, then was finally published in the US by Pyr in 2005 and promptly rang up a bunch of American award nominations. In fact, I think it's becoming clearer by the day that this novel is destined to eventually be known as one of the pillars in a brand-new "age" of science-fiction, one that started right around September 11th and is now officially old enough to be acknowledged as the legitimate movement it is. Because for those who don't know, most SF fans consider the genre to have now gone through four major stages of history, since first coming together as a recognized story style in the early 20th century, labeled "ages" becuase SF fans are nerds like that: first the so-called "Golden Age" of the 1930s and '40s; then the "Silver Age" of the '50s and early '60s; then the "New Age" of the late '60s and '70s; and then the "Dark Age" of the '80s and '90s, when existential angst and shiny black leather coats ruled all.

So if we are to give this newest movement in SF its own name as well, perhaps most appropriate would be the "Accelerated Age," a term already coined by author Charles Stross in his groundbreaking early-2000s Accelerando, a highly influential volume on all the other writers who make up this school of thought. And the reason I would call it this is because of one of the most common themes among all these disparate books, the idea of a coming age where biology and mechanics go through a profound merging, where the organic and the manmade truly combine and unite for the first time in human history, ushering in a "shortcut in human evolution" that Ray Kurzweil (brainy nonfiction godfather of the movement) calls the coming of "The Singularity," and which Stross refers to in his novels as the titular "Accelerated Age." And starting in the late 1990s and then really exploding in the early 2000s, you saw a whole series of writers in the genre add just a little more and a little more to this Accelerated-Age mythos, and create one by one all the tropes that have now become well-known hallmarks of this movement: there is Stross's buddy Cory Doctorow, for example (who for those who don't know, I've interviewed in the past for the CCLaP Podcast); and then there's Doctorow's buddy John Scalzi; and then there's Scalzi's buddy Vernor Vinge; and then there's Vinge's buddy Jeff VanderMeer, and his whole little circle of "New Weird" people like China Mieville and Warren Ellis and Robert Freeman Wexler and all the rest.

In fact, like the great Silver Age writers of the cool Modernist '50s and '60s (people like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke), one of the things these Accelerated Age authors are known for are for being acquaintances and friends, for publishing each other's work at their blogs and going drinking together at conventions. Nepotism? Not at all -- that only applies when it's editors and journalists and publicists who share this kind of inappropriate buddy-buddy relationship. When it's simply authors being this way to other authors, that's called creating a community, and is the main reason that "ages" or "movements" or whatever you want to call them occur within the arts in the first place. Which is ironic, of course, in that one of the major shared themes among Accelerated Age fiction is the idea of humans who are fairly disgusted with their fellow humans, who have generally given up on the entire idea of the human race ever being a decent, redeemable species, which is why they're spending all their time instead trying to sear together silicon and flesh to jump-start the next stage of evolution, the fabled "uber-person" or "ur-person" or "homo-superior" or "accelerated person" or any of another dozen terms these various writers have come up with for it in their related projects*. And in this, then, you can see it not only as this circle of SF-writing friends exploring such topics in the early 2000s, but also so-called "body horror" filmmakers like David Cronenberg, revered indie-lit figures like Michel Houllebecq, and more.

And this finally gets us to Robson; because her Silver Screen is a complex look at a near-future world that has seen the invention of legitimate artificial intelligence (i.e. sentient machines), yet another touchstone in the overall Accelerated-Age look at the coming merging of the mechanical and biological. And it's not just computers aware of their own existence that make up the artificially intelligent in Robson's world; there are in fact a dozen different kinds of AIs seen in Silver Screen, from brilliant rogue godlike spirits whose conscious "minds" reside in a trillion little empty spaces on the internet, to semi-intelligent bee-like "smart armor" drones that mesh with their surgically-altered human wearers to create unstoppable hive-mind armies. And this was in 1999, mind you, right at the beginning of this so-called Accelerated Age in SF, when such a thing could have the most cultural impact; and it has indeed had a lot of cultural impact, with there barely being anything about AI written since that wasn't in one way or another covered by Robson already in this original. (And don't even get me started on Steven Spielberg's movie A.I. from those same years, which rips off so many of Silver Screen's ideas that Robson should've sued his freaking ass.)

But instead of this being merely a dry hard-science look at all the issues involved with artificial intelligence, Robson also concentrates on something else that's become a hallmark of these early-2000s SF authors; that is, of concentrating just as much on creating complex, ultra-realistic characters, people we feel like actually exist but just happen to be stuck in these fantastical situations. In fact, I've talked about this many times at CCLaP before, of how since September 11th it seems like the worlds of the mainstream arts and genre projects have been blurring more and more among the absolute smartest artists out there; take for a good example JJ Abrams' nearly perfect television show Lost, which so convincingly concentrated on complex characterization during the first half of its run that it actually has fans now complaining in its second half about Abrams "turning a good show into science-fiction crap," not realizing that Lost actually was science-fiction crap from day one.

And so it is with Robson as well, with Silver Screen being as addictive as it is not just from all its far-out concepts, but also just from wanting to understand more and more our bewitchingly flawed and complex hero Anjuli, a half-British, half-Pakistani, freakishly smart, overeating antisocial nerd; and not only does this particular story rely on such mindbending concepts as self-sustaining space stations and microscopic nanobots to propel its plot, but simply as well on the universal struggle for women to maintain sincere friendships with other women, without that weird subconscious competitive aspect of it all so common in that situation, even if this does happen to be the 22nd century and we all happen to be running around with the internet hardwired to our freaking brains. (And I'm not exaggerating, by the way -- I mean, literally, part of this story's plot hinges on Anjuli misreading the actions of a person around her to her detriment, because of so badly wanting this person to be a drama-free legitimate female platonic friend, because of such a profound lack of such a thing in her nerdy antisocial life.)

It's a remarkable combination of elements, the result of the first generation of artists in history to not only accept that genre projects can be capable of greatness, but to demand that genre projects be just as great as anything else they devote their attention to; it's why you see things these days like Lost become such a big giant hit with the general public, why a Pulitzer winner like Michael Chabon can move so effortlessly between mainstream and genre projects without anyone blinking an eye, why the goofy pop-culture website that Doctorow and three of his SF-loving friends started in those early-2000s years has grown to become literally the most popular blog on the entire planet, with a readership now apparently a third of the New York Times itself (or so I've heard). Now that a decade has passed since its beginnings, I think there's no denying anymore that all these things have combined to become a legitimate movement, an unstoppable force in fact, that in a mere ten years has almost completely replaced the snotty, irony-laced postmodernism that used to so dominate the mainstream popular arts. (And in fact this is yet another belief of mine that I've detailed at CCLaP before, that postmodernism officially died on September 11th, and that for the last decade we've had a whole generation of Web 2.0-embracing nerdy artists replacing it without anyone barely even noticing, a cross-media movement I've been calling "The New Sincerity" for lack of a better term, within which the so-called Accelerated-Age writers in science-fiction definitely fit.) If you want a tutorial on what this is all about, a "canon" if you will to the works that have most shaped the collective fictional universe where most of these books take place, Silver Screen should definitely be on this list according to nearly any educated SF reader you'll meet. It's making me really look forward now to her latest books, the much lighter and sexier urban-fantasy romp known as the "Quantum Gravity" series (Keeping It Real, Selling Out and Going Under), all three volumes of which were also sent to me by the good folks at Pyr a few weeks ago, now just sitting around my apartment waiting to be read. I can't wait.

Read even more about Silver Screen: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*And speaking of this movement now being old enough to be able to deduce some general conclusions about it, and especially while pondering the idea that science-fiction has always slyly reflected the real-world social issues of its current times in ingenious, subtle ways.... How remarkable that the fictional subjects of these Accelerated Age novels have turned out to be nearly identical to how we now picture the tech world's actual reaction to the rise of the science-hating Bushist neocons in the early 2000s; to essentially turn their backs on humanity and mainstream society altogether, to completely ignore current politics and the alarming rise of quasi-fascism in the US in the years following September 11th, to fixate instead on their blogs and their startups and their Twitters and all their other Web 2.0 "bright shiny future of humanity" projects. And in fact this is best typified by the recently released novel Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which I suppose you could call "the Ulysses of the Accelerated Age" by the person many consider "the James Joyce of the Accelerated Age" (i.e. the most brilliant, mindblowingly complex author of them all) -- a story literally about intellectual computer nerds who become honest-to-God isolationist monks, literally walling themselves off from the outside world in these mountain fortresses, as fascist neocons slowly take over all the world's national governments and then quickly destroy most of the planet, the nerd monks riding out this destruction and rebuilding in their abbots over the centuries by literally worshipping comic books and "Long Now" style clockwork projects. If that's not a perfect metaphor for how the tech world reacted to September 11th and the rise of Bushism, I don't know what is.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:31 PM, April 16, 2009. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |